- The Washington Times - Saturday, July 19, 2008

NEW WAVERLY, Texas | Add another chapter to Chellsie Memmel’s already dramatic comeback story.

A case of whiplash forced Memmel to miss three events Friday, the first of a two-day Olympic selection camp. But she reminded everyone what a tough gymnast she is, returning for the balance beam and doing a near-perfect routine that had national team coordinator Martha Karolyi - and everyone else in the gym - clapping.

“It was a shock and, whenever it’s a shock, you have to stop,” said Andy Memmel, Chellsie’s coach and father. “If she would have done something stupid today, then we couldn’t have gone on. … We can afford bumps. We can’t afford holes.”

Shawn Johnson and Nastia Liukin earned trips to the Beijing Games with their 1-2 finish at last month’s Olympic trials. That leaves four spots still up for grabs, though, and 10 women are vying for them. Well, nine now. Shayla Worley, a member of last year’s gold medal squad at the world championships, broke her right fibula just below the knee during warm-ups and is essentially done.

Memmel and Alicia Sacramone are thought to be locks for two of the four remaining spots - but they must be healthy when they get there.

“We need to be smart,” Andy Memmel said. “It’s not the Olympics.”

And his daughter has come too far to take chances now.

Memmel was the hero of the 2003 squad that became the first U.S. team to win the world title. A last-minute alternate, she didn’t miss a single routine in the team competition, then tied for the gold medal on uneven bars. She missed the Athens Olympics with a broken foot but came back the next year to become only the third U.S. woman to win the world all-around title. (Johnson has since joined the group.)

But Memmel blew out her shoulder at the 2006 worlds and missed most of the next two years. In a sport where last year is considered ancient history, she was barely even an afterthought going into the national championships.

She got everyone’s attention by finishing third to Johnson and Liukin at nationals and Olympic trials, and actually finished ahead of Liukin the second day of trials. She trailed only Liukin on uneven bars, a critical event for the Americans if they’re going to beat China for the gold medal.

All she had to do was get through the selection camp, and she’d finally be on her way to the Olympics.

But on her second tumbling pass on floor, the first event of the day, Memmel got off-balance on her landing and took a big bounce backward. The force of it snapped her head back, and she immediately stopped and put her hands on her thighs.

“She just landed and whip-lashed her neck a little bit,” Andy Memmel said. “I thought, ‘Oh my goodness, we’ve come this far for something to happen. I’m just glad it’s not something terrible.”

Memmel stayed bent over for several minutes, and Bela Karolyi wandered over to rub her back at one point. When she finally stood up, she rolled her neck and someone massaged her neck, shoulders and upper back. After getting a drink of water, she sat down with a heating pad resting on her neck and upper back.

When the girls lined up before the last event, the balance beam, Memmel was there.

“If anybody knows, I know how strong she is,” said Sacramone, who, at 20 like Memmel, is the oldest member of the team. “She showed how strong a competitor she is.”

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