Kristen Maloney stood at the end of the vault runway, calmly sipping a cup of water and trying to focus on the two jumps that stood between her and a second straight national all-around gymnastics title.

She then cleanly completed both vaults, and faced the toughest part of her night -- running a gantlet of five coaches, all waiting for hugs from the champion.

Maloney, 18, edged Vanessa Atler for the second straight year at the U.S. gymnastics championships, scoring 38.687 points to Atler's 38.312.

Atler led by a slim margin going into the final round, but fell on the uneven bars -- the second straight year a fall on that apparatus has cost her a shot at a national title.

Atler, 17, also fell on the uneven bars in 1997 when she tied Kristy Powell for the national title.

Jennie Thompson placed third in tonight's all-around competition with a score of 38.112. Alyssa Beckerman was fourth with 38.012 points and Jamie Dantzscher was fifth with 37.750.

The top 14 women in the all-around competition qualify for the World Championships team trials, to be held Sept. 15-18 in Kansas City, Mo. That event will help choose the U.S. squad for the World Gymnastics Championships Oct. 8-16 in Tianjin, China.

Kristie Phillips, the national champion as a 15-year-old in 1987 who quit the sport after failing to make the U.S. Olympic team in 1988, fell off the uneven bars and struggled throughout the evening to place 23rd out of the 29 competitors.

Phillips, 27, who is trying to return to competitive gymnastics after pursuing an acting career for the past decade, nevertheless was the crowd favorite. She received a standing ovation after her floor exercise, along with cries of "We Love You, Kristie!"

ARCO Arena, which holds 11,000 for gymnastics, was only about half full for the first night of women's competition. Only a few hundred spectators were on hand Wednesday night for the men's first round.

The championships lost some of their appeal when Dominique Moceanu and Amy Chow, two members of the U.S. team that won gold at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics, dropped out because of injuries.

On Wednesday, John Roethlisberger finished his floor exercise and punched the air with his right fist.

A year after reconstructive knee surgery, the two-time Olympian wore a leg brace and a huge smile as he made a dramatic return.

Though Jason Gatson and Blaine Wilson were atop the standings, the happiest gymnast was the guy who was in third place in the all-around event after the preliminary competition.

Roethlisberger, who won four national titles in the early 1990s, also won the pommel horse Wednesday with a score of 9.95. He had been sidelined for months after blowing out his right knee at the national championships last year.

"This is by far the biggest accomplishment I've had in my career," he said, choking up. "I'm a 29-year-old gymnast with a reconstructed knee, and I'm real proud to be where I am. I'm prouder of this than anything I've done before. Forget the national championships and the Olympics, this is it."

Gatson took a slim lead over Wilson after Wednesday's events, which count for 20 percent of the men's all-around competition. The finals are Friday night.

Wilson is seeking an unprecedented fourth straight national title. Gatson finished second to Wilson at the national championships in 1996 and '98. He was third in 1997, behind Wilson and Roethlisberger.

But Roethlisberger was the star with his performance, and with his obvious pleasure at being able to compete at such a high level again.

"I just wanted to say, `Wow!" ' he said. "I wondered if I could still hang with these guys. And to be third? I didn't expect that. I didn't care if it was first, third or 30th. I was just psyched to be able to perform again."