BEIJING -- After arriving at the athlete's village in Beijing, Nastia Liukin realized she needed some cash. So after settling into the room she would share with teammate Shawn Johnson for the next 10 days, Liukin walked to the village ATM. But before she had a chance to fill her wallet with yuan, she was halted by her own image. "The machine had a Visa ad with my picture on it," Liukin said, her words flying excitedly from her mouth faster than her spins on floor. "And next to it, in Chinese symbols, was the word, 'Destiny.' I stopped and thought hard when I saw that." Destiny is difficult to ignore here in Beijing. The word is plastered around the Olympic venues, incorporated into T-shirt designs, posters and press releases. It is mentioned more often than hard work, long hours in the gym or mental tenacity. But Friday, it was impossible to ignore the kismet surrounding Liukin's gold-medal win in the all-around. Exactly 20 years ago, her father and coach, Valeri Liukin, finished less than one-tenth of a point behind his Russian teammate Demitri Artemev in the individual all-around competition, the gold slipping from his neck as he swung his arms to balance himself after an imperfect landing from the high bar. Although he still leads his daughter in the overall medal count (Valeri has two gold and two silver medals from those 1988 Games), when it comes to the all-around gold, he must settle for simply being the father of the best gymnast in the world. "He was so close to winning that all-around gold medal," Nastia said moments after her medal ceremony. "I hope I made up for that. I hope he is as proud of this as I am."
Liukin has spent much of the year leading up to the Games in the shadow of teammate Johnson, the current overall world champion. Liukin had beaten Johnson only once since the 2007 World Championships, at the American Cup in March, when Johnson fell attempting a new vault, the Yurchenko 2½.
|Valeri Liukin came oh-so close to an Olympic all-around gold medal. On Friday, his daughter gave him one.|
Her floor routine was spectacular. The 18-year-old's usually stoic expression melted away with each landed tumbling pass. On her final pass, Liukin landed, raised her arms and smiled, something she rarely -- if ever -- does while performing. It was hard not to smile along with her. As she walked off the floor, Liukin walked to her teammate and slapped hands. For a moment, they looked into each other's eyes, a moment of silent acknowledgement of the long road both women had taken to get to this point.
"When I saw her score come up, I knew I couldn't score six-tenths higher," Johnson said, her chin shaking as she spoke to the media. "So going into floor, I didn't care about score or placement anymore. I just wanted to finish my Olympic experience as best I could." Just like her teammate, Johnson finished the competition with a flawless routine, then walked to her teammate and gave her a hug. "Nastia has been around a long time and has a lot of experience and she deserves the gold," Johnson said. "I was meant to have the silver."
Liukin is only the third American woman to win the all-around; Carly Patterson (2004) and Mary Lou Retton (1984) are the others. But perhaps this is not Johnson's final chance at individual gold. After the meet, both gymnasts retracted earlier comments that this Olympics would mark the end of their careers. "Now she is thinking to keep going," Valeri said of his daughter. Then, during the news conference, Johnson said she'd changed her mind, too. "A month ago, I would have said I was done," Johnson said. "But after being here, I would give anything to feel this way again."
Alyssa Roenigk is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine.