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Liukin wins fans but has to settle for silver

Time Staff Writer

STUTTGART, Germany -- The largely German crowd gave Nastia Liukin the loudest ovation of the day Saturday at Hanns-Martin-Schleyer Halle. International Gymnastics Federation President Bruno Grandi kissed the U.S. gymnast on each cheek, a warm display of affection from the imperious Grandi.

Liukin won her eighth world championship medal on the second-to-last day of the 2007 World Gymnastics Championships, but it was only a silver and it came on her signature event, the uneven bars. Liukin, who will turn 18 in October, was beaten by 14-year-old Russian Ksenia Semenova, who is 4 feet 7 and 75 pounds, for the gold medal by 0.05 of a point.

As she was Friday night when she fell from the balance beam during all-around competition, Liukin was left brushing tears from her eyes.

“I’d have to say these championships have been mostly positive,” Liukin said, “and I still have beam to do.”

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But her tear-smudged mascara was evidence of her sadness. Her father and coach Valeri Liukin and team coordinator Martha Karolyi said they were displeased by the scores of an Australian judge who scored Liukin low both in team qualifying last Sunday and again Saturday.

In both cases the Australian judge gave Liukin an 8.8 execution mark when no other judge scored the American lower than 9.1 and some as high as 9.5. Saturday the Australian ranked Liukin seventh of the eight competitors, higher only than Vanessa Ferrari of Italy, who fell. No other judge had Liukin ranked lower than second.

“It’s cheating,” Valeri Liukin said, “and it’s been going on this whole competition.”

Karolyi said, “Something was wrong. Nastia is more technically precise than the Russian girl. Her lines are better.”

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The Chinese took home four medals Saturday, three golds and a bronze. Cheng Fei, 19, won her third consecutive world vault medal, Chen Yibing defended his rings gold medal and Xiao Qin won his third consecutive pommel horse gold. Brazil’s Diego Hypolito won the men’s floor exercise.

Alicia Sacramone of Winchester, Mass., won a vault bronze medal, bringing the U.S. women’s team total to four medals overall.

Liukin (on balance beam), Sacramone (on floor exercise) and new all-around champion Shawn Johnson (balance beam and floor exercise) each compete today. The U.S. men got two more fourth-place finishes Saturday (Guillermo Alvarez on floor exercise and Kevin Tan on rings), same as in the team finals and Jonathan Horton in all-around, but finished these world championships without a medal.

This has been a difficult year for Liukin. She injured her right ankle at the 2006 world championships in Denmark, and it wasn’t until two weeks before U.S. nationals last month that she felt able to fully train on floor exercise and vault.

Valeri has heard predictions that his daughter, who was too young for the 2004 Olympics, has already outgrown her ability to compete with the youngsters, including 15-year-old Johnson.

“Nastia proved she is an all-around gymnast here,” Valeri said after Liukin finished fifth overall despite having a fall off the balance beam and stepping out of bounds in floor exercise.

Liukin is 5-2. Her long arms and legs offered an elegant contrast to Semenova’s uneven bars routine. While Semenova grunted with her effort, Liukin made every release and twist seem natural.

Since the 2005 world championships in Melbourne, Liukin has won three gold and five silver medals, including the 2007 team gold and 2006 team silver. If she medals today on the balance beam, she will tie Shannon Miller for the most world championship medals by an American.

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But it is the Olympics where Liukin is aiming. Liukin admires Russian gymnast Svetlana Khorkina -- who won six medals over three Olympics Games, including gold twice on the uneven bars -- for both her accomplishments and longevity.

“I love gymnastics so much,” Liukin said. “I don’t want to just compete in one Olympics. I want to keep going to the gym every day. My time is still coming.”

diane.pucin@latimes.com


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