No shortage of gymnastics stories at London Games
China may not give an encore performance of its heavy metal show from Beijing at this summer's London Olympics, but there will be no shortage of stories as gymnastics prepares to take center stage at The O2 Arena. Aside from American medal contender Danell Leyva, here are a few of the athletes and angles worth watching this summer:
-- JORDYN WIEBER: The reigning world champion is the one to beat for gymnastics' biggest prize, the Olympic all-around title. A 16-year-old from DeWitt, Mich., Wieber made quite the splash when she upset then-world champ Aliya Mustafina at the 2011 American Cup -- in her first competition as a senior, no less. Since then, Wieber has added the world and U.S. titles, and she led the short-handed and inexperienced Americans to the team gold at the world championships. Her victory at the American Cup in March could be a sign of more good things to come: All three Americans who won Olympic gold -- Mary Lou Retton in 1984, Carly Patterson in 2004 and Nastia Liukin in 2008 -- won that same event ahead of the Summer Games. But Wieber will have to buck some other, less-positive history. No reigning world champion has won the Olympic gold medal since Lilia Podkopayeva in 1996.
-- COMEBACK KIDS: Olympic champion Nastia Liukin and runner-up Shawn Johnson lead a who's who of veterans returning for one last shot. Beijing Olympics captain Alicia Sacramone was the first on the comeback trail, winning the vault title at the 2010 world championships. She's since been joined by Liukin, Johnson and fellow Beijing Olympians and former world champions Chellsie Memmel and Bridget Sloan. Rebecca Bross, who won six medals at the 2009 and 2010 worlds, is also back in the gym after dislocating her kneecap at the U.S. championships last summer. On the men's side, Beijing silver and bronze medalist Jonathan Horton has recovered from the broken foot he suffered during team finals at last fall's world championships.
It's not only the Americans, either. The ageless Cheng Fei, a mainstay of the Chinese team at the 2004 and 2008 Olympics, returned to international competition for the first time in three years last month, winning the vault title at the World Cup in China. Triple Olympic gold medalist Catalina Ponor is one of the lone bright spots for fading powerhouse Romania. The 24-year-old returned for last year's world championships, where she made beam finals.
-- RUSSIAN REBOUND: The Russian women were historically bad in Beijing, leaving an Olympics empty-handed for the first time since 1948 (not counting those boycotted 1984 Games, of course). But the youngsters the Russians were counting on to lead the rebound have delivered -- and then some. Led by all-around champion Aliya Mustafina, Russia took the team gold at the 2010 world championships, its first title at a major event since the Unified Team won the 1992 Olympics. The Russians were runners-up to the Americans at last year's worlds, and Viktoria Komova, winner of the inaugural Youth Olympic Games, claimed the uneven bars title and finished second in the all-around.
-- KOHEI UCHIMURA: The Japanese star has been so untouchable since winning the silver medal at the Beijing Olympics that two-time world runner-up Philipp Boy has lamented he was born in "the wrong age." The stylish Uchimura joined Svetlana Khorkina as the only gymnasts to win three world titles last fall, and it will likely take a colossal blunder to deny him the gold in London. He doesn't have a bad event, and he has no flaws. He may not pack the ridiculous difficulty factor of Beijing champion Yang Wei, but his tricks are plenty tough and no one can match his exquisite elegance and polish.
-- RULE BRITANNIA: Four years after Louis Smith gave Britain its first Olympic gymnastics medal in almost a century, the British could be a familiar sight on the podium. Not even an afterthought a decade ago, Britain's resurgence began with Beth Tweddle's bronze on uneven bars at the 2003 world championships. Three years later, she won the country's first world title, also on bars, and made British gymnasts realize they, too, could contend with the best in the sport. Britain has won at least one medal at every major competition since then, including its first-ever all-around medal, a silver by Daniel Keatings at the 2009 world championships.
-- DOWNSIZING: Squads have been cut from six gymnasts to five, and the reductions could produce a shakeup in the team competition. Rather than loading up their rosters with three or four event specialists who could produce monster scores in team finals, countries likely will need to rely on all-arounders. For countries like the United States or Japan, where there's enough depth to field two or three medal-worthy teams, that won't be a problem. But the Chinese men have amassed more titles than a British royal -- gold in Beijing and five straight wins at the world championships -- largely on the strength of their specialists, and China's coaches were already sounding the alarm last year.