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Monday, July 30, 2012

2012 Olympics: Nastia Liukin Should Have Copied Shawn Johnson's Graceful Exit

Nastia Liukin and
Shawn Johnson have
always been a contrast
in style. Elegance versus
power. Cool restraint
versus twinkle-eyed
pep. Russian roots
versus Heartland
purity. Liukin's way proved
superior in 2008,
yielding the then-18-
year-old an Olympic
all-around title and a
place among the greatest American
gymnasts ever. Four years later, it's
Johnson who has
made out like a
winner. She knew when to
walk away from a
sport that had passed
her by. Liukin didn't,
and it cost her. Last month Shawn
Johnson retired from competitive
gymnastics, ending her attempted comeback
from ACL surgery. This weekend at U.S.
Trials, she embraced
her new role as an
ambassador of the
sport: schmoozing
with reporters, hyping her former training
buddies from Chow's
gym and serving as a
go-to for star-hungry
cameras. Her presence
was undeniable—even in street clothes. A tier below on the
arena floor stood
Liukin—somber,
defiant and so plainly
an outsider among the
gaggle of teen upstarts in her midst. That tableau of past
and present grew
clearer every time
Liukin performed. Day
1 was a struggle
throughout. Liukin, by her own admission, "ran out of steam"
during a ragged
uneven bars routine
and wasn't much
better on beam. Day 2 brought the
exclamation point, a sobering face-plant on uneven bars that drew
gasps from the San
Jose crowd. Liukin finished her set
and the crowd rallied
to her aid, but there
was no erasing the fall.
Among famous final
athletic impressions, it belongs to the same
category of woe
as Brett Favre (bound to the icy turf of a
college stadium) and
Willie Mays (bound to
the fading Mets). And considering the
zeitgeist's appetite for
five-second "fails," you
can bet Liukin's
parting shot will
receive ample replay on America's digital
back-channels. Fair or not, some
people will remember
Liukin by her eight-
foot fall from
grace. Not most, but
some. Now, all this is
hindsight. Liukin could
have transcended age
and expectation √° la
Dara Torres in 2008. If
she had, we'd all be dreaming up new
adjectives to extol her
grit, her resilience, her
greatness. But all the tea leaves
from Visa Nationals—
the last major event
before Trials and a
veritable exposé of
Liukin's fading skills— said something like
this was coming.
Maybe not with
such horrific emphasis,
but, then again, not
even the Greeks could have scripted such
tragic poignancy. Many gymnastics fans
will say that the
brilliance of Liukin's
career should
outweigh the fallout of
her ill-conceived comeback attempt. And I agree. But that
doesn't mean the
world will. Brigid McCarthy
captures the recent
surge of sentiment
against Liukin in a piece posted earlier
today on The Couch Gymnast (a must-read
blog for fans of the
sport): Harry How/ Getty Images In the last week I
have been
confounded by all
the comments
that Nastia Liukin
is ‘washed up’ and ‘making a
fool of herself’.
She is what?
Twenty? Are you
people for
real? ‘How dare she keep training?’
these snarky
voices cry.
How dare she try
and train to make
an Olympic team after a period of
indecision about
whether she
wanted to be in
the sport? What
was she even thinking? As you might imagine,
McCarthy goes on to
defend Liukin's choice,
but she paints a pretty
ugly picture in the
process. Some people won't
forgive Liukin for her
failures. Others didn't
know her well enough
to remember anything
else. Liukin can take heart
in the fact that she
tried. And if the old
adage about trying
and failing holds true,
then maybe Liukin made the right choice. But it was hard not to
draw a straight line
back to her old
foil, Shawn Johnson—
seated in the same
arena, surrounded by adoring fans, bearing a
confident grin as she
turned toward the
second phase of her
life's journey. The contrast between
the two was as clear as
ever. One smiling—the other
despondent. One healing—the
other broken One looking forward
with clear mind—the
other looking back,
wondering what went
wrong.

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