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April 20, 2014

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Going up against the best

Tasha at a glance

LAS VEGAS SUN

Hometown: Las Vegas

Club: Gymcats

Coach: Cassie Rice

School: Centennial High School 2003

Began gymnastics: 1990

Favorite event: Floor exercise

Years on U.S. national team: 7 (1997-2003)

Career highlights: 2001 and 2002 national champion; 2002 national champion in uneven bars and floor exercise; member of the 2001 U.S. World Championship bronze medal team; 5th in the world all-around in 2001; member of the 2000 Olympic Team that placed fourth in Sydney.

Personal: One of two daughters of Joy Schwikert and Shannon Warren, both Las Vegas craps dealers. Sister Jordan is also an elite gymnast. Plans to pursue a career in medicine. Hobbies include swimming, shopping and reading.

When her gymnastics career is said and done, Las Vegas' Tasha Schwikert will be able to say she was a member of one of the best women's gymnastics teams in U.S. history.

But for 48 hours in Orange County this weekend, that truth is going to make her life that much more difficult.

Ask anybody in a leotard, and they'll confirm that Schwikert has the talent and credentials to compete for the title of world's best female gymnast. But the catch is she must first qualify for the honor during preliminary rounds Sunday and Monday at the World Gymnastics Championships at the Arrowhead Pond in Anaheim, Calif.

Given the skill level of her American teammates and that only two competitors from each country move on to the finals, Schwikert will have to at least duplicate her runner-up performance at the U.S. Nationals in June to get another shot at the world's best.

"Some of her toughest competition is within the U.S. team itself," said Cassie Rice, Schwikert's longtime coach at Gymcats in Henderson. "There are four girls who are very strong all-arounders and only two per country make it into the all-around finals.

"Tasha is one of the strong ones, but you have to hit (your routines) on preliminary night."

Most observers rank Courtney Kupets, the reigning uneven bars world champion who edged Schwikert and Hollie Vise for the U.S. all-around title in Milwaukee, and Ashley Potell, who won the balance beam gold in last year's worlds, slightly ahead of Schwikert on the list of those capable of upsetting reigning world champion and three-time Olympic medalist Svetlana Khorkina of Russia.

Rice said Carley Patterson, who sat out the national championship meet with an injury, also is a strong threat for all-around honors within the U.S. team.

But then so is Schwikert, at 18 the second-oldest member of the U.S. team.

For starters, she has experience at the world level, having finished fifth in the all-around in the 2001 World Championships in Ghent, Belgium. An ankle injury that forced her to miss most of the 2002 competitions has healed, and Schwikert had an excellent World training camp in Houston, that ended with her being named captain of the U.S. team.

Throw in her reputation -- Schwikert is the only holdover from the 2000 U.S. team that finished fourth in the Sydney Olympics -- and that she will be competing on home turf, and it adds up to Schwikert being a huge factor.

"She was named the team captain and she has been performing well and training hard," Rice said. "It's a big advantage (to be competing in the United States), especially for Tasha, because so many Las Vegans will be going. But you still have to hit your routines."

Schwikert's best event is the floor exercise, and a beefed-up routine in that discipline -- provided she hits her marks -- may help her score with the judges.

After a slow start, Schwikert rallied to finish second at the Nationals despite leaving some of the difficulty out of her routine in Milwaukee, preferring to save it for the Worlds.

Rice said Schwikert's new routine has looked promising.

"She's hitting a harder floor pass pretty well and she's more solid on her other events," Rice said.

The top eight gymnasts on each apparatus in the preliminary rounds advance to the finals, which for the women will be next Saturday and Sunday.

The qualifying rounds also will count toward the team championship to be decided Wednesday. A team consists of six gymnasts, with five competing in each of the four women's events -- vault, uneven bars, balance beam and floor exercise. Four scores count toward the team total. At the end of the prelims, eight teams move onto the finals, where only three gymnasts per team compete with all scores counting.

Romania, Russia and the United States finished 1-2-3 in the 2001 Worlds (only individual champions were crowned last year). With its increased depth and a pro-American crowd cheering it on, the U.S. team is considered a serious threat to wrest the title from the European powers.

United States Gymnastics, the federation which oversees the sport, is so bent on winning women's gold that it has shielded team members from the media and other outside distractions leading up to the competition.

Schwikert and the rest of the U.S. women's team reportedly won't be made available to the media until a news conference at the Pond on Thursday.

The World Championships will be the last time the world's best gymnasts will compete on the same stage before the 2004 Summer Games in Athens, which makes this year's event even more important.

"As a gymnast, the World Championships event is just like the Olympic Games, only harder, because all of the countries are participating," said Mary Lou Retton, who won the 1984 all-around gold at the Summer Games just up the road in Los Angeles.

"The best athletes in the world gather together. The Olympic Games have more prestige because of the name and reputation of the event, but for the gymnasts, the World Championships event is so important, especially the year before the Games."

A total of 73 countries and more than 700 gymnasts are expected to be on hand in Anaheim for the 100th anniversary of the World Championships. It will mark the third time the event has been in the United States.

American teams have shown well when the event has been at home.

In 1979 in Fort Worth, Texas, a men's team led by Kurt Thomas, Bart Conner and Peter Vidmar won eight medals.

In 1991 at Indianapolis, a U.S. women's squad featuring Kim Zmeskal, Shannon Miller and Kerri Strug earned five medals and emerged as the favorite heading into the 1992 Summer Games in Barcelona.

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