U.S. gymnasts add to their medal count

Times Staff Writer

BEIJING -- Nastia Liukin is having so much fun at these Olympics she says she might stick around and compete again next year at the world championships.

Shawn Johnson isn’t looking beyond Tuesday’s balance beam final, her last chance to win a gold medal.

Johnson won the silver in Sunday night’s floor exercise competition, her third silver medal of the Olympics. It was a bittersweet finish for the defending world champion, who had to compete first of the eight finalists and then nervously watch and wait.

Liukin took the bronze, a triumph for the 18-year-old who has spent the last year trying to improve an event that had been a weakness.


Romania’s Sandra Izbasa won the gold. The last competitor of the night, she performed her routine without an obvious flaw, as even Johnson said, with every landing unwavering. Izbasa’s score of 15.650 edged Johnson’s 15.500 and bronze-medalist Liukin’s 15.425. The win earned Izbasa a call from Romania’s president.

Before Izbasa started to compete, former U.S. coach Bela Karolyi muttered, “Watch, Santa Claus is coming for Romania.” Izbasa’s routine was more difficult than expected, and the Romanian’s performance became a perky punctuation to a night that included both excitement and disappointment.

China’s most veteran female competitor, 20-year-old three-time defending world vault champion Cheng Fei, landed one of her attempts on her knees and settled for bronze. On her floor exercise, she had a fall that caused her to walk off the mat in tears.

Alicia Sacramone was also red-eyed. The 20-year-old finished fourth on the vault, which was won by North Korea’s Hong Un Jong.


Both Sacramone and her coach, Mihai Brestyan, questioned how Cheng finished third ahead of Sacramone despite the fall.

“Cheng didn’t land the last vault,” Brestyan said. “I think Alicia deserved the bronze.” Karolyi agreed: “Definitely,” and said, “Cheng should have gotten a bigger deduction.”

Liukin, however, was thrilled to win her third Olympic medal.

She now has gold (all-around), silver (team) and bronze. She wants two more so she can say she has more Olympic medals than her father and coach, Valeri, who has four. Liukin still has two events -- her signature uneven bars routine today, and the balance beam, where she is defending world champion, Tuesday.


“I’d like to beat my dad,” Liukin said.

Diego Hypolito, who was favored to become the first Brazilian man to win an Olympic medal with his flashy floor exercise routine, instead took a hard fall. He still seemed stunned 30 minutes later when he said, “I’m sorry. I’m sorry to all Brazilians.”

China won both men’s event finals, with Zou Kai taking the gold on floor exercise, Spain’s Gervasio Deferr getting the silver and Russia’s Anton Golotsutskov the bronze; and Xiao Qin getting the gold on pommel horse over Croatia’s Filip Ude and Britain’s Louis Smith. Alexander Artemev of the U.S. finished seventh after a fall.

Johnson, 16, seemed poised to get her first gold medal after she raced through her floor exercise, fighting through one slightly off-balance landing. Her score held up as Russia’s Ekaterina Kramarenko had a fall, China’s Jiang Yuyuan had a balance bobble, and Brazil’s Daiane Santos went out of bounds. When Liukin, the seventh gymnast up, scored just behind Johnson, it seemed the U.S. would have both gold and silver.


But Izbasa wasn’t rattled by the pressure, and Johnson put on a bright smile when the Romanian’s score was posted.

Although Liukin was buoyant afterward, eagerly anticipating her battle with young Chinese stars of the uneven bars He Kexin and Jiang Yuyuan today, Johnson said she felt tired and glad to have a day off.

“It’s been draining,” Johnson said. “I’ve given everything I’ve got. I tried so hard tonight.”

Whereas Liukin chattered about possibly continuing to compete through at least the 2009 world championships in London, Johnson wouldn’t commit to anything beyond Tuesday’s balance beam competition.


“I just feel this has been a really long process,” Johnson said. “It will depend on my body.”

Liang Chow, Johnson’s coach, said he was pleased with her floor performance and thought she might have deserved the gold.

“I was very pleased,” he said. “I thought she showed more quality than anyone, that’s all I can tell you.”

From the normally reserved Chow, that’s trash talking the competition.