HOFFMAN ESTATES, Ill. -- Keep an eye on Jordyn Wieber.
The reigning U.S. junior gymnastics champion made quite an impression in her first major meet Saturday, winning the American Cup and joining the likes of Nadia Comaneci, Mary Lou Retton and Nastia Liukin. Germany's Fabian Hambuechen rebounded from his disappointing showing at the Beijing Olympics to win the men's title.
The 13-year-old Wieber won't even be eligible for the world championships until 2011. But national team coordinator Martha Karolyi wanted her to come to American Cup for experience and that all-important face-time with the international judges. She looks more than ready to hang with the big kids, finishing first in all but one of the four events. Her score of 60.2 points was .60 ahead of Bridget Sloan, who is still working her way back into shape after helping the U.S. women win a silver medal at the Beijing Olympics.
Wieber is the youngest American Cup champion since 1980.
Hambuechen, the silver medalist in the all-around at the 2007 world championships, was expected to be a multi-medal threat in Beijing. But he came home with only one medal, a bronze on high bar, and says now that he put way too much pressure on himself and didn't have enough fun.
He had plenty Saturday. Trailing American David Sender the entire meet, he capped the day with a spectacular high bar routine to grab the title. He finished with 90.650 points, edging Sender by .20. Joey Hagerty, who was part of the U.S. team that won the bronze medal in Beijing, was third.
Wieber packs plenty of power in her tiny frame, and she showed it on the very first event. She's already doing the vault Shawn Johnson mastered for the Olympics, a trick so difficult only a handful of women in the world even try it. Her form wasn't perfect, and she had to take a big step to steady herself on her landing.
But the difficulty score gave her a huge advantage -- her vault was worth seven-tenths of a point more than Sloan's -- and put her in control.
She finished on floor exercise, getting the crowd clapping with a sassy, blues number. She got great height on all of her tumbling passes, soaring so high on the final one the folks in the first few rows had to strain their necks to see her. When she finished, Karolyi was smiling and clapping and coach John Geddert was jumping up and down.
Her only real slip of the day was a big wobble on a side somersault on the balance beam. She had to wave her arms to keep herself on the beam, but she managed it and came right back with an aerial back somersault that looked as easy as cartwheel.
Sloan can be proud of her showing. Like her fellow Olympians, she was a little busy last fall, hanging out with Oprah, visiting the White House, doing an appearance with Peyton Manning. You know, the normal things for a 16-year-old. She's been back in the gym for a few months now, but this meet was definitely a warm-up for her.
Hambuechen is the life of the gymnastics party, dubbed the sport's unofficial ambassador. But he was far more subdued in Beijing, burdened by the expectations and hopes he put on himself.
No more. He's putting the fun back in his gymnastics.
Hambuechen had surgery in December to repair a torn tendon in his finger, and his routines still don't have their full difficulty. That showed as he trailed Sender for most of the meet. But Hambuechen finished on high bar, and he's got a routine the circus folks would envy.
Hambuechen packs his routines with an ooh-and-aah mix of flips, twists and pirouettes. He did two release moves, launching himself high above the bar and coming down to catch it as if he was merely grabbing something from a shelf. He took a slight hop on the landing, but it hardly mattered.
His score of 15.75 was the second-highest of the day on any event, and allowed him to overtake Sender.