A few more nights like this, and the reigning queen of gymnastics might be queen of the comeback, too.
Olympic champion Nastia Liukin tied for third on balance beam in her first competition in three years Saturday night. She scored a 14.9 at the U.S. Classic, finishing 0.10 points behind reigning world champion Jordyn Wieber and Aly Raisman. It was the only event Liukin did, but it was enough to let everyone know she hasn't lost any of the skills or elegant style that earned her five medals at the Beijing Games.
Despite her third place finish, the self-proclaimed perfectionist says she still has more work to do to make the Olympic team.
"I definitely think that I'm in a good spot, and you know, we have a little time left before Visa Championships," Liukin said.
With that time, she plans to hit the gym hard, focusing on her signature event, and the one she has yet to compete, the bars.
"You can't relax now," Liukin said. "The easy part is over and now it's back to the grind, going back home tomorrow and really just spending hours on bars."
A little over a week remains before the Olympic gold medalist's next competition. The U.S. championships are set for June 7 to 10 in St. Louis, where Liukin plans to debut her bars routine. After that, it's the Olympic trials, June 28 to July 1, in San Jose. Unlike in years past, the Olympic team will be named that night.
In the all-around competition, 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.
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 wanted to go to Fashion Week to make appearances and have a hand in her business projects. But even a day or two out of the gym had her feeling as if she was starting from scratch. So 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.
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. The crowd greeted her with a warm roar, and even some of her fellow gymnasts stopped to watch.
The daughter of a world champion in rhythmic gymnastics, Liukin has her mother's gorgeous lines, making everything she does look elegant and effortless. 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. And unlike some gymnasts, who land elements on the 4-inch slab with thuds so resounding they echo across the arena, her landings are all whisper-soft.
Her only flaw was a small balance check on her leap.
When she landed her dismount, she flashed a big smile. The first step in her comeback had been a success.