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U.S. women gymnasts are ready for world spotlight

Though they’re regarded as the front-runners in Beijing, the six teenage members of the U.S. Women’s Gymnastics Team are treating the games as just another day at the office. “We just have to think of it as if we’re doing our job,” one said.
/ Source: TODAY

Having the unusual status of front-runners doesn’t faze the mainly teenage team of U.S. women gymnasts. The six young ladies going for the gold at the 2008 Beijing Olympics say they are treating their moment on the world stage as just another day at the office.

“We can’t think of it in the big picture — we just have to think of it as [if] we’re going to the gym and doing our job, which we’ve all been doing for years now,” team member Alicia Sacramone told Meredith Vieira on TODAY live from Beijing. “We’ve all just got to stay calm, and if we do that, we can do great things.”

The most-watched squad at the Olympics comes into the competition as a favorite after capturing the gold at the 2007 World Championships. Still, it’s a heady experience for the athletes — each is making her maiden Olympics appearance.

It’s an especially blessed experience for 18-year-old Nastia Liukin of Parker, Texas, who follows in her coach-father’s footsteps: Valeri Liukin won four medals for the Soviet Union at the 1988 Olympics. “It’s really cool to be here and experiencing my first Olympics with him 20 years later,” Liukin told Vieira.

The women are vying to become only the second U.S. squad to snare a gold medal at the Olympics — the 1996 team won in Atlanta. But team member Samantha Peszek says they won’t be looking over their shoulder at the host Chinese team, who are believed to be their biggest roadblock to winning.

“We’ve always been told to just focus on our job, because that’s all we can really control, and I know we will be well-prepared for this meet,” Peszek, 16, from Indianapolis, says.

Any jitters remaining after the long flight to the Orient were worked out during a practice at the event site in Beijing on Wednesday, competitor Shawn Johnson told Vieira.

“The equipment felt great, the arena is gorgeous and huge and we just can’t wait to get back there and actually compete,” Johnson 16, of Des Moines, Iowa, says.

Olympic gold would add to the impressive collection of bling the women have already garnered — Johnson is the reigning all-around world champion, Liukin has won nine world medals in the past three years, and Peszek is a former World Championships gold medal winner.

Team members Bridget Sloan and Chellsie Memmel are confident that they too have what it takes to join the winner’s circle. Sloan, 16, of Pittsboro, Ind., says the years of training that put her on the road to Beijing were “very worth it. I am excited to be such a young contender, and to be on the U.S. team is such an honor.”

While it's the arduous hours at the gym that have put the ladies in a position to show their stuff to a world audience, team leader Sacramone admits the squad members all have their own version of a lucky rabbit’s foot with them.

“We all have a little good-luck something,” Sacramone, 20, of Winchester, Mass., told Vieira. “I have a cross and little good-luck charms my family and friends have given me over time.”