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Liukin and Johnson on same and different sides

September 04, 2007|Diane Pucin | Times Staff Writer

STUTTGART, Germany -- Nastia Liukin and Shawn Johnson will be teammates for United States women's gymnastics Wednesday, hoping to lead it to a team gold medal. They will be rivals the rest of the week, aiming to win the all-around title and individual event medals and set themselves up as favorites to be the best gymnast at next summer's Olympics in Beijing.

After a dominating performance in qualifying Sunday, the U.S. will be favored to unseat China and win the world championship team gold medal with Johnson, the newly crowned U.S. national all-around champion, and a reinvigorated Liukin leading the way.

There will be others seriously contesting the all-around medals Friday -- Stiliana Nistor from Romania had the highest qualifying score, England's Elizabeth Tweddle shined on uneven bars and floor exercise while qualifying fourth, and defending gold medalist Vanessa Ferrari of Italy and Brazil's Jade Barbosa had strong first-round performances. The Chinese qualifiers, national champion Yang Yilin and Xiao Sha, should also be in contention, but it would surprise no one here if the two Americans were to be on the podium.

The teenagers, as opposite as two gymnasts can be, were second and third Sunday, and only Johnson's uncommon botched uneven bars landing kept her from finishing first.

Liukin, 17, is the daughter of two Russian gymnasts. Her father, Valeri, coaches Liukin in the dynamics of power and in the matters of jumping and twisting and landing. Her mother, Anna, who was a rhythmic gymnast and Russian national champion, coaches Liukin about the sweetness of a pointed toe and the eminent grace of a well-turned pirouette. Liukin, who grew up in Parker, Texas, says she could have played any sport. "But I can't think of one other I would have liked," she says.

Johnson is the daughter of Doug, an Iowa carpenter, and his wife, Teri. Johnson, 15, was raised in West Des Moines to be anything that satisfied her relentless energy. It happened that her mother enrolled Johnson in a tumbling tots class to keep her daughter from diving off the entertainment center or using the couch in place of a trampoline.

Liukin is taller, a little more slender with longer legs and lighter blond hair than Johnson. Johnson is more muscled. Liukin tends to brooding seriousness during her performances while Johnson, a rookie on the senior international stage, naturally smiles without prodding during her routines.

It has been a trying 12 months for Liukin. After missing the age cutoff for the 2004 Olympics and dominating the junior competitions, Liukin was tabbed as the likely successor to Athens all-around gold medalist Carly Patterson, another Texan. But after winning back-to-back national championships and heading to the 2006 worlds as the all-around favorite, Liukin injured an ankle during training and was only able to compete in the team competition and uneven bars event finals.

The ankle healed slowly, hampering Liukin through the Pan American Games and into last month's national championships, where she struggled badly on the first night and lost her title to Johnson.

Valeri, who won four medals at the 1988 Olympics, had been downcast, suggesting his daughter might not be ready to compete in the all-around here. "She is not the gymnast we know," Valeri had said. "I don't know when she will be."

Liukin had been unsmiling, almost sullen, when she was only in fifth place after the first night of all-around competition at the national championships and said at the end, "I am not happy with myself at all. I need to find my old motivation and feel good again."

Less than a month later, and Liukin is full of giggling confidence. On her favorite apparatus, the uneven bars, Liukin drew gasps from the crowd here Sunday with her high-flying release moves and double somersault dismount. When the landing was stuck, Liukin ran to her father and disappeared into his hug.

"This is the Nastia Liukin we've been waiting for," U.S. team coordinator Martha Karolyi said. "This is the gymnast we knew was there for us."

"I'm so excited to finally be back and feel like myself again," Liukin said. "I think it could be a great rivalry between me and Shawn in the all-around."

Johnson, who hasn't lost an all-around competition in more than a year, was taken aback when she fell on her uneven bars landing Sunday. The thud drew a cry of surprise from her and then a prediction. "From doing that," Johnson said, "it will make me go back and work harder. I'll go back and do it right the next time."

Liang Chow, Johnson's coach, said his star pupil just needed to make a technical correction. "This will be good for her," Chow said. "She can learn to recover from a little adversity."

As for competing with and against Liukin, Johnson said she was fired up.

"First we need to win the team gold," Johnson said. "Then it will just be fun to go against each other and see who's the best. This time."

After looking decidedly mediocre for much of the night Monday at qualifying, the defending champion Chinese men let everybody know they intend to leave here with another set of gold medals.

China finished with 374.275 points, largely thanks to a finale on the still rings. That put the Chinese 3.550 points ahead of Olympic champion Japan. They have 12.1 points on injury-plagued Russia.

The Americans go today. They have no designs on catching China, only trying to get there next year for the Olympics. To do that, they must move up at least one spot from last year's 13th-place finish.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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diane.pucin@latimes.com

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