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World is at Johnson's feet after floor exercise gold

September 10, 2007|Diane Pucin | Times Staff Writer

STUTTGART, Germany -- It is a delicate balancing act that comes with being the new face of women's gymnastics. Shawn Johnson, only 15, made a command appearance Saturday night at a party sponsored by a watch company that was honoring Johnson as the most "elegant" performer at the 2007 World Gymnastics Championships.

And those championships weren't even finished.

A little late to arrive Sunday at the first of her two event finals, Johnson fell off the beam twice. Determined not to leave here on such an unhappy note, Johnson came back to power through her floor exercise routine and win her third gold medal of the week.

Nastia Liukin, 18, of Parker, Texas, put aside some disappointments of her own to win the balance beam gold medal, and college sophomore Alicia Sacramone, 20, of Winchester, Mass., was a teary-eyed silver medalist in floor exercise, suffering with the knowledge that one tiny stutter-step on her third tumbling pass kept her from beating Johnson.

German star Fabian Hambuechen, a 20-year-old with curly blond hair and a model girlfriend, brought down the house Sunday by winning the men's high bar gold medal even as his hands shook on every release move. The other gold medalists Sunday were Poland's 30-year-old Leszek Blanik on vault and Slovenia's Mitja Petkovsek and South Korea's Kim Dae Eun, who tied for first on parallel bars.

But it was the American women who owned this last major international championship before the 2008 Beijing Olympics. They won four of the six gold medals plus two silvers and a bronze. That total of seven and that collection of golds make this the most successful world championship performance ever for the U.S. women.

U.S. team coordinator Martha Karolyi got her dander up when she was asked what all the medals meant, since there has been chatter that team silver medalist China did not bring its strongest team.

"Maybe we have some good ones at home too," Karolyi said, noting that defending all-around silver medalist Jana Bieger and 2005 all-around world champion Chellsie Memmel were both hampered by injuries this year.

Liukin, whose father Valeri was a Russian gymnast and mother Anna was a Russian rhythmic gymnast, tied Shannon Miller's American record of nine world championship medals.

Up last on beam, Liukin watched as 15-year-old Li Shanshan of China fell while doing a relatively simple pirouette. Even with that mistake Shanshan's complicated routine was scored high enough to tie for the silver with Romania's Steliana Nistor (15.900). Liukin had a moment of uncertainty as she fought to stay upright after her first tumbling pass, but she only wavered and stayed on the beam to score a 16.025.

"To have nine world medals, I can't really believe it," said Liukin, who won the world beam title in 2005.

Sacramone, 20, had been passionately vocal about her wish to reclaim the floor exercise title she won in 2005, but it was Johnson who scored 15.250 to Sacramone's 15.225. Sacramone couldn't stop her tears, not during the awards ceremony and not in her interviews. "It's no secret I wanted to win," she said.

"Alicia worked so hard," Johnson said. "She deserves gold just as much. I thought her routine was priceless. It couldn't be replaced. It deserved the same amount I got."

Miller, who won all-around world titles in 1993 and 1994, said Johnson would have a challenging year now that she has marked herself as a potential Olympic star. "She'll have a lot of pressure," Miller said. "She has to make sure to just keep doing the hard work."

Johnson said she was eager to head home and planned to be in class Wednesday, when she will begin her sophomore year at Valley High in West Des Moines, Iowa.

She also happily accepted her new role as Olympic favorite. "It might put a little more pressure," Johnson said, "but I love it. Knowing I'll be the favorite, it makes me want to do even better."

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diane.pucin@latimes.com

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