Nastia Liukin joined today the ranks of Mary Lou Retton and Carly Patterson when she won the Olympic gold medal for Women’s Individual All-Around Gymnastics. The 18-year-old Moscow-born Texan stood slightly taller than teammate Shawn Johnson and China’s Yang Yilin when she accepted the first gold medal awarded to the United States for gymnastics at Beijing. Both the American men and women had achieved only silver until tonight.
Liukin and Johnson secured the first Olympic gold-silver finish for the United States. The girls were favored to place tonight, although the Chinese performance in the team competitions demonstrated the Americans would not win easily.
The individual started out shakily for both Americans. After unextraordinary performances on vault, both Liukin and Johnson appeared to be underscored on uneven bars when compared to their Chinese competitors. An excellent routine on balance beam, which pulled the highest score for the night, put Liukin on top, but Yang Yilin still enjoyed a position from which she could steal gold. In addition, Russians Anna Pavlova and Ksenia Semenova looked as though they could fight their way onto the podium. All depended on the floor routine, for which Johnson would perform last with Liukin going immediately before her.
On floor, Liukin and Johnson offered two of those rare moments in sports when an athlete brings everything they have at the last minute and receives the results they so desired and deserve. Both gave stellar performances, and while the ballerina-like Liukin, complete with pink leotard, secured her gold, the spunky and strong Johnson inched past Yang to grab the silver.
Béla Károlyi, famous for coaching some of the most successful and reknowned gymnasts of all time, compared the two champions to two of his former students. He said Liukin, elegant and fluid, resembles Nadia Comaneci, the Romanian 14-year-old who received the first perfect score in Olympic gymnastics history. Johnson, he said, reflects the power and consistency of Mary Lou Retton, the first American to win an individual gold medal.
To see Liukin and Johnson alongside each other on the Olympic podiums was a truly heartwarming experience. History-making and great routines aside, their faces showed what the world knew they were feeling: pride, relief, gratitude and joy. These were two girls who went into today’s competition knowing they had just suffered defeat to the Olympic hosts, who had to remember the many faults and errors the American team made only a few days earlier, and who still excelled in their sport.