Team USA women’s gymnast Nastia Liukin during a portrait session at the 2012 Team USA Media Summit at the Hilton Anatole. (Kevin Jairaj-US PRESSWIRE)

By Larry Fine

DALLAS, May 14 (Reuters) – Olympic all-around gymnastics champion Nastia Liukin is relishing the exhaustion of intense training in her rushed bid to represent the United States at the London Games.

The 22-year-old will compete for the first time in three years at the U.S. Classic in Chicago in less than two weeks, but is battling to hose down expectations even as her anticipation grows.

“I’m trying not to have too many expectations because it has been quite a few years since I’ve competed, but my excitement is building,” Liukin told a throng of reporters at the U.S. Olympic Media Summit on Monday.

“Walking home and walking up my stairs and being so exhausted you can hardly walk, that’s the best feeling now. It’s a sense of accomplishment of the day.”

Two weeks after the Classic, Liukin heads to the national championships where she will have to produce good enough results to qualify for the Olympic trials at the end of June in San Jose, California.

Wearing mini black shorts under a red team jersey, and perched on black, platform shoes with five-inch heels, Liukin projected a touch of glamour among other gymnastic hopefuls decked out in sweatsuits and warm-up jackets early in the morning.

The daughter of double Olympic gold medallist Valeri Liukin and rhythmic gymnast Anna Kotchnova, who emigrated to the United States from the then-Soviet Union, Liukin won five Olympic medals at Beijing.

Apart from the coveted all-around title, Liukin clinched women’s team silver, individual silvers on the beam and the bars, and a bronze in the floor exercise.

Despite her star quality and undeniable pedigree, Liukin knows reputation alone will not carry her onto the U.S. team and will have to battle the younger gymnasts who teamed up to win world championship honours last October in Tokyo.

Teams are now comprised of five members rather than six, and selectors must find the right combination to thrive in the team event, in which three scores must be counted in each discipline.

PUZZLE PIECE

Liukin will focus on her two best events, the uneven bars and balance beam, in her bid to impress the selectors.

“It’s always a puzzle piece,” she said about the selection process. “You have to really strategize. For team finals, it’s three up, three count in each event. You have to make sure you have three great bar scores, three great beam scores.

“My beam is definitely ready. Bars has been one of the things slower to come back even though it’s my best and strongest event. You have to have more endurance and strength.”

Liukin spent her years away from competition representing a variety of sponsors, creating a fashion line and serving as the athlete representative for U.S. gymnastics and the international federation (FIG).

Although turning away from competition following the 2009 nationals, Liukin never stopped training, and worked out informally in her family’s gyms in the Dallas area.

“Gymnastics, especially in my family, is more than a sport. It’s our life, it’s our careers, it’s our family business, she said.

“It’s been a very hard journey, these last six months and there’s definitely a lot ahead of me in these next few months.

“I’m excited to be where I’m at, to be able to do gymnastics again. I’ve missed being able to flip in the air, flip on the beam and swing on the bars.”

Despite the intensity and toil involved in her London preparations, Liukin said she would be content even if her Olympic bid fell flat, and plans to enrol in New York University in January to study sports management.

“I’m showing the younger generation your career doesn’t have to be over when you’re 16-years-old,” she said.

“If that’s what you love to do, you should be able to do it as long as you can.”