BEIJING -- Nastia Liukin danced as if she were in the ballet, lightly and elegantly across the floor mat, using her classical music as inspiration to float through her floor exercise.
There was no tension in her face, just exhilaration and a sweet lightness to her tumbling across the floor exercise mat.
For a minute, the chance to win an Olympic all-around gold medal was not a burden but an opportunity for Liukin to explore the depths of gymnastics, to offer both the elegance that comes with experience and power of an athlete.
After being an underdog to her American teammate Shawn Johnson, Liukin, 18, of Parker, Texas, won the all-around gold medal today over Johnson, 16, of West Des Moines, Iowa. The bronze went to China’s Yang Yilin. Liukin scored 63.325, Johnson 62.725 and Yang 62.650.
After two weeks of controversy about alleged under-age Chinese gymnasts, the all-around winner was a persevering 18-year-old who had to bite her nails at home during the 2004 Athens Olympics because she had barely missed the age cutoff -- turning 16 during the Olympic season.
And all this year Liukin finished second to Johnson through various rounds of U.S. team qualifying and was second again to Johnson during the Olympic qualifying round Sunday.
But her father and coach Valeri spoke confidently this week. His daughter’s floor routine had become more secure he said, adding, “She’s rounding into form.”
Valeri Liukin understands Olympic pressure. He competed at the 1988 Olympics, winning a silver medal in the all-around for the Soviet Union and a gold on the high bar.
So it was fitting that his daughter has become one of the best in the world on uneven bars, where her score today of 16.650 brought her close to the lead.
And it was on floor where Liukin clinched her gold. Competing second to last and holding the lead, Liukin was a sparkling star and even the Chinese crowd that had offered American competitors more muted praise during this meet gave her a loud ovation.
Johnson went last and pounded out her power-based routine. She didn’t make any mistakes and when Johnson finished, Liukin whispered in her ear, “Good job.”
But when Johnson’s floor exercise score of 15.525 was posted, the exact same score Liukin had received, Liukin’s mouth opened wide and she rushed to kiss her father.
“I wanted to go out and win this for my father,” Liukin said. “It’s just so cool that he was in the Olympics 20 years ago and I wanted to bring home the all-around medal he almost won.”
Said Valeri: “It’s not possible to describe how proud I am. It’s just an amazing feeling.”
A teary-eyed Johnson spoke with a quivering voice and tugged at her second Olympic silver medal (the U.S. team got silver).
“I tried my hardest,” Johnson said. “I’m so proud to be wearing this silver medal for the USA.”
Johnson said that when Liukin scored so well on floor exercise and that she needed to be over 16 to win, “I pretty much knew I didn’t have a chance.” Still, Johnson did her tumbling defiantly, hitting every element with a loud thud.
When she finished, Johnson hugged Liukin, pumped her fists toward her family and bowed her head. By the time her score came up, she was ready to smile instead of cry.
The three leaders had finished in a row on the floor.
Yang, the tiny 75-pounder from China whose age might be 14 or 15 or 16 depending on which documents you search for. Then Liukin and Johnson, whose gymnastics is founded on spunk and power and who has operated all year while smilingly accepting the burden of being favored.
With the crowd clapping to the beat of her music, Yang had a clumsy dance step but otherwise no nervous tumbles or major breaks. She scored a 15.000 on a routine without high difficulty, making it clear the gold and silver would come to the Americans in some order.
And then Liukin closed her eyes, sighed deeply and stepped onto the mat.
She had chosen a pink leotard, Liukin said, because it was her favorite color.
In the all-around at last year’s world championships, Liukin and Johnson (the winner) had worn matching red leotards. This time only Johnson wore red, but it was the pink that stood out.
This competition was a kaleidoscope of changing leaders and large momentum swings because each girl has different strengths and weaknesses. The top six qualifiers, including Johnson, Liukin, Yang and Jiang Yuyuan of China and two Russians, Anna Pavlova and Ksenia Semenova, all moved around the floor together.
And going into their fourth and final rotation all the medals were up for grabs.
Vault was the first apparatus for the lead group, a particular strength of Johnson and Jiang and more a weakness for Liukin and Yang.
Johnson and Jiang did the hardest vaults, each with a start value of 6.50 (the start value rates the difficulty, the higher the start value, harder the vault). Johnson took a step out of her landing and had a 15.875 but Jiang landed on her bottom and every part of her 4-foot-7, 71-pound body quivered as she tried not to cry. Jiang got a 14.825
So after the first rotation, Johnson was tops among the vaulters, the group with all the favorites.
But in individual qualifying, Johnson had scored 16.000 on her vault while Liukin had a 15.100. Liukin, who does a vault with a start value of 5.50, didn’t miss a thing today, landing without even a wobble to score 15.025. In the qualifying round Liukin had a 15.100.
Liukin was up first on uneven bars in the second rotation for the top qualifiers. It is the apparatus where Liukin is capable of picking up a point or more on Johnson.
Nearly all the top contenders picked up points on Johnson in the second rotation.
(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)
Women’s All-Around Competition
*--* Medal winners G: Nastia Liukin (United States) Score: 63.325 S: Shawn Johnson (United States) Score: 62.725 B: Yang Yilin (China) Score: 62.650 *--*