- The Washington Times - Wednesday, August 20, 2008

BEIJING | Clear some more space in that pile of pretty Olympic medal boxes. Shawn Johnson and Nastia Liukin are bringing home more loot, including a gorgeous gold of Johnson’s very own.

Johnson beat her friend and teammate on the balance beam, the last women’s gymnastics event at the Beijing Games.

“I finished off the Olympic Games with, to me, the most perfect ending ever,” Johnson said, beaming as she tugged at the ribbon around her neck. “To finally get the gold medal … on my very last routine meant the world to me.”

Johnson already had three silvers, including one from the all-around, in which Liukin won gold. Together, the women have won eight medals. Throw in Jonathan Horton’s silver on the high bar Tuesday night, and the Americans are leaving Beijing with 10 medals. That’s the most they have won at a nonboycotted Olympics since 1932, when rope climbing and Indian clubs still got you medals.

“It just shows how strong we are,” said Liukin, who won five medals. “We went out there and showed we are the best. Going 1-2 in the all-around, that’s never been done by the United States. The Americans have never had 1-2 on beam before, either. And 2-3 on floor isn’t too bad.

“It’s definitely been a very successful Olympics for us.”

Johnson arrived in Beijing as gymnastics’ latest “it” girl, the reigning world champion who had lost only one event in the past two years. It wasn’t a question of if she would win gold but how many. Team? All-around? Balance beam? Floor?

But the Americans were beaten by the Chinese in the team final, and Johnson finished second to Liukin, her close friend and roommate in the Olympic village.

It looked as if she would finally win gold on floor, topping Liukin with a perky, powerful routine that would dazzle even the circus folks. But the last competitor of the night, Romania’s Sandra Izbasa, snatched the medal from Johnson, and the 16-year-old was left with another silver.

“It’s been a long battle,” said Liang Chow, Johnson’s coach. “She came in with the possibility of winning a few gold medals, and that hasn’t happened. We were running out of chances.”

There was, however, one left.

The balance beam is gymnastics’ version of a tightrope over Niagara Falls, a 4-inch-wide slab of foam and wood that’s four feet off the ground. Make a mistake and something bad is bound to happen. But beam is Johnson’s favorite event. She whips off back handsprings and aerial somersaults with ease and confidence. Every move looks effortless.

When she finished, a grin spread across her face, and she waved to the crowd. She and Chow slapped hands when she climbed off the podium, and Liukin’s father and coach, Valeri, clapped enthusiastically.

Johnson’s score was a 16.225, and she knew it was good enough for a medal.

Whether it would be gold would be determined by Liukin - again.

Liukin is the reigning world champion on beam, and her routine is gorgeous. She is long and lithe, giving an added touch of beauty to every move she does. Her leaps are done with a dancer’s grace, and one element flows seamlessly into the next. But she took a big hop on her landing, and the look on her face said she knew it was her turn to stand in her teammate’s shadow.

When Liukin’s score - 16.025 - popped up, Chow hugged Johnson. As Liukin embraced Johnson, Chow and Valeri Liukin slapped hands.

Johnson bounced up and down after the final results were posted, grinning and waving to the crowd. But she was overwhelmed when she heard her introduction as Olympic champion, biting her lip and fighting back tears.

“To finally have a gold and be an Olympic gold medalist, it’s what everyone dreams of,” Johnson said. “It’s so exciting. It’s the best feeling ever.”

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