Johnson, Liukin Advance to Beijing

June 23, 2008 6:54:40 AM PDT
The confetti was blinding and the applause deafening, an entire arena's worth of celebration just for them. It was the moment of a lifetime for each of them, but Shawn Johnson and Nastia Liukin chose to share it together. With tears filling their eyes, the friendly rivals exchanged a heartfelt embrace and a simple message: They had done it.

They were officially on their way to the Beijing Olympics.

"We're such good friends and we've shared so many different experiences," Johnson said. "To finally know, as teammates, we're going to Beijing together and we're on the same path is a great feeling. Also overwhelming. Just tears of joy."

As expected, the world's two best gymnasts earned guaranteed spots on the U.S. team for the Beijing Games on Sunday night with a 1-2 finish at the Olympic trials - the same places they had at the national championships two weeks ago. Johnson finished the two-day competition with 127.65 points, while Liukin had 125.85.

"We told each other we couldn't believe it was already here. She looked at me and was like, 'We made it,"' Liukin said. "I don't think it's hit us yet. I think we'll wake up tomorrow and it will sink in a little bit."

Now the fight is on for the remaining four spots on the team, and it will be fierce. Four gymnasts and three alternates will be chosen July 20 after a selection camp at the Karolyi ranch. The training squad for that camp is Chellsie Memmel, Samanta Peszek, Jana Bieger, Chelsea Davis, Ivana Hong, Mattie Larson, Corrie Lothrop, Alicia Sacramone, Bridget Sloan and Shayla Worley.

Really, though, the battle is likely only for one spot. Sacramone is considered a lock, one of the world's best on vault and floor, and Karolyi said the team "would not be the same" without her. Peszek has been steadily strong all year, and Karolyi prizes consistency.

Then there's Memmel, the feel-good story of nationals and trials.

The world all-around champion in 2005, she was barely an afterthought a month ago after missing most of the past two years with a blown-out shoulder. But she finished third at both nationals and trials with performances that the rest of the world is sure to notice.

She even got a standing ovation from Karolyi when she closed the competition with a high-flying floor routine that had the entire arena rocking.

"Did I want to be named? Yeah, of course," said Memmel, who turns 20 on Monday. "I feel that I belong. I finished the last four competitions in the top three, so I hope they think of me as part of the team."

Johnson and Liukin are the best thing gymnastics has going - in the United States or anywhere in the world. Johnson is the reigning world champion, a bundle of power and personality that has people comparing her to Mary Lou Retton. Liukin puts the art in artistic gymnastics, a lithe blend of beauty and grace who has won seven medals - four of them gold - at the world championships since 2005.

That they would get the two automatic spots was a given. The question was who would finish on top, and how slim the margin between them would be.

The first rotation provided much of the answers. Liukin was starting on uneven bars and Johnson on vault, their signature events that give them monster scores.

Johnson does a vault so difficult only a few other women in the world even try it, and she landed it with only a small step. Her score of 15.9 was the second-highest of the night on that event.

Liukin has one of the toughest routines in the world, so ridiculously hard it leaves her gasping for breath. But there is no margin for error, and she got in trouble twice. She stayed on the bars, but she lost momentum and rhythm, and it cost her big in the execution mark.

Her score of 16.15 was second only to Memmel on bars, but it was well below what she normally gets. Liukin also had trouble on floor, bouncing out of bounds on her second-to-last tumbling pass.

"Starting out on bars and not doing well, knowing I could have gotten a point higher, that's a little bit upsetting," she said.

Johnson, meanwhile, never backed off the gas. She flipped and twirled on the 4-inch wide beam with such confidence she may as well be in a parking lot. She got so high on floor she could have cleaned off the Jumbotron, and her smile could be seen in the second deck of the arena.

Her score of 16.2 on floor tied the highest of the night - also by her, on beam - and sealed her trip to Beijing. She didn't score anything below a 15.35 in the two days of trials, and posted four scores above 16. The rest of the field managed a total of eight.

"It feels amazing to finally have it be reality," Johnson said. "To know I have a spot, to have earned it, to know it's actually real is 100 times greater."