Liukin and Johnson push each other to all-around glory
BEIJING -- With her Olympic legacy on the line, Nastia Liukin stood by the floor exercise mat as gold and silver hung in the balance at the women's all-around gymnastics championship.
"C'mon Shawn," she shouted, encouraging her U.S. teammate, Shawn Johnson, the one person who could keep her from gymnastics' highest honor. Soon Nastia's coach and father, Valeri Liukin, a four-time Olympic medalist, clapped his hands and joined in.
"OK, Shawn," he added in support of Johnson. This was gymnastics' chummier side, not a reprise of age-gate that hung over the team competition as Bela Karolyi and others flung suspicions about Chinese birthdays and passports. It was a sort of sporting intersquad display of goodwill shared not only between teammates, but also roommates in the Olympic village.
Just 12 hours before Liukin and Johnson went pointed toe-to-pointed toe in a gripping all-around final at the National Indoor Stadium won by Liukin on Friday, the roomies were eyeing the calendar on a shared nightstand. "We were like, 'can you believe it's really here?'" Liukin recalled after the competition. "All this work and now it's our time."
Liukin, who took the gold, and Johnson, who won the silver, made the most of their chances. Liukin got her graceful exterior from her mother, Anna, a former world champ in rhythmic gymnastics. She also got her hidden but undeniably steely interior from her father, a member of the great Soviet teams of the '80s and '90s who often competed through injury. There is a great picture of the family wedding day. Valeri's arm is in a sling.
For the better part of two years, Liukin has been fighting a foot injury that would get better, then worse, then better, without ever really going away. For all her grace, Liukin was straining to train for the aspects of her routines that pounded her legs: tumbling, vault, dismounts. If she wasn't swinging on the uneven bars, something she does as well as anyone, she was hurting.
Partly because of her lost training time and partly as a precaution, Liukin had less difficult routines -- and lower start values -- than many other gymnasts, leaving a premium on precision and her execution scores. "Injuries made me who I am today," she said. "I'm stronger, tougher."
Several months ago, Anna had dusted off one of Valeri's Olympic gold medals and draped it over a mirror in Nastia's room so she would see it each morning. On Friday, Liukin was in gold-medal form when she stuck every one of her landings without a wobble or a whimper. She found herself in 10th place after recording a 15.025 on the vault, a decent score in her weakest event. But she rallied in two of her best (16.650 on bars and 16.125 on beam) to grab a lead going into floor exercise, the final event for the leaders, including Johnson and China's Yang Yilin.
"Don't try to do anything better than you know how to do," Valeri told Nastia. Then in his best Herb Brooks, he told her, "Just do your routine."
Liukin followed with four safe, but perfectly executed tumbling passes and earned a 15.525. Johnson still had to do her routine and needed more than 16.125 to top Liukin. She received a 15.525 and was good enough to lift her past Yang into second place.
"I don't know what more I could have done," Johnson said afterward. "I gave my heart and soul. Nastia deserved it. I'm still the baby of the group. I deserved what I got today. Everything happens for a reason."
In fact, Johnson had some notable form breaks on bars, where she caught releases cautiously close to the bar and stopped short of two handstand positions so she wouldn't make a major error by going over the wrong way.
"I'm very proud of Nastia," Johnson said. "She deserves it. And I won the silver. That's the best feeling ever ... Nastia and I have pushed each other so much, we've become better gymnasts because of each other."
At 16, Johnson even admitted that she was eyeing another Olympics at the ripe age of 20. "This is my passion. It's like candy for me," she said. "For 2012, if I would have told you a month ago, I would have said no, that I was done. But after being here and experiencing the whole thing, it's just a dream come true. I gave my heart and soul out there, and I couldn't be happier or prouder of myself. I'd give anything to feel that again. If I can in 2012, I'll be there no matter what."
On Friday, Valeri Liukin reminded his daughter that he was still the medal leader in the family. "I've got two of them," he said at a post-meet press conference.
"But I've got three more finals to beat him," Nastia answered.
She also had an important phone call to make. Anna Liukin is in Beijing, but wasn't in the arena. She can't bear to watch her daughter, so she often finds a nearby mall or park to scour until she receives the call from her family telling her the result. It took a while for the family to connect on Friday. Anna's phone was flooded with messages, so they texted her until she phoned back.
"She was crying so hard, I didn't understand a word she said," Valeri said. "Today is all about joy for us. We will figure out the words later."