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).

Hans Deryk/Reuters
Gymnastic royalty: Nastia Liukin was born in Moscow the year after her Russian father won four medals in Seoul. They moved to the US when she was 2.

Nastia Liukin looks for all the world as if she is in the wrong uniform.

While Shawn Johnson seems a Mary Lou Retton reborn, bursting with pace and power, Liukin glides, her long lines tracing filigree patterns through the air.

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.

“There were gorgeous gymnasts like [Russian Svetlana] Khorkina,” says Valeri. “She has the same body.”

Johnson, by contrast, is the image that Americans have come to expect in their female gymnasts: tiny, smiling, and with enough power to blow the roof off the gym. She is TNT in a leotard, her vaults and floor routines fizzing like an electric current.

In practices, while teammates wait for their turn to vault or work on the floor, Johnson runs in place or latches onto a pull-up bar fastened to the wall and pikes her feet over her head a half-dozen times.

At 16, she is the same girl she was at 3, when her parents took her to a Des Moines, Iowa, gym, because they didn’t know what else to do with her. “I had way too much energy,” Johnson says. “I would stack my toys and jump off of them.” Even today, she says, “I like being able to go to the gym and play and do crazy stuff.”

Which she does, with unearthly consistency. Were she not so obviously the girl-next-door that America seeks every four years, she might seem eerily efficient, her body lines always straight as a fireplace poker, her expression implacable.

What soon becomes apparent is that, behind the smiles, is an athlete of uncommon desire. It is unusual to see such focus in an athlete so young, even among gymnasts, who are almost all young. It is why she has won every elite-level all-around event she has entered, including last year’s World Championship, save one.

Her humility comes from her parents, who worry about the pressures on their daughter. But the drive is all her own. “Knowing that this hasn’t been for them [her parents] has made it harder,” she says. “You know you can stop at any time and your parents will still support you.”

“But this is what I wanted to do,” she says.

It is the engine of her gymnastics, in every vault. “She is the dynamic one,” says Bela Karolyi, husband of Martha and former coach of Olympic legends Nadia Comenici and Mary Lou Retton. “She is explosive, charming, and athletic.”

Liukin is the one who leaves the distinctly Russian impression that she has brought a paintbrush into the gymnasium. It is the echo of her parents, she agrees. “I want to achieve what they did, because I look up to them,” she says.

“The artistry she can create is just amazing,” says Bela. “That’s the beauty of this team, that we have two different styles competing.”

In the gym they might make a gymnastic odd couple, but out of the gym, they make perfect roommates, says team captain Alicia Sacramone. “They’ve decorated their room, they’ve got candles. It always smells nice.”

“We’ve always been good competitors and good friends,” Johnson adds. “We’re pushing each other to the top.”

During the preliminary round Sunday, both found ways to pick up a team shocked by the injury to Pezsek just minutes before the event began. After the first two girls on floor exercise stepped out of bounds, Liukin and Johnson delivered solid performances to steady the team. Then, inexplicably, both Liukin and Memmel fell on uneven bars, before the team delivered its best performance on the last rotation, on the beam.

Sacramone laughed: “I told Martha we never do anything the easy way. Martha said, ‘You do like drama.’ ”

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