It's the gymnastics version of the Williams sisters. Johnson and Liukin, who qualified for the all-around by putting up the highest and second-highest point totals in the preliminaries, have been pushing each other to improve ever since Johnson became a senior in 2007. But in the end if one doesn't win, she'll be hoping to finish second to the other. The goal for both Johnson and Liukin is to see red, white and blue finish 1-2.
But medals aren't won by the book, and if either of the two American stars falters on Friday there is a pair of Chinese gymnasts, Jiang Yuyuan and Yang Yilin, ready to step in to claim the mantle of best female gymnast in the world. Here's the way I see the competition unfolding:
The four favorites will all start on vault, which is one of Johnson's strongest events and Liukin's weakest. Johnson, whose vault is the most difficult of the four, should take the lead here. China's Jiang fell on her vault in the preliminaries, but if she lands it cleanly on Friday, she'll be right with the two Americans until the end. Liukin will be happy with any score greater than 15.00.
That's because her best event, the uneven bars, is next, which also happens to be Johnson's worst. Liukin, who fell on her dismount in the preliminaries (if she hadn't, she'd have finished ahead of Johnson), has a 7.7 start value in bars, and she'll be looking to duplicate the 16.90 she put up in the team finals. The best Johnson can hope for, because of her lower start value, is a 15.50. Yang, too, has a 7.7 start value, and if both she and Liukin hit their bar routines, look for those two to lead the parade after two rotations, with Johnson and Yuyuan in third and/or fourth. It's also possible the Russia's Ksenia Semenova will be in the mix at this point, but it's highly improbable she'll be there at the end of the day.
The third rotation is the beam. The nerves will be at their tightest here, and in this regard Johnson has the edge: She's simply the most consistent gymnast in the world and her beam routines in Beijing have been solid as the Great Wall. (How's this for consistent: Johnson scored a total of 62.725 points in the preliminaries, and 62.625 points in the team finals. Both totals were the highest by any gymnast in the competition.) Liukin, however, has shown no sign of nerves since falling on her bars dismount on Sunday, and if she can match the performance on beam she had in the team finals, when she scored 15.975, she could go into the final rotation with the lead.
And the final rotation will be the floor exercise. The last two competitors up? Liukin, then Johnson. It will be magnificent theater, but don't fret. Their friendship will survive whoever wins, and both will be rooting for the other to perform well. Hopefully by this time the two Americans will be standing first and second in the standings. That will reduce the pressure on both. Johnson's the world champion in this event, but she hasn't nailed it since coming to Beijing. Both she and Liukin stepped out of bounds in the floor exercise during the team finals, costing them points they cannot afford to give away in the all-around. "The problem is our team loves to tumble really hard, we love to fly," says Johnson, "and honestly we have trouble staying in bounds."
She and Liukin better find a way to do so Friday, because the raucous pro-Chinese crowd in the National Indoor Stadium will be raising the roof in support of Yang and Jiang, and the judges will be looking for any excuse to send the crowd home happy.
Bet on Johnson and Liukin to deny them that pleasure. Which one will grab gold?
No predictions here. I can't wait to see.