After watching three nights of gymnastics at the 2008 Olympics in Beijing, I couldn't help but feel like every other casual fan watching. No, I wasn't trying to freeze my DVR and study the facial features of the female Chinese gymnasts to determine if a couple of girls had yet to grow all of their adult teeth. Instead, I wondered if anyone had anything for the Chinese team.
I thought I had my answer at the beginning of the women's individual all-around competition when American Nastia Luikin stuck the landing on her vault attempt. But, like everyone watching, I couldn't believe the relatively low score she received.
As Luikin and fellow American Shawn Johnson rotated to the uneven bars, both found themselves in good position. Luikin, who came into the games as the reigning world champion in uneven bars, looked poised to take the lead as the women approached the halfway point of the event.
Her routine looked, to an idiot like me, to be flawless. Save for a small step on her landing from a dismount that would have put me in the hospital, I thought for sure she would catapult into the lead and put some separation between her and the rest of the competition. It didn't happen. I'm about as fluent in gymnastics as I am in Chinese and even I could tell she was robbed. Nevertheless, the 18 year-old daughter of former Soviet Union gold medal gymnast Valeri Luikin never flinched.
Next came her turn at the balance beam. For most of us, it's hard walking on a painted four-inch line on the street let alone a beam standing three feet in the air. But this is where the true grace and skill of a female gymnast shines through. The balance beam separates the girls from the women. Even if the competitors are under the required age of 16, it's still amazing to watch. Luikin, with the pressure of 1.3 billion sets of eyes watching, hoping for her to falter and open the door for Chinese native Yang Yilin, left no doubt in the judges minds with her balance beam routine.
Heading into the fourth and final apparatus, the floor exercise, Luikin held the advantage of Yilin with a scrappy Johnson a close third. For three days the American gymnasts had performed inconsistently. The men salvaged a bronze medal in the team competition after nearly throwing it away on pommel horse. Jonathan Horton had a lackluster men's all-around final and the women crumbled down the stretch in the team competition on day one. Everything came down to the floor exercise. Redemption and Olympic immortality with the likes of Mary Lou Retton depended on one more set of skills - a two-minute tumbling routine.
Yilin put on the pressure scoring a solid 15.0 on floor exercise but Luikin could take the gold with a solid floor performance. Further back, depending on Luikin's final score, Johnson also had a shot at gold. Needing to score a 14.75 or better, Luikin delivered the goods with 15.525 - more than enough. The only drama remaining pinned on whether Johnson could snatch the gold away from her teammate. Needing a near impossible 16.125, Johnson did all she could. Instead, she came up .60 of a point short. In the end, Johnson took the silver and the Americans finally beat the Chinese on their home turf.
Luikin will go back to Plano, Texas then off to college at Southern Methodist University in the fall. She may or may not return to London in 2012 to defend her title. Only time will tell. And even though most of us will probably look back at the 2008 Beijing Olympics as the coronation of the greatest swimmer the planet may ever see in Michael Phelps, for one night, on Aug 15, 2008 at approximately 1:24 a.m. EST, one American woman put on one of the greatest clutch performances in Olympic history. Thanks Nastia. That was fun to watch.
Josh Briggs is the sports editor for the Covington News and can be reached at email@example.com or by phone at (770) 787-6397 ext. 29.