SAN JOSE, Calif. — Nastia Liukin laid face-first on the mat, her hopes of making a second Olympic team officially gone, and she knew it.
For a split second Liukin remained motionless. In the back of her head, she could hear her father and coach, Valeri, reminding her of a lesson learned long ago.
Finish what you start. No matter how painful it may be.
So the defending Olympic champion, in the final moment of a 20-year career that has defined her life, picked herself up, walked over to the chalk bowl and caked herself in the powder one more time.
Sure she wasn't going to London. She wasn't going to quit either. Not like this.
Liukin, with a boost from her father, jumped back up and completed her routine. The score of 13.950 — well below the standard she set while winning silver on the event in Beijing four years ago — hardly mattered.
Neither, really, did the 14.950 she earned following a tidy beam routine 20 minutes later. What Liukin will remember about the U.S. Olympic trials are the two standing ovations she received and the countless hugs foisted upon her as she gracefully exited the stage to make way for the newest round of American hopefuls.
"Seeing all of the thousands of people on their feet, you couldn't have planned out a better way to end a career," Liukin said.
Even if it wasn't quite the way she envisioned when she announced her comeback a year ago trying to become the first Olympic champion to return to the next games since Nadia Comaneci in 1980.
Liukin insisted it wasn't about ego or boredom or an inability to move on. She never wanted the spotlight, focusing on bars and beam because they were the areas where the U.S. team needed the most help.
She spent months trying to will herself back into shape. But her aching shoulders and a clock that wouldn't stop ticking away simply wore her down. The magic and grace she showed while winning five medals in China never returned.
Still, she kept believing. Saying repeatedly during the national championships three weeks ago she just needed a little stretch of good health and maybe a splash of inspiration to return to form.
Neither happened. The 22-year-old slogged through the opening night of trials, stalling near the end of her routine then falling on her dismount. She never considered withdrawing even as the girls who considered her an idol posted scores well north of her 14.050.
"I knew that I had no doubt in my mind I was going to come out here and finish and walk out of here on my terms, not because somebody wanted me to be done," Liukin said.
Walking into the arena on Sunday afternoon, she says she felt better. She felt positive. She felt she could make a run. It lasted the first 30 seconds of her bars routine. She flung herself into the air to start a move she'd completed thousands of times in her life. Only when she reached out to catch the bar, it wasn't there.
A moment later, she was covered in chalk. There were no tears — not at the moment anyway — only anger. This would not be the lasting image of her comeback. Not by a long shot.
"Getting up after a fall is never easy," she said. "It's always very tough. It shows your true character if you are able to get up and that's something I've been taught since I was 8 years old."
Still, it was weird walking onto the stage amidst confetti while the eight girls heading to England celebrated the biggest night of their lives. Had it really been four years since she enjoyed the same exhilaration at the 2008 trials in Philadelphia?
She batted the red, white and blue paper strips out of her face then quietly walked down the steps, sharing a private moment with Bela and Martha Karolyi, icons in the sport who helped her become the greatest gymnast of her generation and one of the best in U.S. history.
"I had the highest appreciation for her when she won the Olympic Games and I have same appreciation now," Martha Karolyi said. "It takes strength to go out there. She just wanted to prove she just loves the sport and we have to admire that effort."
Bela Karolyi handed her a gold medal after she won the U.S. junior championships a decade ago. What they exchanged in the midst of chaos on Sunday was just as important.
"To come full circle, I don't regret a thing," Liukin said.
Now it's off to college in New York. Then who knows? The sport will likely never be too far away. It never was.
"In 2008 I never really considered myself done and retired," she said. "It's emotional because I've given myself to this sport. To be here means more to me than anybody will ever know."