The pain of defeat in the team gymnastics was still fresh in the memory when Americans Nastia Liukin and Shawn Johnson embarked on their bids for all-around gold at the Olympic Games in Beijing.
A few days earlier the Americans had fallen just short at the Beijing National Indoor Stadium and China won the women’s team gold. The dominant host nation had also claimed the honours in the men’s team and all-around disciplines and it was down to the two Americans to salvage some pride in the women’s all-around.
Liukin had long been destined for gymnastics greatness. Her father and coach Valery had won golds in the team and horizontal bar at the Olympic Games in Seoul in 1988 and her mother was also an accomplished rhythmic gymnast.
Nastia grew up in a gym environment and she soon showed the promise of a top-class performer. A successful collegiate career would have put her in line for selection for the 2004 Olympics in Athens had she not been too young to meet the qualifying mark for selection.
By the time Beijing came around she was an accomplished gymnast on the sport’s grandest stages, having won a string of golds at the 2005 and 2007 world championships.
In the U.S Olympic trials early in 2008 Johnson got the better of Liukin but both booked their flights to China.
However the team disappointment must have rocked the confidence and there was significant doubt as to whether either gymnast could follow in the footsteps of other American greats like Mary Lou Retton.
As it turned out the competition developed into a battle between the two teenagers.
Johnson got off to a flying start with the highest mark in the opening vault discipline, but gradually Liukin reeled in her team mate with superior performances in the uneven bars and beam.
The gold came down to the floor exercise and once Liukin had posted a score of 15.525, Johnson needed a 16.000 – higher than any mark achieved in the Games to that point – to snatch gold off her.
Johnson put in what appeared to be a faultless performance, and the two gymnasts embraced while the judges’ verdict was awaited on the scoreboard. Once revealed, Johnson had only matched Liukin’s floor performance and the gold belonged to Liukin. The pair embraced before Liukin dashed into the arms of her ecstatic father.