By Pritha Sarkar
BEIJING | Tue Aug 19, 2008 7:47pm EDT
BEIJING (Reuters) – Shawn Johnson’s megawatt smile lit up the National Indoor Stadium on Tuesday after the American gymnast finally got her hands on an Olympic gold medal.
The 16-year-old outshone rivals Nastia Liukin and Cheng Fei with her deft footwork on the balance beam to end a run of three silver-medal winning performances in Beijing.
She had been expected to go home with a stash of gold after picking up three titles at the world championships in 2007. But she had to wait until the final day of the gymnastics competition to make her mark at the Games, with a score of 16.225.
She edged out fellow American and all-round champion Liukin by 0.200 of a point, while Cheng of China took bronze with 15.950.
“I’ve put everything towards the beam and to finally get a gold medal … on my very last routine, it meant the world,” Johnson told reporters. “I remember just saying, ‘finally’. To finally have a gold around my neck is amazing.”
“I actually did seven beam routines before I came out here. The eighth one was the charm.”
As the top qualifier, China’s Li Shanshan had been tipped for the title but she was one of two finalists to fall off the wood and she finished sixth.
Johnson kept her poise on the beam while performing a series of solid twists and flips and was rewarded for packing her routine with a series of difficult elements.
Liukin, the world champion on the apparatus, impressed the judges with her elegant lines and artistry but could not eclipse Johnson on the overall score.
However, she was not too disappointed as she increased her own personal haul from these Games to one gold, three silvers and a bronze.
“To leave here with five Olympic medals, it’s just amazing and it’s more than a dream come true,” said the 18-year-old Liukin, who was denied gold on the asymmetric bars on Monday through a complicated tiebreak rule despite being awarded the same score as champion He Kexin of China.
China’s Li drew gasps from the crowd as she began her display by showing off a string of fast-paced backward flips.
But within seconds the crowd were hushed into silence when she slipped off the 10cm-wide wood while attempting a full twisting backward flip.
She hung on for dear life by clinging on to the beam from underneath the apparatus but had to let go, and with it her medal hopes also vanished.