Gymnasts' road to 2012 gets more difficult

We all know making the U.S. Olympic team is difficult enough. Years of training, passion and financial sacrifice are normally required (well, not so much financial sacrifice if you're on the basketball team). But making the gymnastics squad is now even more difficult. That's because the International Gymnastics Federation (FIG) reduced the number of gymnasts per country from six to five for the next Olympics.

Sorry. You came really, really, really, really close, but you're not on the Olympic team. But if it's any consolation, you would have been on the team four years ago.

FIG's goal is to open more spots for individuals whose nations did not qualify as a team. You can debate whether that's a good thing, but it certainly comes at the expense of athletes who are with those strong teams.

"It's definitely pushed the all-around to the forefront," U.S. men's team coordinator Kevin Mazeika said in advance of this week's national championships. "With only five athletes, you need to cover more events with fewer guys. It has made us, as a program, look more to the all-around. You will see this at these championships -- the majority of guys will be doing the all-around. ...

"You have to look at all contingencies. It's quite a puzzle piece."

It certainly increases competition within the team.

"The depth and talent in this year's field is tremendous," Mazeika said. "That's where we want to be. When the domestic competition is this intense and tough, it pushes everyone to their highest level and, in turn, translates into a very talented team for the world championships and Pan Am Games."

So American gymnasts will be pushing each other in the coming 11 months for roster spots on the 2012 Olympic squad. The competition heats up this week at the national championships that run Wednesday through Saturday in St. Paul, Minn. The nationals are followed by the world championships in Tokyo and the Pan American Games in Guadalajara, Mexico, both scheduled for October.

The U.S. men already have made great strides in the pommel horse, winning the event that has long challenged them at the recent Japan Cup. The U.S. finished second overall to Japan.

"We got a tremendous boost of confidence out of it," Mazeika said. "Winning the pommel horse was the result of a tremendous amount of hard work in the past two years. We definitely opened some eyes around the world. By doing as well as we did in the pommel horse, it gave us that belief and confidence we can compete with anybody in the world."

There were some safety concerns about the world championships in Japan following this spring's tsunami and nuclear plant radiation leaks, but U.S. gymnastics president Steve Penny said the gymnasts will be safe.

"The FIG spent quite a bit of time looking into that issue," Penny said. "I think they looked at as much info as they possibly could, and they decided it was a safe environment for anyone to travel there and that opinion continues to be held and everyone is gearing up for it. There has not been a lot of angst up to that point in time; everyone is pretty much ready to hit it."