BEIJING -- No runner-up finish to her friend and rival this time. Nastia Liukin won the biggest prize of all.
Liukin edged teammate Shawn Johnson for the all-around gold in women's gymnastics Friday in an intense matchup that lived up to its billing at the Beijing Games. Liukin finished with 63.325 points, a mere six-tenths ahead of Johnson, the reigning world champion who beat Liukin at the U.S. championships and Olympic trials only a few weeks ago.
Yang Yilin of China won the bronze.
Liukin paced back and forth as Johnson competed on floor, the final competitor of the day, clapping as her teammate floated high in the air. In the end, it was Liukin who soared. When Johnson's score was posted and Liukin saw she was the winner tears filled her eyes. Her father and coach Valeri grabbed her in a bearhug, squeezing her tight for several minutes.
Valeri Liukin was a double gold medalist for the Soviet Union 20 years ago, but came up achingly short in a rivalry with his own teammate in the all-around.
There would be no such disappointment for his only child.
"It's not possible to describe how proud I am," Valeri Liukin said afterward.
Liukin blinked back tears with a smile when she was introduced as the gold medalist, pride etched on her face.
For China, it was the first disappointment on the gymnastics floor. The Chinese won both the men's and women's team titles, and Yang Wei ran away with the men's all-around gold on Thursday.
But this was no surprise. Johnson and Liukin have been the world's two best gymnasts for two years now, and most expected the teammates would be each other's biggest competition. Johnson came in with all the momentum, winning every matchup with Liukin but one in the past few years.
It was Liukin's grace under pressure, though, that made the difference. It had to, with everything coming down to the very last event, and the last two performers.
Long and lean, Liukin has the elegance and classic lines of her mother, a former world champion in rhythmic gymnastics. While other gymnasts tumble on the floor, their music little more than background noise, Liukin puts on a polished performance. Every wave of her arm and brush of her fingertips oozes emotion, making it easy to forget how tough those tricks in her program really were.
Valeri Liukin stood on the sidelines, pacing back and forth, barely able to watch his daughter, who flashed a big smile for the cameras after her final tumbling run.
Her score of 15.525 put her in first place, and left Johnson with a huge gap to close. It was possible she could do it. Johnson is the reigning world champion on floor, a bundle of perkiness and power. She managed such great height on her opening pass she could have dusted off a light fixture or two, yet she landed as easily and confidently as if she was stepping off a curb. Her smile grew brighter with each second, and even Liukin was anxiously clapping as she watched. Johnson was thrilled when she finished, almost running off the podium.
It was a great routine, no question. It just wasn't good enough for gold.
When the final mark flashed, Johnson smiled and immediately went to congratulate her teammate. Much has been made of their rivalry, with most people assuming there's no way they can be friends. But they truly are, even rooming together at these games.
Liukin is the second straight American to win the all-around crown, succeeding training partner Carly Patterson as gymnastics' greatest champion.