July 2nd, 2012
08:25 PM ET

A champion falls from grace, new contenders emerge for London at U.S. Olympic trials

A gold medal winner fell flat on her face, ending her chances of returning to the Olympics and her career in the span of 30 seconds. Fresh young faces rose to the challenge, forming a new group of American icons. The fastest man in the world was not. Two Brits dropped the baton and the ball, dashing their country's hopes in a relay event in a finish reminiscent of years past. Two sprinters learned they would have to take part in a run-off to break a dead heat in the women's 100-meter race – but one decided to drop out.

During this weekend's Olympic trials, the U.S. team saw some of the most dramatic highs and lows as they squared away who would be leading the country into the London Olympics.

The final day of competition for the women seeking a spot on the U.S. gymnastics team was highlighted by the brilliant performance of Gabby Douglas, who upset favorite Jordyn Wieber to nab an automatic spot on the team. Douglas, surging at exactly the right time, impressed the crowd and selection committee chief Martha Karolyi (who calls her the "flying squirrel") with her soaring routines.

"All of this hard work has definitely paid off," Douglas said, according to the USA Gymnastics website. "I just can't wait to wear those red, white and blue stripes down my back. It felt like a dream come true."

Wieber, seen as a top prospect for the all-around gold medal in London, rounded out the young women who had been widely expected to make up the team for a few months.

"It feels amazing to be an Olympian," Wieber said, according to the USA Gymnastics website. "This is definitely the best day of my life, and knowing that all of my hard work has paid off is amazing. I'm just so proud of each and every girl who competed here today."

But the big name missing in the group was perhaps one of the most popular women in the gymnasium Sunday night: the defending Olympic champion, Nastia Liukin.

Liukin, attempting an extremely difficult comeback, struggled on the first day of competition but really fell apart Sunday night as she took on the uneven bars. Just 30 seconds into her routine, Liukin's fingertips grazed the bar, and she fell straight down to the mat. She lay face-down, with her father and coach Valeri Liukin by her side, her dreams of a comeback destroyed.

After shakily finishing the rest of her routine, she waved to the crowd, knowing this was the last time she would compete in a USA gymnastics uniform. Tears welled up in her eyes as she received an ovation given with the same intensity as when she had won competitions in the past.

"I wasn't really expecting that," Liukin told NBC's Andrea Joyce. "I kind of just had tears in my eyes seeing 12,000 to 15,000 people on their feet cheering for me. It was an emotional, but amazing, way to end my career."

But Liukin noted that she had achieved all of her personal goals at the Olympics in Beijing and was thrilled to cheer on the next generation. And as Douglas, Wieber, Aly Raisman, Kyla Ross and McKayla Maroney were officially named to the team on Sunday night, all of them shed tears of joy and no doubt relief that they had made their dreams come true. Now, their focus will shift toward trying to bring a medal home.

The big action wasn't merely taking place in the gymnasium, either. The trials saw a slew of impressive performances by 17-year-old Missy Franklin, who swims on her high school team back home. Franklin turned in stellar time after stellar time, earning her an intense program at the Olympics that made even Beijing champ Michael Phelps proud.

Franklin qualified in several events, and including the team relays, she'll have a chance to go for seven medals, something no other female swimming athlete has attempted.

"I can't believe I have seven events," Franklin told Joyce. "It's so overwhelming but so exciting. The whole week went really, really well."

That's the same number of events that veteran Phelps is attempting in London. Phelps, who swore after Beijing he would probably never do such an intense program again,was set up to swim the exact program as four years ago. But on Monday morning, his longtime coach, Bob Bowman, tweeted an announcement that Phelps was dropping the 200-meter freestyle. That will give him the chance to swim for seven gold medals and perhaps preserve some energy.

It is surely no surprise to anyone that Phelps and his teammate and friendly rival Ryan Lochte dominated on the men's side of the U.S. trials. Over the course of a few days, the two played a bit of leapfrog in terms of head-to-head wins in semifinals and finals of a slew of events, with Phelps coming out ahead in the end.

"It shows I can do an event program like this at a high level again," Phelps said, noting however that he hadn't performed quite as well as he'd like, including a horrible start during the 100m butterfly final.

Cullen Jones, who took part in the memorable relay in Beijing with Phelps, was hoping he could aim for some individual medals. Jones made a solid showing in the trials, securing his individual spots on the team in the 50- and 100-meter freestyle events.

Speaking of those going for individual medals, perhaps no story was more motivating to watch unfold than that of 45-year-old swimmer Dara Torres. Torres lost the 50-meter freestyle gold in Beijing by the smallest of measures: .01 seconds. So she began training again, hoping to make a record six Olympic teams as a swimmer.

