Nastia Liukin was preparing for her first event, checking her gloves and focusing on the vault. Nastia was born in Moscow and brings Russian excellence to the US Gymnastics squad. Suddenly, she broke into the run towards the vault and burst off the board into a perfect jump sticking the landing with perfection. No step, no movement, just her hands reaching to the sky in victory.
Nastia’s father kissed her and she calmly returned to her backpack. Last year, Nastia missed nearly an entire year due to an ankle injury and could not have completed this vault all that time. Luck plays a huge part in the Olympics. It is once every four years, and you can be healthy and strong 3 out of 4 and if the fourth is the year of the Olympic games, you may never see a chance to participate again.
First score. 15.025.
Shawn’s turn on the vault. Shawn is stalkier and shorter than Nastia and has similar features to Mary Lou Rhetton. Strong legs, staunch body, and surprising strength. The vault was great, but a strong step forward on the landing may impact her score. Her left shoulder on the vault was not facing completely forward and her balance was off on the landing.
In the day of computers, all the judges have notebooks and examine every move repeatedly. There are cell phone conversations, consultations and considerable planning that goes into delivering the score, unlike so many years ago when the judges had to make their call based on purely what they saw during the actual exercise.
Shawn’s First Score: 15.875. Shawn looked angry at herself after the vault and was not happy with the score, but she was still .850 points ahead of Nastia on the way to the Uneven Parallel Bars.
Nothing could be “Nastia” for her opponents than Liukin on the uneven parallel bars. This is her event. The routine was difficult and sharp. She stepped big on the landing, but it shouldn’t hurt the score much given the incredible difficulty of the exercise. 16.650 on a difficulty of 7.700.
This is not Shawn’s strength, which is not to say she is not superb. She had some weaknesses on the hand stands but the dismount and landing stuck solid. No steps. The difficulty, however, was not comparable to Nastia’s. Score: 15.275 primarily because of a much lower difficulty rating of 6.3.
Nastia was now solidly in the lead after two events.
Shawn was first on the balance beam. Her flips across the beam were perfect. But a slight slip on a difficult reverse flip with a twist. The rest of the routine was beautiful and she had a nice dismount, but lost 1/10 on a step as she hit the mat. Score: 16.050.
Nastia raised the bar! She lifted herself up and performed several flips all landing without fault. Nastia needed a 15.975 to take the lead. Not a slip, not a bobble. And a dismount nailed, feet side by side, no step, no movement at all. Score: 16.125. Nastia still leads and beats Shawn on the beam!
The floor exercise would be the key, but with Nastia in the lead it would be hers to lose.
Nastia was in an ugly pink leotard, Shawn in the red of the team. We are not sure about the choice of color, but we are sure of the performance. Nastia was leading and the girl to beat for Gold.
Shawn was trailing Nastia by .600 at the floor exercise. Not impossible to overcome and Nastia had stepped out of bounds in her prior performance. So, perhaps, it could be that Shawn could come back. But with that lead, it was looking like the pink Nastia was the flower to bloom.
Nastia only needed a 14.75 to take the lead. She started perched to the side and made some of her signature ballet style moves. On her first set of flips and twists she nailed the landing just inside the line, not stepping out like in her prior performance. She then killed her next sequence and nailed the landing again. The entire audience was cheering, it sounded as though she had even won over the home crowd. More ballerina perfection and then a final move into a perfect hit and pose for the crowd. This was as perfect as we have seen in this Olympics on floor. Score: 15.525 and a solid lead!
This would be nearly impossible for Shawn. She put on her beautiful smile, but needed a 16.125 to take Gold. This was not possible, and Shawn knew it. Nastia already had the Gold, it was just a waiting game. Shawn’s start was incredible and one started to think about 16.125 not being all that impossible after all. She does not do the ballerina moves like Nastia and this artistic touch seems preferred by the judges. Shawn gets down to it, executing strong moves with little fluff. Another fantastic move, could this be happening, could she possibly deliver that Golden score? Her moves were powerful and clean. There were ooohs and ahhs from the audience and another incredible performance.
Could it be? Could the impossible Shawn overcome the Pink Nastia? She performed with all her heart and soul, but it would not be enough. Score: 15.525, an unexpectedly low score from a set of judges that have been particularly hard on Shawn in this competition. It would get her the Silver.
Nastia Liukin beat out Shawn Johnson of the US for the Gold, and Shawn gets another Silver! Shawn only lost by .600 of a point. Yan Yilin of China only lost by .675 and took the Bronze.
Nastia hugged her father, took her bow in Pink and Shawn and Nastia hugged. They posed for pics and Nastia went back and hugged her dad again. And then, as with most 16 year olds, sought out her cell phone.
US 1-2, and legitimate too!! Thank you for that wonderful performance.
Photo credits: Kazuhiro Nogi / Julian Finney / Getty images /NBC