You know it's an Olympic year and you know it's women's gymnastics when the national championships are merely a prelude. Although 24 entrants will be competing for the United States title at Boston University's Agganis Arena today and Saturday, the team for Beijing will be decided at the Philadelphia trials two weeks from now and at next month's Houston camp.
"The whole process that we go through is very strained and very nerve-racking and it puts a lot of pressure on the girls," said world champion Shawn Johnson, who'll be defending her domestic crown. "Knowing that this isn't a do-or-die event for making the team, it's good for the athletes just to go out and get some more experience and get ready for the one that does count."
Not that the 16-year-old Johnson wouldn't love to retain the title she lifted from two-time champion Nastia Liukin in San Jose, Calif., last year. But she's got her eye on a five-ringed planetary prize that she can't get unless she makes the six-woman team for the Games.
"This is one of the steps for Beijing," said Liang Chow, Johnson's coach. "This is a major rehearsal for her."
Only the top 12 finishers in the all-around here are assured spots at the Olympic trials and only the top two there are assured of making the team. If form holds, it'll be Johnson and the 18-year-old Liukin, who edged Johnson in their last meeting at the American Cup in New York at the beginning of March.
Everybody else, including Winchester native Alicia Sacramone, probably will have to knock heads again in Houston, where the final four members will be picked.
"The final selection camp is where you make the team," said Jana Bieger, who was the world all-around silver medalist two years ago but was hampered by an ankle injury last year and didn't make the squad.
That's where specialties count and where Sacramone, who has won global medals on vault and floor, likely will earn her ticket after captaining last year's team to the gold medal at the world championships in Germany. "If Alicia is healthy and prepared, I don't have a question mark in my mind that she would contribute to the team," said team coordinator Martha Karolyi.
Not since 1996, when the Magnificent 7 won the gold medal in Atlanta, has an Olympic women's team been so difficult to make. All of last year's world team members are on hand - Sacramone, Johnson, Liukin, Samantha Peszek, Shayla Worley, and Ivana Hong - plus three members of the 2006 silver-medal squad (former world champ Chellsie Memmel, Ashley Priess, and Bieger).
For Sacramone, a Brown University sophomore who is taking a year off to prepare for the Games, this will be her first meet since September, when her dazzling floor routine clinched the team gold. "It makes you a little bit nervous because my last competition was worlds," said Sacramone, "but it was a good competition to end on."
Here, as there, she'll be competing in only three of the four events, skipping the uneven bars, which means Sacramone won't finish in the top 12 and will have to be invited to trials. Johnson and Liukin, though, will do the whole menu and it's likely that the title will come down to the final rotation Saturday.
"I'm so excited," said Johnson, who won last year's crown in her first year as a senior. "I've been waiting so long to get back to championships. To know that everything is starting, my adrenaline is going."
The nationals may only be a high-level rehearsal, but from tonight on, every routine matters. "It's the same nationals I've been going to every year," said Liukin, "but knowing that it's 2008, it seems kind of scary but at the same time really exciting."
Liukin may have nine world medals in her trophy case, but she never has tried to make a team that competes only once every four years. For all two dozen women here, Olympus has been an imaginary destination until now. None of them was in Athens and few, if any, will be in London in 2012.
Tonight is the night the pressure starts to build and keeps building along this long and winding road to Beijing. "Every competition and every showing matters," said Sacramone. The squeeze will become tighter in Philadelphia and will reach python levels in Houston. If you want to make a mistake, Karolyi said yesterday, better make it here.
What: Women's gymnastics
When: Today 1 p.m., 7 p.m.; Saturday 10:30 a.m., 3:30 p.m.
Where: Agganis Arena
TV: Saturday, Ch. 7, 4 p.m. (tape delay)
John Powers can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.