Balance beam gold is ninth for Liukin; ties Miller's U.S. worlds record

Updated: September 9, 2007, 3:31 PM ET
Associated Press

STUTTGART, Germany -- Nastia Liukin and Shawn Johnson each bring a distinct brand of brilliance to the U.S. gymnastics team: One's a tightrope-walking ballerina, the other a high-flying acrobat.

Anastasia Liukin
OLIVER LANG/AFP/Getty ImagesNastia Liukin hugs her coach, and dad, Valeri after her performance on the balance beam.

And now, you can call them both reigning world champions.

Johnson practically jumped out of the gym to add a gold on floor to her all-around title at the world championships Sunday, while Liukin steadied herself on the beam to take her first individual gold of the meet and make up for her disappointing fall in the all-around.

"I'm still a world champion," Liukin said. "Yeah, it's not as big or prestigious as the all-around, but a world champion is a world champion and I'll never lose that title."

This medal, along with her somewhat disappointing silver on bars and the U.S. team's gold, give Liukin nine medals to tie her with Shannon Miller as the most decorated American gymnast in the history of world championships.

It's a mark Johnson might move in on if the 15-year-old from Iowa sticks around long enough.

But first, it's the Beijing Olympics, where Martha Karolyi's gymnasts will go in as the ones to beat.

They won seven medals this week in Germany, including Alicia Sacramone's silver on the floor exercise after a small skid on a landing cost her in the microscopic 0.025-point loss to Johnson.

Sacramone, the 2005 champion on floor who was denied a chance to defend last year because of a judging technicality, was fighting back tears long after the event had ended.

"I mean, it's equally hard if it's your teammate or someone from another country," she said of losing to Johnson.

Johnson didn't make any mistakes, and was her usual, beaming self -- the smile most noticeable each time she landed squarely after yet another insane tumbling pass. She's only 4-foot-8, but you'd swear she could dunk.

She was motivated by her earlier performance on beam, where she fell twice to finish last.

"Floor was my last event and I wanted to go out as happy as I came in," Johnson said. "I knew if I left myself with that beam routine, I wouldn't have been as happy with myself. Ending on floor and getting the gold was just amazing, and it got things back to normal."

Other winners Sunday were Blanik Leszek of Poland on vault, Kim Dae-Eun of Korea and Mitja Petkovsek of Slovenia, who tied in parallel bars, and home-country hero Fabian Hambuechen, who closed the meet on high bar and received the usual rock-star treatment when his winning score popped up.

The biggest surprise of the closing day was that China couldn't keep its gold-medal rush going. After winning three Saturday, the Chinese came away with only Li Shanshan's silver on balance beam Sunday. All-around champ Yang Wei botched his first move on parallel bars, ending his chance of winning a second straight gold on that event. Cheng Fei scooted out of bounds on floor to lose her shot at repeating there.

"This is a competition," Yang said. "Sometimes you win, sometimes you lose. Very cruel."

It seemed cruel, as well, for Liukin, who came up short in her second straight uneven bars final Saturday, losing by 0.05 to Russia's Ksenia Semenova and leaving both Karolyi and Liukin's father, Valeri, questioning the result.

That setback came a day after Liukin led the all-around halfway through, but dropped out of contention with a fall from the beam at the end of her most difficult skill -- a handspring immediately followed by two backflips. She finished fifth.

She also botched her beam dismount in team finals -- a mistake the Americans overcame on their way to the gold.

So, in a way, winning on beam was the perfect way for her to close things out. She added this gold to those she won in beam and bars in 2005.

"I wanted to prove that those two little things were just flukes and not me being a bad beam worker," Liukin said. "I wanted to go out there and show I can make a good beam routine and be on top of the world."

She was, and so was her mother, Anna, who temporarily halted her boycott of arenas where her daughter competes.

"It puts too much pressure on me, as a mom," she said. "Kind of makes my stomach turn."

But when Nastia exchanged text messages earlier in the day with her mom, her heart leapt.

"I was like, 'I love you and we're going over,'" Liukin said. "And she was like, 'OK, I'll see you there.' And I was like, 'Oh! She's coming.'"

Meanwhile, Johnson's parents have been in the stands all week, getting used to the idea of having the world's best gymnast in the household.

In her first real go-round with worldwide stardom, Johnson has come through. The whirlwind following her win in the all-around has been intense, filled with receptions, presentations, ceremonies … and not a lot of sleep.

It made the effort Sunday that much more impressive, as did the fact that she persevered in arguably the most star-studded of all the event finals -- with Cheng, Vanessa Ferrari, Britain's Beth Tweddle and Sacramone all in the field.

And while Johnson's victory was something to celebrate, it did make for something of an uncomfortable moment for it to come in such a tight contest against her teammate. Sacramone was brilliant, as usual -- shaking her hips, tossing her shoulders, nailing the landings.

The difference was that little skid after her second tumbling pass, one she tried unsuccessfully to cover up.

"My feet were just a little bit too sweaty, I think. I don't know," Sacramone said. "Everybody makes mistakes."

After receiving her third gold of the week, further cementing her status as The One to Watch in Beijing, Johnson handled the awkward situation in typical fashion -- like a champion.

"Alicia worked so hard, she deserves everything," Johnson said. "She deserves the gold just as much. I thought her routine was priceless, couldn't be replaced. It deserved the same amount I got."

Copyright 2007 by The Associated Press