Saturday, June 7, 2008

BOSTON (AP) - Shawn Johnson‘s music stopped, and a gleaming smile spread across her face.

One more title down, the biggest one still to go.

The reigning world champion took the first round in a rivalry with teammate Nastia Liukin that is sure to captivate all the way through the Beijing Olympics, winning her second straight title at the U.S. gymnastics championships on Saturday. Johnson finished with a score of 127.5, edging Liukin by a mere point.

Comeback kid Chellsie Memmel was third with another impressive performance. The 2005 world champion has missed most of the last two years after blowing out her right shoulder, but she’s showing everyone she wants a spot on that Olympic team. Bad. She finished second to Liukin on uneven bars, and was fourth on both floor exercise and balance beam.

Samantha Peszek, a member of last year’s team that won the gold medal at the world championships, was fourth.

The top 12 and seven others chosen by the selection committee advanced to the Olympic trials, June 19-22 in Philadelphia. The top two at trials will earn spots in Beijing, with the remaining four members of the team and up to three alternates named after a July 20 selection camp at the Karolyi ranch.

Liukin and Johnson are completely different gymnasts, which is what makes watching them so entertaining. Johnson is power and precision while Liukin is grace and beauty. But both are very, very good, and many expect the Olympic title will go to one of them.

This is simply a warm-up.

The two were in the same group, and Johnson, who was first after preliminaries Thursday, took the early lead. They started on vault, where Johnson does one so difficult only a handful of other women in the world even try it. Her hands were way off to the side when she hit the vaulting table, and she had to take a big step to hold onto her landing.

But she did, and was on her way with a score of 16.

Next up were the uneven bars, where Liukin’s routine is so packed with difficulty it leaves her gasping as if she’d just run the 200 meters. And yet she performs it with such grace and beauty, it looks almost easy. She seems to be suspended in the air as she floats from the high bar to the low bar, and every move is done with precision: pointed toes, legs that are glued together.

But all that work takes a toll on her, and Liukin ran out of gas at the end, almost landing her dismount on the knees.

She still scored a 17.1, topping the record 17.05 she got in Thursday’s preliminaries. Those are the highest scores for an American man or woman, on any event since gymnastics went to its new, open-ended scoring system two years ago.

They finished up on floor, the perfect showcase for Johnson’s bubbly personality. She gets nosebleed-high on her tumbling passes, yet lands them so solidly she may as well be settling into quick-dry cement. She bounds around the floor with a smile on her face, looking not too different than the kid who used to stack her toys together so she could climb on them.

Even a technical glitch couldn’t throw her off. Johnson’s music started too early, but she simply shrugged off the hiccup and waited for it to start again.

“Anything can happen,” she said. “I cleared my mind and started over, and it was probably for the better.”

Johnson’s score of 16.2 put her too far ahead of Liukin. Still, the two-time U.S. champion put on a beautiful performance of her own. Tall and lithe, she looks more like a ballerina as she dances and twirls, yet she’s got the tough tricks, too.

Which means only one thing: Stay tuned.

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