Russian elite and America’s girl next door power US gymnastics
Shawn johnson and Nastia Liukin lead the US women’s team against China’s Tuesday night (Wednesday morning Beijing time).
Nastia Liukin looks for all the world as if she is in the wrong uniform.Skip to next paragraph
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She is the Russian-born gymnast of Russian gymnasts, and heir to the mantle of the Eastern European style that embodies grace in every impeccably pointed toe.
But today, she and Johnson – athletic opposites and possibly the best two female gymnasts in the world – are Olympic roommates and will lead the United States women into America’s first clear medal clash with host China.
The gold medal for Wednesday’s team event (which airs Tuesday night in the United States) appears almost certain to be headed to one of the two countries, with America shading China for gold at last year’s World Championships. Last-minute injuries to Chellsie Memmel and Samantha Peszek here in Beijing have shaken the US team, but it still came through Sunday’s qualification round ranked No. 2 behind China.
The scoring system in the finals, in which only three girls compete on each apparatus, could help the US. Since Johnson and Liukin are superior all-around gymnasts – each excels on three of the four apparatuses – the need for strength in depth is less than for other teams.
Yet for Johnson and Liukin, the paths that led to a shared bedroom in Beijing began in dramatically different worlds.
Liukin is practically gymnastic royalty. Her father is Valeri Liukin, winner of four medals in the 1988 Seoul Games, and her mother is Anna Kotchneva, a world champion rhythmic gymnast – both from Russia. They moved to Dallas when Nastia was 2, and 10 years later, Valeri was calling national-team coach Martha Karolyi. Nastia says, embarrassed: “He was like, ‘Can I bring my daughter’ ” to training camp?
Valeri could be forgiven for thinking he knows something about becoming an elite gymnast. Though he enjoyed far more success than someone like American Alexander Artemev, US men’s coach Kevin Mazeika compares the two as among the most innovative gymnasts of their generations.
“Some of the stuff [Valeri] did on high bar was just amazing,” says Mazeika.
In Nastia’s uneven bars routine, in particular, it is evident that she is her father’s daughter. It is tied for the highest degree of difficulty of any routine in the world, linking together changing handholds and releases in a thread of breathtaking technical artistry. On her floor routine, too, one of her passes involves a combination of flips and twists that no other competitor can do, Valeri says.