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There’s a whole lot to be revealed in the gymnastics world at this weekend’s Covergirl Classic in Chicago, which serves as the final qualifier to the Visa U.S. Championships in St. Paul next month.  From Shawn Johnson’s competitive return, to Chellsie Memmel’s surprising entry, to the unique clash of NCAA veterans and young American stars, this weekend’s competition will provide some of the most intriguing stories ever in American women’s gymnastics.  Here are five to keep your eyes on:

 

Shawn Johnson. Simply stated, it’s one of the most anticipated sports comebacks of all time.  The 15-year-old who dominated the world of gymnastics in 2007 and won four Olympic medals at age 16 in 2008 has done a whole lot of growing up over the last three years.  After winning the 2009 season of Dancing With the Stars, appearing on numerous television shows, and enjoying countless endorsements, America’s little Olympic pixie from Beijing is now a larger-than-life celebrity.  Her announcement in 2010 that she planned to renew her greatest passion and make a second run for the Olympic Games in London 2012 has generated over a year’s worth of anticipation from fans all over the world, and that excitement is set to explode this weekend in Chicago when she steps onto the competitive floor for the first time in three years.  With her skill level, physical shape, and competitive ability still quite a mystery at this point, the question that awaits us all is whether or not we’ll see that same star we all fell in love with reemerge from beneath the celebrity veil.

 

Beijing Reunion. Perhaps Alicia Sacramone’s tremendous 2010 comeback and resulting world vault title provided some inspiration to at least two of her teammates from the 2008 Olympics.  Not only will Shawn Johnson be making her competitive return to gymnastics this weekend, but fellow 2008 Olympian and 2005 world all-around champion Chellsie Memmel is also on the roster for Chicago.  Though she did make a competitive appearance with a few watered down routines at a small meet earlier this year, Chellsie’s announcement to compete the all-around this weekend was somewhat shocking to the gymnastics world and provides an exciting new twist to the competition.  Her return to competitive form has been much quieter than the highly publicized comebacks of Sacramone and Johnson, but she’s proven time and time again through her uncanny competitive ability and unshakable tenacity that Chellsie Memmel can never be counted out.  And it’s now been nine months since we last saw 2010 world vault champion Alicia Sacramone in competition, but rumor has it she plans to unveil a floor routine in Chicago – something we haven’t seen from her since the team finals in Beijing three years ago.  A former world floor champion as well, Alicia’s yet-to-be revealed music, choreography, and tumbling will be a hugely anticipated routine this weekend.

 

NCAA Transplants. Twenty years ago, the graduation to college gymnastics was seen as essentially retirement from the elite level of competition, but nowadays it’s increasingly becoming a launching pad instead.  In today’s specialist-dominated world and heightened age requirements, it’s become much more feasible for NCAA gymnasts to remain competitive in elite gymnastics, particularly when their specialties happen to be needed by the U.S. team.  Mackenzie Caquatto, who just finished her freshman year at the University of Florida, and Anna Li, a graduate from the powerful UCLA program, both excel on the uneven bars and will be competing in Chicago this weekend.  In fact, bars is the main event that put Caquatto on the U.S. world team last year, and her strong and consistent performances in Rotterdam will make her a prime candidate for a repeat world team spot this fall.   Anna Li has spent the last year upgrading her bar routine with spectacular release sequences and has now created one of the most difficult routines in the entire country.  She won this event at the recent American Classic and will be a huge contender for a spot as a bars specialist in Tokyo, if she can show consistency both this weekend and in St. Paul next month.  Following the growing NCAA-to-elite trend, former University of Arkansas star Casey Jo Magee recently transitioned to elite gymnastics for the first time, winning balance beam at the recent American Classic with some very difficult and unique skills.  She may not be in the hunt for the world team, but she’ll provide some nice highlights to this diverse field as well.

 

Senior Rookies Ready To Shine. First-year seniors McKayla Maroney and Gabrielle Douglas have already made major splashes in international competition this year, but this weekend provides huge opportunities for both of them to not only possibly win the all-around, but to establish themselves as serious world and Olympic contenders.  While both are fantastic all-arounders without a major weakness, Douglas’ bar routine in particular makes her an extremely valuable asset, and Maroney has perhaps the best vault in the entire world.  Fellow senior newbies Sabrina Vega and McKenzie Wofford are also outstanding gymnasts who have tremendous opportunities to make names for themselves at the senior level this weekend.

 

Wieber vs. Bross? Although this competition primarily serves as a qualifying meet for the Visa U.S. Championships next month, anytime the USA’s top gymnasts compete together on the same competition floor, there’s something much bigger at stake…reputation.  It’s difficult to say whether world all-around bronze medalist Rebecca Bross and 2011 American Cup champion Jordyn Wieber will compete in the all-around this weekend, but if they both do, it will be the first time we’ve ever seen these two powerhouses go head-to-head.  Although more serious duels will take place in St. Paul next month and in Tokyo in three months, this weekend could provide an excellent foreshadowing of America’s next great rivalry.  Should these two abstain from competing all four events, it may well be time for 2010 world team member Aly Raisman to seize the spotlight with an all-around title.