Friday, August 15, 2008

Liukin brings home the gold her father nearly had

Valeri Liukin came oh-so close to an Olympic all-around gold medal. On Friday, his daughter gave him one.
"The machine had a Visa ad with my picture on it," Liukin said, her words flying excitedly from her mouth faster than her spins on floor. "And next to it, in Chinese symbols, was the word, 'Destiny.' I stopped and thought hard when I saw that."

Destiny is difficult to ignore here in Beijing. The word is plastered around the Olympic venues, incorporated into T-shirt designs, posters and press releases. It is mentioned more often than hard work, long hours in the gym or mental tenacity. But Friday, it was impossible to ignore the kismet surrounding Liukin's gold-medal win in the all-around.

Exactly 20 years ago, her father and coach, Valeri Liukin, finished less than one-tenth of a point behind his Russian teammate Demitri Artemev in the individual all-around competition, the gold slipping from his neck as he swung his arms to balance himself after an imperfect landing from the high bar.

Although he still leads his daughter in the overall medal count (Valeri has two gold and two silver medals from those 1988 Games), when it comes to the all-around gold, he must settle for simply being the father of the best gymnast in the world.

"He was so close to winning that all-around gold medal," Nastia said moments after her medal ceremony. "I hope I made up for that. I hope he is as proud of this as I am."

Liukin has spent much of the year leading up to the Games in the shadow of teammate Johnson, the current overall world champion. Liukin had beaten Johnson only once since the 2007 World Championships, at the American Cup in March, when Johnson fell attempting a new vault, the Yurchenko 2½.

Friday, there was no fall. There were no bobbles. Both gymnasts were virtually flawless. But with a combination of high start values, beautiful lines and a grace that seemed to appeal to the Olympic judges, Liukin stepped out from behind that 4-foot-9 shadow.

"I believe they did, yes," Valeri said, when asked if he believed the judges appreciated his daughter's style more so than the powerful, less artistic routines of Johnson. Friday was the first time that belief was reflected in the scores, as Johnson finished both the team qualifier and team final with the highest overall score in the competition.

"It wasn't easy for Nastia to be second, but I never believed Nastia was No. 2," Valeri said after the event. "Some judges maybe like Shawn, but Nastia's level of gymnastics is high. We calculate our course and come to the conclusion she is not second. She just makes mistakes."

Liukin and Johnson both started the day with clean vaults, Johnson earning the highest score of the competition on the apparatus. But it was the second rotation, the uneven bars, that has been the deciding factor of these Olympics. In the team final, the Chinese women created a deficit on bars that the Americans would have had a hard time topping even without the falls. With a start value of 7.7 (the highest on bars in the world), Liukin needed only to land her routine cleanly to score in the high 16s, which she did, earning a 16.65 on Thursday, the second-highest score of the day. She did not, however, match the 16.9 she received in the team final. "They got her on her landing," Valeri said.

Shawn Johnson finished second overall to teammate Nastia Liukin in the women's all-around Friday.
But on the next rotation, the balance beam, Johnson was expected to pull into the lead. When her start value is higher than that of her competitors, and when she lands solid, she pulls some of the highest beam scores in the world. Her score was only second-best Friday. Again, it was Liukin with the highest score, a 16.125, which was a full .125 ahead of Johnson's 16.050. After the third rotation, Liukin took the lead, with Johnson sitting in third behind Yang Yilin of China.

Just like the team finals, it all came down to the floor exercise. Johnson is the reigning world champion in the event and was last to compete. But as Liukin walked to the floor in her sparkling pink leotard, the American fans in the crowd could feel they were about to watch something special.

"This morning, when I woke up, I knew there wasn't anything else that could make me better," Liukin said. "I just had to give it my all and hope it was enough."

Her floor routine was spectacular. The 18-year-old's usually stoic expression melted away with each landed tumbling pass. On her final pass, Liukin landed, raised her arms and smiled, something she rarely -- if ever -- does while performing. It was hard not to smile along with her. As she walked off the floor, Liukin walked to her teammate and slapped hands. For a moment, they looked into each other's eyes, a moment of silent acknowledgement of the long road both women had taken to get to this point.

"When I saw her score come up, I knew I couldn't score six-tenths higher," Johnson said, her chin shaking as she spoke to the media. "So going into floor, I didn't care about score or placement anymore. I just wanted to finish my Olympic experience as best I could."

Just like her teammate, Johnson finished the competition with a flawless routine, then walked to her teammate and gave her a hug. "Nastia has been around a long time and has a lot of experience and she deserves the gold," Johnson said. "I was meant to have the silver."

Liukin is only the third American woman to win the all-around; Carly Patterson (2004) and Mary Lou Retton (1984) are the others.

But perhaps this is not Johnson's final chance at individual gold.

After the meet, both gymnasts retracted earlier comments that this Olympics would mark the end of their careers.

"Now she is thinking to keep going," Valeri said of his daughter.

Then, during the news conference, Johnson said she'd changed her mind, too.

"A month ago, I would have said I was done," Johnson said. "But after being here, I would give anything to feel this way again."

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