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Johnson has the floor, gold

Powerful floor exercise in final rotation makes 15-year-old only fourth U.S. gymnast to win women's all-around at world championships.

September 08, 2007|Diane Pucin | Times Staff Writer

STUTTGART, Germany -- Behind Shawn Johnson's smile, her teeth were chattering. As Johnson stood on her tiptoes in a sparkling purple leotard, waiting to begin her floor exercise routine, she kept the wiggle out of her fingers, the tap out of her toes.

But Johnson's 15-year-old heart was beating a rat-a-tat rhythm. "I was nervous," she said. "So nervous."

In second place by a 10th of a point going into the final rotation of the women's all-around competition at the World Gymnastics Championships, Johnson pounded out a floor exercise routine that exuded both personality and power. She threw herself into her first tumbling pass, a double-double she calls it, a double-twisting, double-back somersault, and when her feet landed with a satisfying thud, Johnson said she felt a release.

"Ahead of me," Johnson said, "in just a little bit, I was going to have my dream."

Johnson's floor exercise was scored tops on the night, and it was enough to give the teenager from West Des Moines, Iowa, an overall score of 61.875, more than a point better than silver medalist Steliana Nistor of Romania, who had 60.625. Defending world champion Vanessa Ferrari of Italy and Jade Barbosa of Brazil, who each had 60.550, shared the bronze.

In fifth was a tearful Nastia Liukin. The 18-year-old from Parker, Texas, had been in the lead after two rotations. But Liukin, who had missed part of this year with an ankle injury suffered at last year's world championships, fell off the balance beam and stepped out of bounds on her floor exercise.

Earlier Friday, China's Yang Wei won his second consecutive men's all-around championship, though he lost his grip and fell off the high bar. Even with that inelegant tumble, Yang scored 93.675. Germany's Fabian Hambuechen won the silver with a score of 92.200 and Hisashi Mizutori of Japan took bronze with 91.400. Jonathan Horton, a 21-year-old senior at the University of Oklahoma, was a surprise fourth-place finisher. David Durante of Garwood, N.J., finished 17th.

Johnson is only the fourth American woman to win a world championship all-around gold (Kim Zmeskal won in 1991, Shannon Miller in 1993 and 1994 and Chellsie Memmel in 2005). This is Johnson's first season as a senior competitor, and already she is Pan American Games, national and world champion.

After having helped the U.S. win a team gold medal over China on Wednesday, Johnson started the all-around finals cautiously. She, Liukin, Barbosa, Nistor and Ferrari all competed in the same group and this group began on vault.

Johnson and Liukin took steps on their landings, but Barbosa, a sturdy 16-year-old who had finished fourth behind three Americans at the Pan Am Games in Brazil in July, threw out a high, hard, perfectly landed vault that earned a score of 15.900, best of the night on that apparatus.

Liukin grabbed a share of the lead on the next event, the uneven bars. In an elegant, high-flying display, Liukin posted the highest score by any competitor on any apparatus, a 16.100. But on her next routine, the balance beam, she fell after a back handspring.

As the tension grew in the arena, it was Johnson who kept getting better. She had only the tiniest wobble on the beam and scored a 15.900, best of the night. Her coach, Liang Chow, gathered Johnson in his arms and told her, "Do your floor and you can win the gold."

The pressure eased a bit when Barbosa, up first, fell on her opening tumbling pass. The pressure eased even more when Johnson so confidently did that double-double. "I had so much fun after that," Johnson said. "I could really feel good things coming." Johnson's floor score of 15.425 was also the best of the night.

As it was posted, Johnson sought out her parents in the crowd, then threw herself into the arms of her coach. "This is the best night of my life," she said.

U.S. team coordinator Martha Karolyi first consoled the weepy Liukin then bragged about Johnson. "I said this girl will be somebody one day," Karolyi said. "This is the day it happened. But I also told her this is only the beginning of the road."

With the win, Johnson has emphatically made herself the favorite to win Olympic gold in Beijing next summer. The only American women to have that accomplishment are Mary Lou Retton (1984) and Carly Patterson (2004).

Johnson also will have a chance to win two more world championship medals Sunday when she does the balance beam and floor exercise finals.

Yang was the only gymnast to score more than 16.000 on three apparatus in the men's competition and his 16.400 on still rings and 16.425 on vault were the two highest scores of the day. There were 24 competitors in the all around and Horton was 24th after scoring a 13.975 in his first event, vault. "I only had one place to go after that," Horton said.

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diane.pucin@latimes.com

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