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Years of hype hits home for Liukin

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INDIANAPOLIS — Nastia Liukin lived up to the hype.

Touted for the last few years as gymnastics' next big star, Liukin showed what all the fuss was about Saturday night, rallying to edge Chellsie Memmel for her first senior title at the U.S. Gymnastics Championships. After nailing her vault, her last event, her father and coach Valeri swept her up in a big hug.

"Being a senior, it's a whole new step," said Liukin, who won the last two U.S. junior titles. "It means you're the best in the whole country. Winning seniors is definitely a good step up."

Liukin finished with 76.164 points, 0.367 points ahead of Memmel. Memmel, a double gold medalist at the 2003 world championships, scored 75.797 points. Jana Bieger, third in juniors last year, was third with 74.680.

Alicia Sacramone turned in the best single score of the night, getting a 9.9 with a saucy floor routine.

"I honestly didn't know," Sacramone said. "It felt like a good routine but when I saw the score, my face was like, 'Oh my God.' My jaw dropped. My eyes got really big. I was really excited."

Liukin doesn't turn 16 until October, but her genes have made her the center of attention since she was old enough to tumble. Her father, Valeri, won two gold medals at the 1988 Olympics, her mother, Anna, was the world rhythmic champion in 1987, and Liukin combines the best of them both. She has her mother's grace and long lines, and her father's power and steely determination.

All of that was on display Saturday — along with a little improvisation.

Liukin had a lot of ground to make up after a dismal showing on the beam in Thursday's preliminaries left her a disappointing third.

"I was definitely pretty far behind. Everyone was telling me, 'Don't give up,' but it was hard," she said. "It was definitely important to come back and show people I'm strong and a fighter and I don't give up."

She got right to work with her first event, the uneven bars. Liukin does one of the toughest bar routines in the world, yet makes it look effortless. She flitted from bar to bar as if weightless, and her handstands were so straight it was as if an invisible cable was pulling her taut from above. Her score of 9.766 moved her ahead of Bieger.

Memmel held her own on uneven bars. Flying from the low bar to the high bar, she came to a dead stop in a handstand without the slightest of wobbles. She was already grinning before she landed her dismount and her father and coach, Andy, pumped his fists in the air. She scored a 9.666, good enough to keep her in first.

Liukin put down another challenge with a dazzling routine on the balance beam. Unlike Thursday, when she wobbled and bobbled, she was rock steady this time. She did a side somersault — twisting a quarter turn while flipping in the air — as easily as if she was on the flat ground. She whipped off her backflips as casually as most people do cartwheels.

Liukin scored a 9.8, her highest score of the competition, and Memmel couldn't match it. Not even close.

She lost her footing as she did a front somersault with a twist, dropping to the mat as the crowd groaned. She had another big wobble on a back handspring, and took a large hop forward on her dismount. She scored an 8.8 — her lowest of the meet — and fell behind Liukin.

"I was disappointed, but you know, it happens sometimes," Memmel said. "It's just like a mental error. I just got up and knew I had to hit to get at least second place."

Memmel ran into a little trouble on floor, taking a big hop forward on one tumbling pass and not getting all the way around on a dance move. They were minor errors, but every tenth mattered at that point.

Especially with Liukin averting disasters in mid-air. She overrotated one of her tumbling passes and could only get three twists instead of her planned three and a half. But her last pass also had a triple twist — and she wouldn't get credit for it if she'd already done one earlier in the routine. So Liukin improvised, doing two and a half twists.

"That was all her," Valeri Liukin said, laughing.

With a score of 9.6, all Liukin had to do was stand up, and the title was hers. She did, and the celebration was on.

"I'm proud of her as a father and a coach," Valeri Liukin said. "You can only dream of your baby working hard to get where she wants to be. And as a coach, what can I say? Look at the results."