CHICAGO -- Nastia Liukin sat in her hotel room and pulled out her competition leotard – hot pink, of course.
Just like that, all the jitters and the weirdness the Olympic champion had been feeling about her first meet in three years disappeared.
"I finally felt like I got back in the groove of things," she said. "It was like, `OK, this is happening, this is real.'"
She left no doubt about that a few hours later, tying for third on balance beam at the U.S. Classic. Her score of 14.9 was just 0.10 points behind reigning world champion Jordyn Wieber and Aly Raisman, and that was with not doing all of her connections – which add to her difficulty score – and leaving room for improvement on execution.
"She was so rock solid," marveled Raisman, one of several competitors who stood and watched Liukin's routine. "I felt like I was watching the 2008 Olympics she did so well."
Next up is the U.S. championships, June 7-10 in St. Louis, where Liukin plans to add uneven bars – her signature event and the event she needs to earn a spot on the U.S. Olympic team. National team coordinator Martha Karolyi said she's already told Liukin she'd like to see a score around 16 – a mark that would make her competitive with the best bar workers in the world.
"No pressure," Karolyi said, laughing. "Nastia is a big girl. She knows what it means."
Raisman, a member of the U.S. squad that won the team title at the world championships last fall, won her second straight title at the U.S. Classic, the final qualifier for nationals. Kyla Ross, a two-time junior champion who is in her first year as a senior, was second. Wieber, Gabby Douglas and McKayla Maroney did not do the all-around.
While Liukin's comeback was the feel-good story of the night, 2005 world champion Chellsie Memmel's had a far sadder end. Memmel has had two shoulder surgeries since November and competed on balance beam in hopes of earning a spot at nationals and buying herself some more time. But she fell twice, and her petition was rejected by the selection committee.
Memmel's score of 11.950 was well below the score of 14 the qualifying score committee had established.
"That was very hard. All of us cried," Karolyi said of Memmel, whose career has been spoiled by untimely injuries. "But sentiment cannot be involved in the decision."
No reigning all-around champion has returned for the next Olympics since Nadia Comaneci, and there was a time Liukin looked certain to continue that streak. Though she competed at the 2009 U.S. championships in her hometown of Dallas, she found herself torn between training and the opportunities that come with being only the third American woman to win the Olympic title.
She stepped away from competition and lived as close to a normal life as an Olympic champion can. She spent time with her friends and began exploring where she wanted to go to college. She also began making the transition to the other side of the sport, taking advisory roles with both USA Gymnastics and the International Gymnastics Federation, and developing a competition for younger gymnasts, the Nastia Liukin Cup.
But last summer, Liukin found herself wondering – and worrying – that she would be tormented by questions of "What if?" as she watched the gymnastics competition in London.
So she returned to the gym, knowing that nothing is promised to anyone. Even her.
"It's possible," Karolyi said. "But it's not an easy job because the time is short."
But the U.S. weakness on bars leaves an opening for Liukin, the Olympic silver medalist on the event. She and China's He Kexin actually tied in Beijing, but He won on a complex tiebreaker.
The scoring format in team finals is unforgiving, with three gymnasts competing on each apparatus and all three scores counting. That means Karolyi has to assemble a squad that can put up three monster scores on each of the four events, and do it consistently. The challenge is even greater for London because teams have been cut from six gymnasts to five.
"If I can help the team out in any way, it would definitely be on bars," Liukin said. "My dad said great job that you did your beam routine, but if you can't do your bar routine, then that beam routine is no use. That's the reality of it. You can't make an Olympic team with one event."
She had to start somewhere, though.
Liukin had some struggles during training Friday, and admitted she was nervous about being back out on the floor. But when it came time to compete, it was if she'd never been away.
"I didn't know what to expect, to be honest," said her father and coach, Valeri. "I was hoping for this."
Liukin has the same grace and gorgeous lines as her mother Anna, a world champion in rhythmic gymnastics, making everything she does look elegant and effortless. Her landings were all whisper-soft, not heavy thuds, and one element flowed into the next, as if to say, "Oh, you thought that was nice? You might like this then." Her aerial cartwheel was done with more ease than most folks would manage on flat ground.
Her only noticeable flaw was a small balance check on her leap, though she didn't get credit for connecting elements, which makes them worth more.
When she landed her dismount, she flashed a big smile and the crowd responded with deafening shrieks and cheers.
"Today I felt more like the old Nastia," she said. "A spark of it."___