A balance beam is just 4 inches wide. Elevate it a few feet in the air and most of us would have trouble walking across it without falling.
The best women's gymnasts flip and twist and somersault in the air on those 4 inches. That's hard enough. Throw in the pressure of the Olympics and you've got an event laden with drama.
Tuesday, though, U.S. gymnast Shawn Johnson looked like she was doing her tricks on a 4-foot wide mat on the floor. In her last chance at a gold medal in these Olympics after winning three silvers, she performed flawlessly.
By doing so and grabbing gold, Johnson ensured that there would be two “first-name gymnasts” on this 2008 U.S. team, not just one.
You know what I mean: Olga. Nadia. Mary Lou. Cher. Wait, not that last one.
You need a gold medal to be a legitimate first-name gymnast. Nastia Liukin was already assured of being “Nastia” in gyms around the country by virtue of her all-around gold medal here. Now there's “Shawn,” too.
Johnson scored a 16.225 in her winning routine – whatever that means.
I miss the days where everyone tried for a perfect “10.” It was a lot easier to understand. This new scoring system is strange and sometimes idiotic – witness the tiebreaker in the women's uneven bars Monday.
But even to my untrained eye, it was obvious Johnson won the final competition in women's gymnastics. Two of the eight gymnasts in the balance-beam apparatus final fell off. Several others wobbled. But Johnson exuded confidence and grace. After she dismounted, her golden grin made you know that she also knew how good she had been.
Said Johnson: “To finally have the gold on my favorite event – on the event I worked so hard on – it's just the perfect ending to the story.”
It was a popular ending, too. Said Martha Karolyi, the U.S. national team coordinator: “I'm totally, fantastically happy. Shawn needed that. She was a little frustrated by not winning the all-around.”
Johnson edged Liukin – her U.S. teammate and her roommate in Beijing – for the gold. Liukin won silver with a 16.025.
Chinese gymnast Fei Cheng won the bronze.
That evened things out a little, since Liukin had won the all-around gold and Johnson had won silver. Liukin won five medals here, and Johnson won four. So between them, they have nine stowed in their room in Beijing.
“Having three silvers is hard,” Liukin said, referring to Johnson's pre-beam medal count. “I was proud she finally got a gold medal. Now we each have a gold medal and we can both say we are Olympic champions.”
Johnson didn't feel very good before the competition. She had a headache. She was tired. Her warmup was so shaky that her personal coach, Liang Chow, had Johnson perform her balance-beam routine seven times in practice before the one that counted.
“I was having a little trouble,” Johnson said of her pre-competition practice. “But then I just went out there, stayed calm and hit it.”
That she did. In her final at-bat, Johnson hit the home run she wanted at these Olympics. After taming the beam, her own beaming smile told the story.