Nastia Liukin was turning back the clock. It was 2008 again, and she was in Beijing, conjuring up the elegant form where she won the Olympic all-around gold medal.
For most of her uneven bars routine at the U.S. Olympic gymnastics trials Friday night, Liukin shined. The HP Pavilion crowd was sensing something special was happening as Liukin prepared for her dismount. Then, disaster struck.
She faltered struggling to hold a handstand and then finished by crash-landing hard on her rear end in the dismount.
"I just pretty much ran out of gas at the end," Liukin said. "It was going so well. I was hitting all my skills right up to that moment." She paused and shrugged her shoulders. "But life moves on."
Liukin, 22, likely won't be moving on to London Olympics as a member of the U.S. team. While she wasn't ready to concede that her long-shot attempt to make a second Olympic team is over, the numbers don't lie. Her score of 14.050 on the bars was only 10th best in the event. Her 14.5 in the balance beam ranked her seventh. And those scores realistically take her out of the mix as a specialist on the five-gymnast squad that will be announced after Sunday's competition.
"Any athlete will tell you that when they don't have a great performance, especially at an Olympic trials, it's disappointing," said Liukin, who won five medals in Beijing. "But you have to show that you're a fighter and that you're not just going to give up. I
In a sport that can be equal parts beauty and cruelty, the hard fact is that you can't go back.
A gymnast's shelf life is short, but Liukin and 2008 Olympic teammates Bridget Sloan and Alicia Sacramone returned to the trials hoping to recapture the magic of four years ago when the U.S. won the team silver medal.
Of the three, Sacramone kept herself in the conversation as a possible specialist in London with strong 15.0 score on the balance beam that was third-best on the night.
"I went out and did the best I could, and I've given myself a chance," said Sacramone, 24, who is coming off Achilles tendon surgery.
But Sloan didn't even make it to the competition Friday. During warmups, she slipped off the bars and landed on her left elbow. Sloan tried to continue practicing through the pain but finally realized something was seriously wrong and made the crushing decision to pull out of the trials.
"My body is telling me one thing and my head is telling me something else," said Sloan, 20, fighting back tears. "And the body wins. ... It's hard for me to accept. But I know it's time for me."
Liukin, who's been dealing with shoulder problems during her comeback, probably can relate. She needed eye-catching performances to impress the selection committee. Instead, after the disappointing bars effort, one of the most graceful gymnasts of her generation had an uncharacteristic wobble on the balance beam.
Her routines just weren't at the same level as those of a fresh crop of talented gymnasts led by 16-year-olds Jordyn Wieber and Gabby Douglas, who finished the night in first and second place.
Afterward, Liukin remained composed. But Valeri Liukin, her father and coach, said his daughter was struggling inside.
"She gave everything she could," he said. "I'm sure she wants to cry right now, but she's keeping it together. Life is not always easy. Today she did not need a coach. She needed a dad to give her a big hug."
And now it's beginning to look as if she has one more day of competition before saying goodbye to her sport.
"I definitely want to go out and do two better routines Sunday, and then whatever happens, happens," Liukin said. "I'm finishing what I started."