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BEIJING 2008 : GYMNASTICS

Johnson finally mines her gold

August 20, 2008|Diane Pucin | Times Staff Writer

BEIJING -- Shawn Johnson had dark circles under her brown eyes and a headache, but when she jumped onto the balance beam Tuesday night she switched on her smile and defiantly pounded out a gold- medal routine.

It wasn't the gold Johnson wanted. She had come here as the favorite to win the all-around title, had hoped to lead the U.S. team to a gold medal, had hoped to defend her world championship on floor exercise and add to that a balance beam gold medal.

But through a succession of silvers -- team, all-around, floor -- Johnson, 16, of West Des Moines, Iowa, stuck out her chin, wiped away tears and insisted that silver was just as nice as gold. Tuesday night, finally, she said something else.

"This gold means more than anything to me," Johnson said. "Beam is my favorite event, and I've worked hardest on this for a long time. It's the perfect ending to my Olympic experience."

The United States finished 1-2, with Nastia Liukin getting the silver. China's Cheng Fei won the bronze.

Liukin, an 18-year-old from Parker, Texas, will go home as the American gymnastics star. Her balance beam silver was Liukin's fifth medal of the Olympics, tying her with Mary Lou Retton (1984) and Shannon Miller (1992) as having the most for a U.S. woman in a single Olympics. Liukin, who finished with one gold, three silver and one bronze, also ended a good-natured sparring match with her coach and father, Valeri, who won two golds and two silvers at the 1988 Olympics. "I'm the best now," Nastia said.

Johnson had been touted as the potential record-setter, and her accomplishment Tuesday left her subdued. As the national anthem played, Johnson put her hand over her heart and swallowed hard and didn't crack a smile or let go of a sob.

In the matter of two weeks here, through practices and qualifying, team competition and individual battles, it was as if the totality of her Olympic experience, the losses and the wins, turned Johnson from a bouncy high school sophomore into a contemplative adult.

"I wouldn't turn in one of my silver medals for a gold," Johnson said afterward. "They all mean something special. I learned from them all."

Her Beijing-born coach, Liang Chow, said Johnson did extra practice routines earlier Tuesday, and during a final warmup Johnson had two unusual stumbles. He also said that Johnson had brought a headache with her to the arena.

But when her turn came, sixth out of eight in the lineup but before Liukin, Johnson lit up the National Indoor Stadium. She fought hard twice for landings on tumbling passes and she took a small step on her landing, but Johnson's start value is higher than Liukin's and her score of 16.225 put her safely ahead of Cheng.

Liukin's elegant beam dance is slightly less difficult than Johnson's, so even though she moved lightly across the beam and also had only a single noticeable bobble, the winner was obvious.

When the scores were final and Johnson owned the gold, Bela Karolyi leaped to his feet and pumped his fist. He said Johnson's gold was a special show of perseverance. "She has gone through a lot, that little one," he said. His wife and U.S. team coordinator Martha Karolyi said she also was especially pleased for Johnson. "This showed how strong her personality is," Martha said.

USA Gymnastics President Steve Penny called Johnson's gold medal "a perfect 10" end to the competition and the one-two finish by the U.S. on the balance beam meant the U.S. women finished with eight overall medals to six for China.

Combined with the men's team bronze and Jonathan Horton's unexpected horizontal bar silver medal, the U.S. won 10 medals, one more than at the Athens Olympics.

Johnson made the balance beam shiver under her powerful tumbling. It was a defiant display, and when she was done, Johnson received congratulations not only from her coach, but also from the Chinese competitors, Cheng and Li Shanshan.

Because of Chow's Chinese heritage, Johnson said she has always felt close to China's gymnasts and said she also felt the support of the crowd Tuesday night.

Chow said his pupil's final Olympic performance was proof of a special toughness and talent he knew she had.

"We were almost out of chances," Chow said. "It has been a little bit of a hard time since last week. For the whole year she had the expectations and then she didn't feel perfect tonight. She had a headache. I told her, 'Shawn, wake up.' And then I think she got the nerves out."

While Liukin is heading for a special news conference at a fancy Beijing hotel today and to a special celebration back at the gym run by her father and maybe to another competitive cycle at least through the 2009 world championships, Johnson said she wasn't planning anything ahead.

"Just going home," she said.

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diane.pucin@latimes.com

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