Written in the
next box to be x-ed out was ALL-AROUND FINALS.
even years, of anticipation, the actual competition the next day seemed to fly.
Their rotation, based on seedings from the preliminary round, included Liukin,
Johnson and their two young Chinese rivals, Yang Yilin and Jiang Yuyuan. The
first apparatus was Johnson's best event, the vault. As expected, she took the
lead, but a small step on her landing kept the others in touch. Yang trailed by
.70, Liukin by .85.
The next rotation
was the uneven bars, in which Johnson's start value (the difficulty of her
routine) was just 6.3 compared with 7.7 for Liukin and Yang. Later, Liukin
recalled the practice when her father came to the gym with a sticky note on
which he'd written a hodgepodge of letters—B, D, C, D, E—each referring to a
different move on the bars. "What's that?" Nastia asked.
new bars routine," Valeri replied. "It has a 7.7 start value."
the letters, imagining the moves. "It looks really hard," she said.
"But it'd be really cool if I can do it."
She could do it,
all right, and that 1.4-point gap in start value on bars proved to be more than
her roommate would be able to overcome. Johnson, Yang and Liukin all performed
solid bars routines, but Yang and Liukin, with their graceful changes in hand
positions and difficult release moves, were awarded 16.725 and 16.650,
respectively. Johnson, the only one of the three to stick her dismount,
nevertheless earned 15.275, and fell back to fifth place going into the third
rotation, the beam.
Johnson had been
referring to the U.S. as the Beam Team ever since the preliminaries.
Traditionally a strength of the Chinese, the beam had been the one event that
both Liukin and Johnson had excelled at in Beijing, and they did so again in
the all-around. The long-limbed Liukin—appearing to get more and more confident
with every rotation—was effortlessly stunning, scoring 16.125. Johnson,
flipping and twisting across the beam as if she were romping on a sidewalk, got
a 16.050. Theirs were the two top scores on the beam all night. Yang,
meanwhile, had two wobbly moments and scored 15.75. The standings going into
the floor exercise were: Liukin, 47.80; Yang, 47.65; Johnson 47.20.
Any of the three
could have won. The pro-Chinese crowd of some 19,000 began chanting "Go!
Go!" ("Jaahh-yo! Jaahh-yo!") in deafening unison, but floor is
Yang's weakest event, and she scored a tepid 15.00. Liukin and Johnson were the
last two competitors up. Liukin led off, and it was clear from the first
perfect tumbling pass that she wasn't going to let her lifelong dream slip from
her grasp. Secure, balletic, athletic and beautifully flexible, the 5'3"
Liukin seemed the embodiment of the best things about her sport. When she
bounded up from her last graceful pose and slapped hands with Johnson in
encouragement on her way off the mat, everyone knew who had won.
Johnson. Trailing Liukin by .6 going into the floor exercise, Johnson realized
when the board flashed her roommate's score of 15.525—highest of the night on
floor—that there was no way to catch her. And knowing that freed her. Johnson,
for the first time, totally relaxed. Never mind that the silver medal, the
one-two finish, hung in the balance, requiring a near-perfect routine. "It
wasn't about placements anymore," she said. "It wasn't about being
Olympic champion. I'd felt pressure and nerves the whole meet, and at that
point it was just about the gymnastics. I just wanted to show everyone I left
it all out there and that I'd never give up, no matter what."