US Gymnasts Finish Off in Style

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Rob Carr / AP

Shawn Johnson reacts after the balance beam apparatus finals

Coming into Beijing, Shawn Johnson had something to prove. As the reigning world all-around champion, she should have been on top of the gymnastics world. But remarks made after the world competition in Stuttgart from international judges and coaches about the American style of gymnastics bothered her. "We got comments that we are not the beam team, that we are not that strong on beam," said Johnson days after these Games began. "So we really wanted to work on that. We are the beam team now, and we want to show the world we can claim that title."

Rest assured, Shawn. After winning the gold in the balance beam finals on the last day of gymnastics competition Tuesday, you can now call yourself the beam queen. Edging out teammate — and newly crowned Olympic all-around champion — Nastia Liukin by 0.2 points, Johnson now has her first ever gold at a Games. "To finish off on the very last routine of my Olympic experience with a gold medal around my neck is the perfect ending to the story."

The fairy tale, however, has had its ups and downs in Beijing. The most consistent performer on the mats all week, Johnson had only three silver medals to show for all her efforts. After her second place finish to Liukin, Johnson's emotions came flooding out, and as positive as her words were about the experience, her voice and face told a different story. "It's been a really long road," she said after the all-around competition on August 15. "To finally be here at the end, all the emotions are coming to us and we don't know how to handle them. This road has been so hard, and I have overcome so much, it feels great to be here."

Having the perspective of a few days, however, helped the Iowa native appreciate that she hadn't lost anything but rather had won an impressive collection of hardware for a first-time Olympian. "I go by the fact that everything happens for a reason," she said. "I was meant to have the silver [in the all-around]. At first, it upset me a little, but I thought about it, and just to have a medal around my neck meant the world to me."

And the entire U.S. gymnastics team can feel the same way. Between the men's and women's squads, American gymnasts earned 10 medals, four fewer than the medal-topping Chinese and one better than the 2004 American squad. But the U.S. team was plagued by injuries from the start, losing Paul and Morgan Hamm on the men's side, and competing with two injured athletes on the women's side. Chellsie Memmel, who limited her competition to the uneven bars after hurting her ankle, revealed after the team event that she had been competing — and landing — on a broken bone. "Right after I got the X-ray, I got the diagnosis and had a little breakdown," she told TIME. "And the reason was that I didn't want to be asked off the team. We talked to our doctor, and got the opinions of others, and I didn't think I would make it worse by competing, because the bone was still in alignment."

Memmel landed — solidly — off the high bars, contributing 15.725 to the U.S. women's total during the team competition. "I won't lie, it hurts a lot," said Memmel. "But I was confident that I could do it, and that it wouldn't get injured more."

Teammate Samantha Peszek, who turned her ankle in the warmup just before the team competition began, had less time to process her injury and how it would impact her Olympic experience. Peszek was first up on the vault, but had to sit out all events but the uneven bars. "My adrenalin was pumping, and I wasn't actually thinking about the pain," said Peszek. "They gave me some medicine and surprisingly, it didn't hurt. It was more emotional for me, because it was my dream to compete in the Olympics. No one ever goes through making it on the team and thinking this is my future. That's what was upsetting to me."

All of those performances were even more remarkable considering that Memmel, Peszek and the rest of the men's and women's teams are all first-time Olympians — and experience in the Games, especially against a home-town crowd, can go a long way. "We are very very satisfied," said U.S. Women's national team coordinator Martha Karolyi on the final day of competition. "It shows if you systematically work very consistently during the whole quadrennium, the results will come."

They certainly did for Johnson, who is coached by Liang Qiao, or Chow, a former Chinese national team member who now lives in the U.S., and benefits from the best of both the precision of the Chinese and the power of the American gymnastic styles. "At this high level, It doesn't matter which country or which culture you are in," said Chow. "You have to train real hard to push the limit."

That mentality certainly helped the U.S. men, who entered Beijing as long shots for podium appearances but earned bronze in a tight team competition, and closed out the meet with a silver medal for Jonathan Horton on the high bars. And after all the build up surrounding the American and Chinese rivalry, on the mats, the gymnasts are still gymnasts and the coaches are still coaches, no matter what country they call home. When China's Cheng Fei came off the floor in tears after a fall in the event final, Chow just did what came naturally. He gave her a hug. "Everybody should perform their best because they are competitors," he said. "I just tried to give her some comfort, because she really felt bad about herself." And that, really, is what the Olympic experience is about.