THEY ARE a mesmerizing one-two punch, perhaps the most potent duo USA Gymnastics has ever sent to an Olympics: Shawn Johnson, the tiny powerhouse from West Des Moines, Iowa, and Nastia Liukin, the elegant stylist from Parker, Texas. Either could win the coveted all-around gold medal in Beijing, as they emphatically showed at the Olympic trials last weekend in Philadelphia. Johnson, the all-around world champion, finished first among the 18 women at the trials with a two-night total of 127.65 points. Liukin was second, 1.8 points behind her. Johnson was the high scorer in floor exercises and balance beam; Liukin had the top overall marks in the uneven bars. In so doing they snapped up the two automatic berths on a deep, talented squad that should be favored to win team gold this summer. The other four gymnasts bound for Beijing will be named on July 20 by team coordinator Martha Karolyi after a selection camp in Houston.
But make no mistake: Johnson, 16, and Liukin, 18, are the team's foundation. Johnson is a powerful tumbler and nerveless competitor who has now won eight of nine all-arounds since 2007. Her lone loss was to the long-limbed, flexible Liukin at the Tyson American Cup in March, when Johnson fell unveiling a Yurchenko 2 1/2—an outrageously hard vault involving one somersault and 2 1/2 twists in a layout position.
While it would be natural to assume the two stars are bitter rivals, the truth is they push each other while remaining friends. When Johnson's gym in West Des Moines was flooded two weeks ago and fish were swimming in the parking lot, Liukin text-messaged an offer to help, signing off with a breezy, "Love you." Johnson responded in kind. "We've always had a close relationship," says Liukin. "We're teammates and friends first."
In style the two couldn't be more different. Johnson smiles and bubbles while competing—a 4'9" firecracker. Liukin's face is taut and serious, her graceful lines making her appear much taller than 5'3". Liukin's strongest event, the uneven bars, is Johnson's weakest. Liukin's weakest event, the vault, is one of Johnson's strongest.
Having such a pair to build around makes Karolyi's job fairly simple when it comes to filling out the team. Only three gymnasts per country compete in each of the four apparatuses in the medal round, and most of those 12 slots—perhaps as many as seven—will be taken by Johnson and Liukin. One gymnast almost certain to join them is 2005 world all-around champion Chellsie Memmel, 20, who finished third at the trials. Alicia Sacramone and Samantha Peszek, veterans of the '07 world championship team, were also in peak form in Philadelphia, and Karolyi implied they'd get two of the spots. The final gymnast will probably be Shayla Worley, Jana Bieger or Ivana Hong, depending on their form over the next three weeks.
But Johnson and Liukin, fittingly, were the only two named on Sunday night. "We've gotten each other this far," Johnson said. "I'm sure we'll get each other even farther in Beijing."