On Monday night, it again came down to one mighty fast length of the Olympic swimming pool. Torres stood on the blocks and smiled before preparing to dive in. She hoped she would be able to redeem that devastating loss in Beijing. But Torres fell short, touching the wall fourth in the 50-meter final swim. She missed the cut by .09 seconds. Jessica Hardy and Caroline Joyce came in first and second, securing their slots to compete in London in the event.

Torres has been a fixture in the pool for the United States since the 1984 Olympics. She looked disappointed and shook her head at the end of the race before waving to the crowd in what will likely be the last swim in a storied career.

"I can leave this knowing I gave everything I possibly could," Torres told NBC's Andrea Kremer after the swim. "I tried the best I could."

When asked what her favorite memory in her lengthy and impressive career would be, Torres didn't pick a swim, or a meet or even winning a specific medal.

"The fact that I hung in there this long … being in the sport this long," she said.

Another big score that was going to be settled Monday night: Two sprinters who tied for the same spot on the U.S. Olympic team were set to duke it out on the track to determine who will get to run the 100-meter race in London. At the U.S. Olympic track and field trials last weekend, Allyson Felix and Jeneba Tarmoh both hurled their torsos over the finish line at precisely the same time: 11.068 seconds. Even cameras recording 3,000 frames a second couldn't tell who beat whom.

But now that run-off won't take place. Tarmoh's agent forwarded an e-mail to USA Track and Field President and Chairman Stephanie Hightower from the sprinter saying she would not be competing in the run-off.

“We are disappointed that Jeneba has changed her mind regarding her position on the Olympic Team,” Hightower said in a statement. “We all worked hard to reach a consensus on the tiebreaker, but we know that Allyson, Carmelita and Tianna will represent Team USA well.”

Felix said she was prepared to face Tarmoh and expressed her disappointment with how things unfolded on Monday.

"The situation has been difficult for everyone involved. I had accepted the USATF decision and was prepared to run," she said in a statement. "I wanted to earn my spot on this team and not have it conceded to me so I share in everyone’s disappointment that this runoff will not happen. All I can do now is turn my focus to London."

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Things also heated up on the track this weekend for foreign athletes. Sprint superstar Usain Bolt, known as the world's fastest man, was beaten by fellow Jamaican Yohan Blake for the second time in 48 hours on Sunday.

Back-to-back defeats for three-time Olympic gold medalist Bolt, the world-record-holder in 100m and 200m, have increased the pressure on the 25-year-old ahead of the London 2012 Games, which start July 27.

"I can never be discouraged," Bolt said. "I'm never worried until my coach gets worried. My coach isn't worried, so I'm OK."

On the track during the European Championships, the host nation saw similar troubles, as controversial star Dwain Chambers found himself running away from the competition ... only he didn't have the baton from his teammate in his hand.

The mistake was eerily similar to the British team's past troubles in the 4×100 event, in which it has seen disqualifications several times. It was certainly not how Chambers was hoping to make his big impression during his comeback.

Chambers was disgraced after testing positive for the designer drug THG in 2003. He was given a two-year ban from athletics and a lifetime Olympic ban, which was later overturned. He was stripped of his silver medal won in the 100m relay at the 2003 World Championships.

Read more of our complete Olympic coverage:

Lightning Bolts: Why Jamaican sprinters rule

Why U.S. must win basketball gold

Australian swimming's golden girl

Training during the Arab Spring

Should sports stars know their national anthems?

From triumph to scandal: Olympians in the social media spotlight

soundoff (21 Responses)
  1. LOGANSPEAKS

    The writer of the article was so negative, talking about the swimmer that fell flat on her face. She came in fourth, better than the writer could do. and she was on 5 olympic teams, trying for her sixth. I dare the writer to top that. Then the writer attacked the fastest runner, saying he was not, but he could out run the author, Next, the Brits were attacked for missing the baton and the ball. they worked hard to make it to the Olympics, while the author just criticizes. I guess it was his attempt to be witty but instead was rude. I hope you were not given free passes to these events to be so negative, if you dont appreciate the skill and work of all the atheletes, please give me your tickets, because I will cheer them all on....

    July 5, 2012 at 11:46 am | Report abuse | Reply
    • Chad

      The writer mentioned exactly what happened. From falling flat on her face (scientifically a fact and correct) as well as the standing ovation (scientifically a fact and correct) so shut up and get over the facts. You could learn something from the athlete who handles her emotions after ungraceful performance much better than you're able to handle the facts.

      July 5, 2012 at 5:16 pm | Report abuse |
    • Jen

      The author was talking about Nastia Liukin, the gymnast, who quite literally fell flat on her face.

      July 25, 2012 at 9:08 am | Report abuse |
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