Prized Friendship

With their historic one-two finish in the all-around competition, Nastia Liukin and Shawn Johnson had the best showing ever by a pair of U.S. women gymnasts—and remained pals while doing it
August 24, 2008

ONE GOLD medal,two roommates. That was the rub. Only one of them could go home as Olympicall-around champion, and Nastia Liukin, 18, and Shawn Johnson, 16, knew thatfrom the start. They'd been talking about it from the moment they were thefirst two gymnasts named to the U.S. women's team at the Olympic trials inJune. Someone had to win. The other, both hoped, would take home silver. Red,white and blue as one-two. The rest of the world could duke it out for thebronze.

The amazing thingwas that the duel lived up to the hype. Just as astonishing: Their friendshiplived up to the duel. It came down to the last twisting, tumbling pass in thelast event of the night, but wonder of wonders, their shared dream came true:gold-silver. Gold for the willowy Liukin. Silver for the acrobatic Johnson. Itwas the first time two American gymnasts had finished first and second in anOlympic all-around competition. At the end of an arduous, often tear-filledjourney, both medals came home to a single room.

They are an oddcouple. Liukin, whose full name is Anastasia, was born in Moscow, the daughterof gymnastics royalty. Her father, Valeri, was a great Soviet champion, winnerof two golds and two silvers in the 1988 Olympics, beaten for the all-aroundtitle by a teammate by one-tenth of a point. Her mother, Anna Kotchneva, was an'87 rhythmic gymnastics world champion. When Nastia was 2 1/2, the family movedto the U.S., eventually settling near Dallas, where Valeri cofounded the WorldOlympic Gymnastics Academy, now one of the top learning centers in the U.S. Itwas not her parents' intention that their only child follow them intocompetitive gymnastics—Valeri, the first man to do a triple backflip on thefloor, broke 16 bones during his career—but genetics is a powerful force, andNastia began doing tricks just by watching other kids. Blessed with herfather's tenacity and her mother's flexibility and grace, Nastia was on thegymnastics radar screen early, winning U.S. junior national titles in 2003 and'04, and senior titles in '05 and '06. Had she been old enough, she almostcertainly would have been named to the U.S. team for the '04 Olympics.

Johnson, bycontrast, came out of nowhere by way of West Des Moines, Iowa. Her parents,Doug and Teri, saw gymnastics as merely a diversion for their hyperactivedaughter. A new gym happened to open near their home, one that was run by aformer member of China's men's team, Liang Chow, but Chow had never coached anOlympic-caliber athlete. Destiny, Teri often said, seemed to be at work herebecause Chow had grown up in Beijing. In 2005, when Liukin was winning herfirst two gold medals at a world championship, Johnson was so far from thenational spotlight that Chow had to send a tape to U.S. women's teamcoordinator Marta Karolyi to get his 13-year-old prodigy an invite to thenational team training camp.

That's whereLiukin's and Johnson's paths first crossed, and where their trajectories beganto shift. During qualifying for the 2006 world championships, Liukin suffered aright ankle injury that required surgery to remove bone chips, limiting hertraining in vault and floor exercise through the '07 season. Many expertspredicted that her days as an all-arounder were over. They suggested sheconcentrate on her two best events, beam and uneven bars, which were easier onthe ankle. Johnson, meanwhile, went on to win the '07 all-around world titleand every other competition she entered. Except one. Liukin, finally healthy,beat her at the American Cup in New York City this past March. "The lastyear and a half have been very tough, but she's a tiger," says Valeri, whodoubles as Nastia's coach. "It wasn't easy to be second to Shawn."

Young upstartknocks injured champion off her perch. What chance did a friendship have toblossom? Yet instead of becoming bitter rivals, the two stars became friends.They pushed and supported each other. They shared the pressure of a nation'sexpectations. When Johnson's gym was flooded this summer shortly before theOlympic trials, Liukin invited her to move down to Texas to train with her. Andwhen it came time to choose roommates in the Olympic Village, Liukin andJohnson paired up. "We're pretty similar," says Johnson. "We're thetwo quietest. We're both neat. We like to read and go to bed early. We bothwrite in our journals at night."

They decoratedtheir room with good-luck cards and posters they'd made of inspirational quotesand pictures. Each drew up a calendar that she kept by her bed, meticulouslycrossing off the days. They ate together in the cafeteria, hung out with theU.S. cycling team and ogled Michael Phelps from afar, deciding not to botherhim with a picture request. (Nastia did get a photo of herself with DirkNowitzki, star of her hometown Dallas Mavericks.) Quietly, they were having aball.

When thecompetition began, they stood up to the weighty expectations that had beenplaced on them. Johnson and Liukin were the top two scorers of the entire fieldin the preliminaries, the consistent Johnson finishing first because Liukinfell on the dismount from her bars routine. But Liukin qualified for threeindividual apparatus finals to two for Johnson, and despite her one fall, itwas clear Liukin was in top form. Her face, often taut with nerves during acompetition, was calm and confident. This, she seemed to sense, was hertime.

