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ONE GOLD medal, two roommates. That was the rub. Only one of them could go home as Olympic all-around champion, and Nastia Liukin, 18, and Shawn Johnson, 16, knew that from the start. They'd been talking about it from the moment they were the first two gymnasts named to the U.S. women's team at the Olympic trials in June. Someone had to win. The other, both hoped, would take home silver. Red, white and blue as one-two. The rest of the world could duke it out for the bronze.
The amazing thing was that the duel lived up to the hype. Just as astonishing: Their friendship lived up to the duel. It came down to the last twisting, tumbling pass in the last event of the night, but wonder of wonders, their shared dream came true: gold-silver. Gold for the willowy Liukin. Silver for the acrobatic Johnson. It was the first time two American gymnasts had finished first and second in an Olympic all-around competition. At the end of an arduous, often tear-filled journey, both medals came home to a single room.
They are an odd couple. Liukin, whose full name is Anastasia, was born in Moscow, the daughter of gymnastics royalty. Her father, Valeri, was a great Soviet champion, winner of two golds and two silvers in the 1988 Olympics, beaten for the all-around title by a teammate by one-tenth of a point. Her mother, Anna Kotchneva, was an '87 rhythmic gymnastics world champion. When Nastia was 2 1/2, the family moved to the U.S., eventually settling near Dallas, where Valeri cofounded the World Olympic Gymnastics Academy, now one of the top learning centers in the U.S. It was not her parents' intention that their only child follow them into competitive gymnastics—Valeri, the first man to do a triple backflip on the floor, broke 16 bones during his career—but genetics is a powerful force, and Nastia began doing tricks just by watching other kids. Blessed with her father's tenacity and her mother's flexibility and grace, Nastia was on the gymnastics radar screen early, winning U.S. junior national titles in 2003 and '04, and senior titles in '05 and '06. Had she been old enough, she almost certainly would have been named to the U.S. team for the '04 Olympics.
Johnson, by contrast, came out of nowhere by way of West Des Moines, Iowa. Her parents, Doug and Teri, saw gymnastics as merely a diversion for their hyperactive daughter. A new gym happened to open near their home, one that was run by a former member of China's men's team, Liang Chow, but Chow had never coached an Olympic-caliber athlete. Destiny, Teri often said, seemed to be at work here because Chow had grown up in Beijing. In 2005, when Liukin was winning her first two gold medals at a world championship, Johnson was so far from the national spotlight that Chow had to send a tape to U.S. women's team coordinator Marta Karolyi to get his 13-year-old prodigy an invite to the national team training camp.
That's where Liukin's and Johnson's paths first crossed, and where their trajectories began to shift. During qualifying for the 2006 world championships, Liukin suffered a right ankle injury that required surgery to remove bone chips, limiting her training in vault and floor exercise through the '07 season. Many experts predicted that her days as an all-arounder were over. They suggested she concentrate on her two best events, beam and uneven bars, which were easier on the ankle. Johnson, meanwhile, went on to win the '07 all-around world title and every other competition she entered. Except one. Liukin, finally healthy, beat her at the American Cup in New York City this past March. "The last year and a half have been very tough, but she's a tiger," says Valeri, who doubles as Nastia's coach. "It wasn't easy to be second to Shawn."
Young upstart knocks injured champion off her perch. What chance did a friendship have to blossom? Yet instead of becoming bitter rivals, the two stars became friends. They pushed and supported each other. They shared the pressure of a nation's expectations. When Johnson's gym was flooded this summer shortly before the Olympic trials, Liukin invited her to move down to Texas to train with her. And when it came time to choose roommates in the Olympic Village, Liukin and Johnson paired up. "We're pretty similar," says Johnson. "We're the two quietest. We're both neat. We like to read and go to bed early. We both write in our journals at night."
They decorated their room with good-luck cards and posters they'd made of inspirational quotes and pictures. Each drew up a calendar that she kept by her bed, meticulously crossing off the days. They ate together in the cafeteria, hung out with the U.S. cycling team and ogled Michael Phelps from afar, deciding not to bother him with a picture request. (Nastia did get a photo of herself with Dirk Nowitzki, star of her hometown Dallas Mavericks.) Quietly, they were having a ball.
When the competition began, they stood up to the weighty expectations that had been placed on them. Johnson and Liukin were the top two scorers of the entire field in the preliminaries, the consistent Johnson finishing first because Liukin fell on the dismount from her bars routine. But Liukin qualified for three individual apparatus finals to two for Johnson, and despite her one fall, it was clear Liukin was in top form. Her face, often taut with nerves during a competition, was calm and confident. This, she seemed to sense, was her time.
EVEN AFTER the U.S. team, undone by two uncharacteristic falls by team captain Alicia Sacramone, was beaten on Aug. 13 by a Chinese team that many suspected had several underage gymnasts (the visual evidence alone raised doubts), Liukin was an island of calm. "China had fewer mistakes than we did; it was their day to shine," she said, refusing to be drawn into the controversy. "This is my first Olympic medal, and I'm really happy. I had fun out there." Asked about her and Johnson's prospects in the upcoming all-around event, Liukin smiled: "We went one-two in the preliminaries, so we're hoping for one-two either way."
Thursday night before turning out the lights they looked at their calendars. "Can you believe this?" Liukin asked.