SAN JOSE, Calif. -- Nastia Liukin rolled through the first 30 seconds of her uneven bars routine Friday night, displaying the form that helped make her an Olympic champion in Beijing four years ago.
Only, it's not four years ago. And Liukin knows it.
Needing a big night to show U.S. women's team coordinator Martha Karolyi she is ready to contribute in London next month, Liukin and her weary shoulders instead faltered at the gymnastics trials. Her dreams of becoming the first defending all-around champion to return for the next games since 1980 vanished along with it.
Liukin posted a score of 14.050 on her signature event, better than the national championships three weeks ago but nowhere near where it needs to be to nab one of the coveted five Olympic spots.
"[I was] running out a little bit of steam, that was basically it," Liukin said. "I felt like I had a better routine all around besides the very end of it."
Maybe, but the 22-year-old knows the finals on Sunday will likely be the last time she suits up in competition.
"I was at the peak of my career four years ago and if anybody would have ever told me in 2008 that you would have been competing in the 2012 Olympic Trials I probably wouldn't have believed them," Liukin said.
Maybe because returning was never really part of the plan. Liukin took a sabbatical after the 2009 nationals before deciding to make a comeback last summer. She could never quite get healthy while training with shoulders shredded by two decades of gymnastics.
Liukin refused to make excuses, saying if she would have started training earlier her shoulders might not have withstood the abuse. Though she was visibly disappointed after her bars routine, she gamely hopped on the beam 10 minutes later and posted a 14.5.
"I could have just scratched after bars and said, 'I'm finished,"' Liukin said.
She didn't, and patiently answered question after question in the aftermath and has no plans to skip out on the finals.
"I was taught at a young age by my mom and dad to never give up and that's what I'm going to do, I'm going to finish what I started," Liukin said.
Her father and coach Valeri stood quietly off to the side watching his daughter talk about a career that has taken her to the greatest heights.
"I'm sure she wants to cry right now, I'm sure that will come later," he said. "She's very tough. Very strong."