EVEN AFTER theU.S. team, undone by two uncharacteristic falls by team captain AliciaSacramone, was beaten on Aug. 13 by a Chinese team that many suspected hadseveral underage gymnasts (the visual evidence alone raised doubts), Liukin wasan island of calm. "China had fewer mistakes than we did; it was their dayto shine," she said, refusing to be drawn into the controversy. "Thisis my first Olympic medal, and I'm really happy. I had fun out there."Asked about her and Johnson's prospects in the upcoming all-around event,Liukin smiled: "We went one-two in the preliminaries, so we're hoping forone-two either way."

Thursday nightbefore turning out the lights they looked at their calendars. "Can youbelieve this?" Liukin asked.

"I know,"responded Johnson.

Written in thenext box to be x-ed out was ALL-AROUND FINALS.

After months,even years, of anticipation, the actual competition the next day seemed to fly.Their rotation, based on seedings from the preliminary round, included Liukin,Johnson and their two young Chinese rivals, Yang Yilin and Jiang Yuyuan. Thefirst apparatus was Johnson's best event, the vault. As expected, she took thelead, but a small step on her landing kept the others in touch. Yang trailed by.70, Liukin by .85.

The next rotationwas the uneven bars, in which Johnson's start value (the difficulty of herroutine) was just 6.3 compared with 7.7 for Liukin and Yang. Later, Liukinrecalled the practice when her father came to the gym with a sticky note onwhich he'd written a hodgepodge of letters—B, D, C, D, E—each referring to adifferent move on the bars. "What's that?" Nastia asked.

"It's yournew bars routine," Valeri replied. "It has a 7.7 start value."

Nastia studiedthe letters, imagining the moves. "It looks really hard," she said."But it'd be really cool if I can do it."

She could do it,all right, and that 1.4-point gap in start value on bars proved to be more thanher roommate would be able to overcome. Johnson, Yang and Liukin all performedsolid bars routines, but Yang and Liukin, with their graceful changes in handpositions and difficult release moves, were awarded 16.725 and 16.650,respectively. Johnson, the only one of the three to stick her dismount,nevertheless earned 15.275, and fell back to fifth place going into the thirdrotation, the beam.

Johnson had beenreferring to the U.S. as the Beam Team ever since the preliminaries.Traditionally a strength of the Chinese, the beam had been the one event thatboth Liukin and Johnson had excelled at in Beijing, and they did so again inthe all-around. The long-limbed Liukin—appearing to get more and more confidentwith every rotation—was effortlessly stunning, scoring 16.125. Johnson,flipping and twisting across the beam as if she were romping on a sidewalk, gota 16.050. Theirs were the two top scores on the beam all night. Yang,meanwhile, had two wobbly moments and scored 15.75. The standings going intothe floor exercise were: Liukin, 47.80; Yang, 47.65; Johnson 47.20.

Any of the threecould have won. The pro-Chinese crowd of some 19,000 began chanting "Go!Go!" ("Jaahh-yo! Jaahh-yo!") in deafening unison, but floor isYang's weakest event, and she scored a tepid 15.00. Liukin and Johnson were thelast two competitors up. Liukin led off, and it was clear from the firstperfect tumbling pass that she wasn't going to let her lifelong dream slip fromher grasp. Secure, balletic, athletic and beautifully flexible, the 5'3"Liukin seemed the embodiment of the best things about her sport. When shebounded up from her last graceful pose and slapped hands with Johnson inencouragement on her way off the mat, everyone knew who had won.

IncludingJohnson. Trailing Liukin by .6 going into the floor exercise, Johnson realizedwhen the board flashed her roommate's score of 15.525—highest of the night onfloor—that there was no way to catch her. And knowing that freed her. Johnson,for the first time, totally relaxed. Never mind that the silver medal, theone-two finish, hung in the balance, requiring a near-perfect routine. "Itwasn't about placements anymore," she said. "It wasn't about beingOlympic champion. I'd felt pressure and nerves the whole meet, and at thatpoint it was just about the gymnastics. I just wanted to show everyone I leftit all out there and that I'd never give up, no matter what."

She did that. Sheflew. She twisted. She tumbled. And she had fun doing it, sticking everylanding with her trademark grin. And at the end of the fourth perfect pass,followed by appreciative applause, a thankful wave and a hug with Liukin, thescore came up: 15.525. Same as Liukin's. It was just enough to nudge Johnsonpast Yang for silver by a mere .075.

Yes, there was ameasure of disappointment. Johnson could not help but fight back tears as herfriend was adorned with the gold medal. But they were tears of happiness too.With steel wills, the two of them had accomplished what they'd set out to do.They'd proved that at this magic time in Beijing in 2008, they were the twobest gymnasts in the world.

And ever the bestof friends.

E.M. Swift weighsin on the latest gymnastics controversies and what the IOC must do to fix thesport, at SI.com/Olympics.

At the end of an arduous, often tear-filled journey,the gold and silver medals both came back to a SINGLE ROOM.

PHOTOPhotograph by Bob RosatoHELPING HAND Liukin won gold because of her tougher routine on the bars, but she encouraged Johnson (inset) all the way. PHOTOPhotograph by Bob Rosato[See caption above] PHOTOAL TIELEMANS (LIUKIN)FLOOR SHOW After Liukin (top) was near perfect on the mat, a beaten Johnson matched her to get silver. PHOTOPhotograph by Bob Rosato[See caption above] PHOTOPhotograph by Bob RosatoSWEET 16? The Chinese won the team competition despite doubts raised by their youthful appearance.

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)