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Gold slips from Johnson's grasp at last possible minute

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BEIJING -- It was another near miss for Shawn Johnson on Sunday, as she took home her third silver medal of the Games, this one in the floor exercise. Nastia Liukin, who became the all-around gold medalist two nights earlier, added a bronze in the floor to her growing collection, so she now has one medal of each color from these Games. Chances are there will be more to come.

Johnson, who was first up of the eight floor finalists, put together another terrific routine, filled with technical difficulty, with only one small step backwards on her second tumbling pass to prevent it from being flawless. Then she had to watch as the seven other competitors tried to beat her 15.50, an experience she called "the most nerve-racking of my life." One after another they failed to best her. Her roommate, Liukin, came up just short as the next-to-last gymnast despite performing a floor routine that both she and her father/coach Valeri called superior to the one that clinched her all-around gold medal on Friday. Yet she scored lower. The difference? The judging panel. Gymnastics judging is even more arbitrary than the judging in figure skating, and the athletes and coaches are left to scratch their heads and sort out the meaning.

"Nastia stuck all her landings today," Valeri said, "so today was actually better than her floor exercise in the all-around. But we're not in a position to complain. They're human beings. It's not like timing in swimming."

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So the last competitor standing between Johnson, who was the 2007 world champion in the floor, and her first gold medal was Romania's Sandra Izbasa, 18, the only competitor who had a higher start value in floor (6.5 vs. 6.4) than Johnson. And she'd scored higher than Johnson in the floor in both the preliminaries and the individual all-around finals. So when Izbasa stuck all her landings, Johnson feared she'd be bumped to silver again. "I wasn't that shocked," she said, after seeing Izbasa score had edged her by .15 of a point. "She had an amazing routine. She deserved it."

Johnson has one more crack at a gold in the balance beam event on Tuesday, and she allowed that she'd go after it with all she had. As for Liukin, she'll be a favorite in uneven bars Monday night, and is also a finalist in beam. Don't be surprised if she medals in both, so confident is Liukin at these Olympics. Even her father is amazed. "She looks like she grew a couple of years older in this competition," he says. "It scares me. She's very calm, and I like to keep it that way."

The whole Liukin family is still reveling in Nastia's all-around win. Her mother, Anna, who never watches Nastia compete ("She's chicken!" Valeri says), actually was inside the National Indoor Stadium to see her floor exercise tonight -- a first since coming to Beijing. As for her proud coach and Dad, who missed out on his all-around gold medal twenty years ago in Seoul by a tenth of a point, "Every morning I wake up with a humongous smile and pray it wasn't just a dream."

Turns out Nastia had such a dream the night before she won the all-around. It was so visual it seemed absolutely real. She was wearing the pink leotard she actually wore in the all-around competition, and her Dad was in the same white shirt that he wore that night. He was hugging her, telling her that she had won. Then Nastia woke up. She looked around, saw Johnson peacefully sleeping in the bed beside her, and realized that it had just been a dream. "Darn it!" she thought. "It's not true!"

Except she made it come true a few hours later, winning the coveted all-around crown for real. That's when you know it's your Olympics: Dream it, wake up, then go out and make it come true.