Liukin pulls off tall feat, gets gold

BEIJING — BEIJING - Over this year of monthly training camps and small meets, of national championships and Olympic trials, Martha Karolyi watched Nastia Liukin do double duty.

Liukin had become an international star on uneven bars and balance beam. She has won world titles in those events, where her elegant long lines and training from her mother, Anna, who was a world champion rhythmic gymnast, are best displayed.


But on the vault and floor exercise, Liukin had been at a disadvantage in major international meets, especially against her fellow American Shawn Johnson. Johnson is 6 inches shorter than Liukin but compact and powerful. Those skills were best displayed on the floor and vault.

"During this season of practice, I've noticed that Nastia has been doing double routines on the floor exercise," said Karolyi, the U.S. national team coordinator.


"Sometimes she would do two in a row, and that is a very difficult thing, extremely tiring and exhausting."

Liukin had to do only one floor exercise routine last night, her last of the night, at the Olympic women's gymnastics all-around final. That extra practice paid off, and she did it so easily it capped a gold-medal performance for the 18-year-old Russian-born, Texas-raised winner.

Defending world champion Johnson won the silver, and China's Yang Yilin took the bronze.

Karolyi was in the stands, leaving the floor to the personal coaches. For Liukin, that is her father, Valeri. For Johnson, that is Liang Chow.

Valeri Liukin was a double Olympic gold medalist for the Soviet Union 20 years ago in Seoul. Chow is a former Chinese national team member and a native of Beijing. The two men have become friends, as have their pupils, but last night, Liukin and Johnson were also opponents.

Johnson, 16, of West Des Moines, Iowa, had carried the weight of being the pre-Olympic favorite after she won the 2007 world championship in Germany.

Bart Conner, former U.S. men's gymnast and husband of 1976 gold medalist Nadia Comaneci, said he sat in the stands at the National Indoor Stadium with mixed emotions.

"I loved the competition," he said. "It was a great performance, but it was so heartbreaking for Shawn. I could see how disappointed she was.


"I've said this before, many times. It's really dangerous to be the 'it' girl the year before the Olympics. On the one hand, you have the enormous publicity and the endorsement money. The other side of the sword are the expectations and pressure."

Johnson fought back tears after she finished, the last competitor on floor exercise. She had gone into that final routine needing to score better than 16.000 to beat Liukin, a nearly impossible task.

Valeri Liukin won two gold medals at the 1988 Seoul Olympics but missed out on the individual all-around gold medal, losing to Soviet Union countryman Vladimir Artemov by the slimmest of margins, 119.125 to 119.025. "The difference was a small slip on my grip on the high bar," Valeri Liukin said. "So Nastia winning gold today is very special."

Conner said the biggest surprise of Liukin's win was that usually the gymnasts known more for artistic expressiveness over pure athleticism lose out, especially in a competition such as last night's, in which none of the highest-ranked girls made major mistakes.

"Gymnastics purists like Nastia's style," Conner said, "but in most cases if you go against the athletic types, the athletic types win. Mary Lou [Retton], Carly [Patterson], those types beat out longer, lankier athletes who can't stick the landings like mighty mites. History shows the Shawn Johnson-type athlete usually wins because the scoring system rewards the athlete."

Liukin's willingness to stick with the sport after suffering through several injuries during the past two years earned Karolyi's praise.


"I always said that when people started to lose faith in Nastia, I would tell them her career is not over," Karolyi said. "She just proved for everybody she is a good all-around gymnast. She's totally a role model for upcoming gymnasts because she has stuck it out."