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Going separate ways

August 21, 2008|Diane Pucin | Times Staff Writer

BEIJING -- This is the difference between being the women's gymnastics all-around gold medalist and the balance beam gold medalist:

All-around winner Nastia Liukin held a small post-Olympics news conference at a palace in a garden. Balance beam winner Shawn Johnson did hers in Interview Room No. 4 at the main press center and shared that room with men's high bar silver medalist Jonathan Horton.

Liukin, 18, of Parker, Texas, leaves these Olympics with five medals -- a gold, three silvers and a bronze -- and with the feeling she will be back competing at least for the 2009 world championships.

She is going home today, and a welcoming party is being scheduled for her at the Dallas airport. She will be on the Jay Leno show next week and has begun participating in several new ad campaigns. Her image is on Visa ATM machines in the athletes' village, and she is talking about competing in the 2009 world championships and adding to her total of nine world medals.

Johnson, 16, of West Des Moines, Iowa, leaves with four medals -- a gold and three silvers -- and a road map of her future that may not necessarily include competitive gymnastics.

She is planning some shopping, a trip to the Great Wall and a march in the closing ceremony. She will probably take this semester off from high school, the first of her junior year, so she can participate in a planned gymnastics tour. But after that she seems lukewarm about competing.

"It's hard to think about four more years," Johnson said. "After not winning the all-around, it hit me pretty hard, not that I got the silver, but just all my emotions came out. I was training to win gold. I'm just proud of myself that I kept my head up."

And maybe, in light of all the discussions about the inclusion of possibly underage Chinese gymnasts, Bruno Grandi, president of the international gymnastics federation, had a purpose in stressing his desire to see the sport's artistic side given as much weight as the technical side.

Grandi gave his speech the day before the women's competition started, and those words sounded a little hollow when he also was adamant that his federation had no willingness to investigate well-sourced allegations that three of the Chinese female gymnasts do not meet the requirement that an Olympic competitor turn 16 during the year of the Games. But he said he was worried about whether his sport had turned too far in the direction of acrobatics. "I fear the sport is moving too far away from its good balance," Grandi said.

After powering through a rookie season in 2007 that included winning every all-around competition she entered and after beating Liukin during the four rounds of trials competitions that helped pick the U.S. women's team, Johnson lost the medal she most wanted -- Olympic all-around gold -- to Liukin.

Liukin is 5 feet 3 and 99 pounds, and finished with a growth spurt that added about 4 inches in a year. Johnson is 4 feet 9 and 90 pounds, and may still be growing. Those growth spurts can be hard to deal with. Liukin's father and coach, Valeri, said when his daughter sprouted two years ago, she began hitting the floor with her legs on spin moves around the uneven bars.

Johnson's powerful tumbling was the signature of her silver-medal floor exercise routine and gold-medal balance beam performance. Liukin's lithe daintiness and the dance training she received from her mother, Anna, a former Russian rhythmic gymnast, were the hallmarks of her uneven bars work, her silver-medal performance on the balance beam and her sweeping floor exercise work.

After the team qualifying competition, Johnson's coach, Liang Chow, wondered whether Johnson had been underscored on some routines and said the same thing after the team medal competition.

"I'm not sure where all of the deductions came from," Chow said. It wasn't a complaint as much as consternation. It seemed the same routines that won Johnson three gold medals at last year's world championships were receiving scores a little bit lower.

Valeri Liukin said one reason his daughter may stick around at least for another world championship cycle is that the sport's code of points will become more favorable to Nastia's style.

After each Olympics, the international federation officials reevaluate how they want to score routines.

Since Athens, when the so-called perfect 10 formula was dropped in favor of a system that gives a pair of scores based first on degree of difficulty and then execution, there has been the feeling among some coaches and gymnasts that high-risk tricks would replace the element of elegance.

Valeri Liukin said Wednesday that he understood the new code of points would require fewer athletic tricks and allow more room for connecting moves. Was that a reaction to the tiny tots from China who led their team to the gold medal? Liukin said he didn't know, but whatever the reason, his daughter seems still to be in the medal-winning business.

Johnson just wants to go on tour and have fun.


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