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OLYMPICS

Mettle Stand


Nastia Liukin's new role.
By Molly Knight

Gymnast Nastia Liukin has been called many things: Phenom. Prodigy. Wunderkind. Which is why it's so surprising that heading into Beijing, she's being labeled something far different: Underdog.

Not everyone is buying it. "She's more special than any other gymnast in the world," says U.S. women's team coordinator Martha Karolyi. The 18-year-old Texan has won two national all-around titles (2005, '06) and nine world championship medals. But three months before the Games, the 5'2'' Liukin finds herself in the shadow of 4'9'' teammate Shawn Johnson.

In Johnson's first year on the senior national team, the pint-size powerhouse swept all-around golds at the 2007 nationals, worlds, American Cup and Pan-Am Games. Johnson also has received all the pre-Olympic love. Liukin, meanwhile, spent most of 2007 recovering from surgery on her right ankle.

Her physical pain paled in comparison with how she felt when some said her career was over. They questioned whether Liukin's ankle could handle the explosive force required on floor and vault. "People said I wasn't an all-around gymnast anymore," she says. "At first it got to me, then it made me push harder."

The extra nudge helped. In March, a fully healed Liukin won the Tyson American Cup in New York, edging Johnson by .325 points. "She looked like a ballerina," Karolyi says. "Nastia has the rare grace and beauty of a dancer, with the strength of a gymnast."

Credit her folks. Mom Anna Kotchneva won the 1987 rhythmic gymnastics worlds for the Soviet Union. Her father and coach, Valeri, won four medals for the U.S.S.R. in Seoul. The family came to the U.S. in 1992 and opened WOGA Gymnastics in Plano, Texas.

The influence of her Russian heritage shows in routines. Unlike many American gymnasts, Liukin doesn't have the compact power required to win the vault and floor exercises. But her classic elegance helps turn beam and uneven bars into high-scoring events. And until the June 20 Olympic trials, Liukin will run two miles a day and do squats to improve leg strength.

Anything to gain one definitive label: Olympic gold medalist.

Watch the Birdie


By Ryan McGee

For Americans, badminton means grabbing a $19.98 set at Wal-Mart and swatting a plastic birdie 'til the burgers are done. But for the Chinese, it's a sport of 200 mph serves and handcrafted goose-feather shuttlecocks. Badminton is the toughest ticket at the Beijing Games. Seriously.

"It's going to be rocking," says U.S. captain Howard Bach, a 2004 Olympian and 29-year-old Vietnamese-American who grew up in San Francisco. "Americans have no idea. Countries have signature cheers, crowds throw water bottles and trash at you. It's scary. But when you realize we're talking about badminton, it's pretty cool, too."

Of the 37 U.S. Summer Olympic teams, none operates on a smaller budget or is on the wrong end of more jokes than badminton. But with respect to Michael Phelps and LeBron, no American will compete in an arena as crazed as badminton's 7,500-seat Beijing University of Technology Gym—a.k.a. the BUT.

"Going to Beijing is going right into the heart of the badminton world," says team director Dan Cloppas. Since the sport went Olympic in 1992, China has won a world-leading 26 medals. "When tickets went on sale, badminton was the first to sell out."

Bach stunned the badminton world when he paired with Tony Gunawan to win doubles at the 2005 worlds, the first U.S. medal in international competition. In Beijing, he will likely compete in mixed doubles, with 21-year-old Eva Lee, winner of a trio of golds at the 2007 Pan Am Games.

"The atmosphere will either be a boost for the Chinese team, or the pressure will wear them down," Bach says. "If we win, there won't be any parades back home, but believe me, it will be a big deal."