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15-year-old wins all-around

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Indianapolis --- Nastia Liukin sent her mother a text message Saturday night.

"I said, 'Mom, I won. Love you,' " said Liukin.

Her mother, Anna, is too nervous to watch her compete, but Liukin was the center of attention at the U.S. Championships as she won her first senior national all-around crown.

Liukin, 15, of Plano, Texas, beat Chellsie Memmel, 17, a former world team member, by .367 after Memmel had a fall on the balance beam. Liukin had trailed by .867 after Thursday's preliminaries when she had her own troubles on beam, her foot slipping on her dismount. On Saturday, Liukin rallied with four excellent routines, including national titles on uneven bars and beam.

"It was definitely important just to come back and show people that I'm strong and that I'm a fighter and I won't give up," said Liukin, who altered the composition of her floor exercise routine because she was too explosive.

She joined some elite company, including her parents: Anna is a former world rhythmic champion; Valeri, also her coach, won two Olympic golds and two silvers for the former Soviet Union.

"I haven't really gone all the way they went," said Liukin, who was born in Moscow and moved to New Orleans at age 2 1/2.

Liukin also joined Dominique Moceanu, Kim Zmeskal, Kristie Phillips and Vanessa Atler as American gymnasts who made the leap from junior to senior national champion in consecutive years.

"Seniors is a whole new step," said Liukin, who was junior champion in 2003 and 2004. "Being a senior means you're the best in the country. Juniors, you compare your score with seniors to see where you would have placed."

With her elegance and technical skills, Liukin would have been a good bet to make the U.S. Olympic team last year if she had met the age requirement. Instead, she stayed home while Carly Patterson, who trained in the same gym, won the all-around gold medal and a team silver. Patterson has two bulging discs in her back and is unsure when she can return to competition.

Liukin will be a top contender at the World Championships in Melbourne, Australia, in November. There is no team competition, but gymnasts compete in all-around and individual events.

"She proved the strength of her character," Martha Karolyi, U.S. women's team coordinator, said of Liukin's turnaround on beam.

At Worlds, Karolyi said, "She has all the chances. She's a world-class gymnast."

Karolyi said Liukin could medal in the all-around, as well as bars, beam and floor. Vault is Liukin's weakest event, but she even gave that an extra dimension Saturday.

"She's a tiger," said her father. "She's got something inside that I cannot tell you.

"I'm proud of her as a father and as a coach. You can only dream of your little baby working so hard to get where you want to be. She works very hard, seven, eight hours a day. Isn't that beautiful? Where else can you find this? As a coach, what can I say? You can see the results all the time."

Memmel, of West Allis, Wis., called her fall off the beam on a twisting somersault "just a mental error."

Memmel, whose foot injury cost her an Olympic berth last year, didn't flinch on her final event, the vault. "I just got up and I knew I had to hit to get at least second place," she said.

Jana Bieger, 15, of Coconut Creek, Fla., another junior stepping up to the senior ranks, was third in the all-around just 10 months after knee surgery.

"The doctors said I wasn't supposed to be back until the end of this year," Bieger said.

Alicia Sacramone, 17, of Winchester, Mass., won floor exercise and vault and had the highest score of the competition, 9.90 on floor. It was her first 9.90 ever in competition.

"It felt like a good routine, but when I saw the score, my face was like, 'Oh my God,'" Sacramone said. "My jaw dropped. My eyes got really, really big. I was ecstatic."

Copyright 2005 The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

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