One day last September, Nastia Liukin's father handed her a Post-it note. On it were a string of letters D, D, E, D, D, E, spelling out a cryptic code that the 18-year old Texan couldn't figure out at first.
What's this?, she asked her dad, who is also her gymnastics coach. It's your new bars routine, he replied.
This looks really hard, she said, when he explained how each skill, represented by a letter designating its difficulty (the higher letters in the alphabet being the hardest) would unfold. What's the start value?
It's 7.7, Valeri Liukin responded.
And that was enough for Nastia. A two time silver world medalist on the bars, Liukin wanted more than anything to regain the gold she previously had won in the event back in 2005. And a challenging bars program, with a 7.7 level of difficulty, would also help her in the all-around competition at the Beijing Games. "I knew at that moment that I was going to give it everything I had," she said Friday.
Good decision. Liukin's bars score of 16.650 earned her enough points to slide past teammate and world champion Shawn Johnson for the women's all-around gymnastics gold. The one-two finish is a first for the U.S. in the event, and marks the first time that the U.S. has defended the title after Carly Patterson won the gold in 2004.
Liukin, who broke her foot and required surgery in 2006, has been nursing the injury ever since, and hasn't been able to compete in all four events of this competition until this year. But as soon as she planted her feet on a perfect landing off the vault Friday, Liukin made it abundantly clear she was recovered, recharged, and ready to win her first all-around title. "I know I had so many doubters over the last few years with my injuries and people thinking that I was older than the other girls, but I proved everyone wrong when I came out here, and I feel stronger than ever," the 18-year old said after the U.S. team won the silver on Wednesday. She punctuated three of her four events two days later with a solid landing, building up to a lyrical program on the floor.
And she needed every one of those landings to stay ahead of Johnson. The gold-silver finish is one that the two girls had talked about, since they find themselves in the unusual position of not only being chief rivals for the most coveted crown in gymnastics, but also friends and, at this Games, roommates. Two teenagers, two competitors, one bathroom. Sounds scary, doesn't it?
But Liukin, from Parker, Tex., and Johnson, who grew up in West Des Moines Iowa, claim they have truly become firm friends in the run-up to Beijing and feel no nasty urge to sabotage the other's toothpaste. They finished first and second in every competition they entered together in 2008, usually with Johnson coming out on top. When Johnson's gym was damaged in the floods through the Midwest just weeks before the Olympic trials, Liukin text messaged Johnson offering to help. "She is one of my best friends, and we just want the best for each other," said Johnson after the all-around. "I couldn't be any more proud of Nastia; she deserved the gold today."
As she and her father had hoped, it was Liukin's score on the high bars that ultimately set her apart. Her 7.7 level of difficulty which only two of the Chinese gymnasts in the entire meet could match put her too far ahead for Johnson to catch up. "When I saw her score come up, I knew I couldn't [beat it]," Johnson said, her voice shaking with emotion.
The competition highlighted the two girls' contrasting gymnastics styles. Liukin, a willowy 5'3", resembles the gymnasts of the Nadia Comaneci era, when girls in the sport were long and lean and looked more like dancers than tight end defenders. Since the 1980s, however, thanks in part to the growing number of injuries and the more challenging skills the gymnasts are trying on the mats, the sturdier bodies, like Johnson's, at 4'9", have been claiming more titles think Mary Lou Retton, Kerri Strug, Shannon Miller, and 2004 Olympic all-around champion Patterson. These are powerful athletes who don't look as if they would snap with a wrong turn around the uneven bars. "Traditionally, the long and lean gymnasts have lost out to the more solid ones," says Bart Conner, 1984 Olympic gold medalist. "Because the leaner gymnasts don't have the stability to stick the landings. But that didn't happen this time."
Indeed, for all of Johnson's remarkable consistency and skill, gymnastics experts and perhaps judges too tend to favor the more artistic athletes among their ranks than the athletic ones. The legendary Comaneci, watching from the stands at the National Indoor Stadium, said "In order to get very high start values, they don't do any artistic moves, especially on the floor exercise. It's almost like you should do only six tumbling passes and finish." Liukin, however, is a gymnast with a balletic aesthetic, and one who can bring back the 'artistic' to artistic gymnastics, its official Olympic name. Her precise arm movements, impossibly pointed feet and gracefully arching back, are just what the judges love to see. But given that this is the first Olympics under the new gymnastics scoring system, it's hard to tell which type of gymnastics will prevail in coming years.
But for now, Liukin can rest assured that her gold medal was fully deserved, after a flawless competition and against an equally aggressive rival. But as meaningful as the medal is for Liukin, it might be an even sweeter victory for her father. Twenty years ago, in another heated battle between teammates, Valeri Liukin, competing for Russia, lost the 1988 men's all-around Olympic title in Seoul to Vladimir Artyomov. "She fixed my mistake," said her father. "I was second, half a tenth behind Vladimir, and she fixed that. I am very proud," he said, too emotional to continue. Liukin senior might have ended up lost for words Friday, but his daughter's gold was the perfect ending.