NEW YORK (Reuters) - World champion Shawn Johnson experienced her first hiccup in a campaign to become the next U.S. Olympic gymnastics darling when she was beaten to the American Cup title by compatriot Nastia Liukin.
Yet United States coaches spun the surprise result as a win-win for the women’s team that expects to battle China, Russia and Romania for supremacy in August’s Beijing Olympics.
“The close competition is inspiring everybody to work hard and just shows that nobody has places nailed down to the ground,” Martha Karolyi, coordinator of the U.S. women’s gymnastics team told reporters at Saturday’s international event. “You have to improve yourself.”
It was the first time that Johnson, 16, had tasted defeat since joining the seniors’ ranks in an all-conquering 2007 campaign in which she won the U.S. nationals and the world all-round title.
Liukin, two years older and the winner of nine world championship medals, showed she was fully back in the frame after recovering from an ankle injury that held her back last year.
“It’s going to be a tremendous competition, particularly between these two,” Bela Karolyi, Martha’s husband and famed coach who is chief of the U.S. team training centre at the couple’s Texas ranch, said about the Olympics.
Johnson’s coach, Qiao Liang, did not see the Cup result as a setback for his gymnast, who fell during the opening rotation in an attempt to land the difficult Yurchenko vault with two-and-a-half somersaults for her first time in competition.
“I think that’s a very difficult vault, only three people are doing it in the world,” said Qiao, a successful Chinese gymnast who settled in Iowa more than a dozen years ago after going to college there. “We are planning to do it in Beijing.
“She made a mistake on that but I think it was a valuable one, a great learning experience.
“Other than that, it was a great performance. She not only demonstrated she is a very powerful gymnast but, as far as mental strength and her attitude, she showed she’s a champion.”
Qiao, who owns Chow’s Gymnastics where Johnson trains, brought his pupil to the Karolyis’ attention three years ago.
“I recall that I received a video from Shawn’s coach...showing someone I might like to include in the training program because someday she can make a contribution to the U.S. team,” Martha Karolyi told reporters.
“I said: ‘Why this coach is pretty confident.’ And here was this little, bouncy girl. I could see some potential. I told him, next training camp she’s invited. The coach was right.”
Johnson, with her pixie good looks and explosive power, has sparked excitement in others close to U.S. gymnastics.
“She’s powerful, she’s graceful, she’s fun to watch. She’s got a bubbly personality,” said 1984 Olympic all-round champion Mary Lou Retton.
“I think the magical part of gymnastics, the people that truly exemplify our sport, are the ones that make gymnastics look fun. Because what we’re out there doing is not fun.
“It is so hard to make it look easy and fun and she’s got that ability. I don’t know if that’s a taught ability, I think you have to have it and she’s got it.”
Shannon Miller, a member of the 1996 team that became the first U.S. women’s gymnastics squad to capture Olympic gold, praised Johnson’s “mix of power and grace.”
“You can be a powerful gymnast and not be top in the world. You can be a graceful gymnast and not be top in the world,” Miller said. “You have to have that combination of the two.
“I think she has that and the crowd loves her. She’s actually out there having fun. She’s enjoying it and that comes through from the inside out. It’s a breath of fresh air.”
Bela Karolyi likes the impression left by the impish Johnson, who stands six inches shorter than Liukin at four feet eight inches.
“She has this light, lovely childish face,” he said. “Something we all like to see on the floor, that cute little smile. That little smile brings appreciation from the crowd. She can become a darling of the crowd any time.”
Miller believes Johnson and Liukin, daughter of Valeri Liukin, who won four gymnastics medals for the Soviet Union at the 1988 Seoul Games, have all the style bases covered.
“I think of it as the American style and the European style,” Miller said. “Shawn’s got that powerful physique and Nastia is long and lean and has got gracefulness.”
Bela Karolyi sees the same thing.
“Here it is, Nastia and Shawn. You just don’t know. What would be the balance? It’s hard to say,” he said about the chemistry of performing in the Beijing arena.
“It’s going to be a pretty insensitive crowd. Not going to get the lift Shawn got in Stuttgart (last year’s world championships). The other one (Liukin) might be more impressive on the floor for the judges who want to see the beauty part of the sport more than the acrobatic part of the sport. We’ll have to see.”
Editing by Clare Fallon