ST. LOUIS (AP) Alicia Sacramone knows better than anyone how hard it is to hang around in gymnastics.
At 24, the Beijing captain was already on borrowed time, competing against gymnasts in their mid-teens for a spot on her second Olympic team. Then, eight months ago, she blew out her right Achilles, a devastating injury made that much worse for its timing.
"I've been to one Olympics and I would love to go to another," Sacramone said Wednesday, two days before she returns to competition at the U.S. gymnastics championships. "If all things work out, great. If not, I went down giving it a hell of a shot."
Gymnastics is a demanding and unforgiving sport. The flexibility and dexterity required are gifts that quickly fade, and most female gymnasts are done by the time they finish high school, their bodies unable to keep up with the newest generation of pixies.
Considered "old" during the last Olympic cycle, Sacramone defied the odds once. While Nastia Liukin and Shawn Johnson gave the Americans some serious star power, it was Sacramone who provided the substance. Her routines were done with a style and sass the folks in Vegas would envy, and her oversized personality gave the Americans swagger as they ruled the world in the lead-up to Beijing.
But untimely injuries and uncharacteristic mistakes - including two big ones by Sacramone - left the Americans with the silver medal in 2008.
Needing a break mentally as much as physically, Sacramone took two years off. But she found herself wanting more - and wanting a different end to her career. She returned in 2010, and won the vault title at that year's world championships. She looked as formidable ever at last year's U.S. championships, and figured to be a multi-medal threat at worlds.
Then, two days before worlds began, Sacramone was doing a tumbling run on floor when she heard a "snap."
"It sounded like plywood," Sacramone said. "I was like, 'I think I just broke the floor.'"
A blown Achilles is a tough injury for any athlete, but her powerful legs are Sacramone's greatest strength. With the Olympics less than a year away, there was not a second to spare in her rehab. Despite what she's done for the United States - with 10 medals, she is the most decorated American at the world championships - there's no room for sentimentality on the Olympic team, and there were a dozen gymnasts waiting to take Sacramone's place.
So Sacramone let herself have a good cry and then got to work. Her boyfriend, NFL quarterback Brady Quinn, found her a surgeon, calling Dr. Robert B. Anderson at 2 a.m. to ask if he'd do the surgery. Anderson, a past president of the American Orthopaedic Foot and Ankle Society, is the team doctor for the Carolina Panthers.
Three days after the injury, Sacramone was back in the United States, having surgery. Though she spent almost 10 weeks in a cast and walking boot, she began physical therapy almost immediately, working with a trainer in Denver, where Quinn was a backup with the Broncos.
"I worked my butt off," Sacramone said. "It was not easy."
Neither was commuting. Once she was able to do gymnastics again, Sacramone returned to the Boston area to work with longtime coach Mihai Brestyan. She and Quinn, who signed with Kansas City as a free agent in March, see each other when they can, with Sacramone joking that she's on a first-name basis with airport staff.
"Gymnastics is something I love and I know that I won't be able to do it forever," Sacramone said. "We talked about it and he's like, 'Look, I want you to fulfill all your dreams in gymnastics just as I want to fulfill all my dreams in football.' ... He's really supportive. He just wants me to compete and be happy and then when I'm ready to be done, I'm done."
But she's not ready, not just yet.
Sacramone plans to compete on vault and balance beam at nationals, and has resumed training on floor exercise. With only five spots available on the London squad, the competition will be fierce, and she knows the more events she can do, the better her chances will be.
The London team will be announced July 1 after the Olympic trials in San Jose, Calif.
"It would definitely be a big confidence booster because I had to overcome so much to make the team," Sacramone said. "I think it would be much a real sweet moment for me if I get to go and compete and do better than I did in Beijing. I would be happy to end my career like that to say, 'You know, what, I gave it my all. I got hurt trying. I came back from that and I still managed to make it.' That would be great."
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