Nastia Liukin's New Role

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By Molly Knight

Gymnast Nastia Liukin has been called many things: Phenom. Prodigy. Wunderkind. Which is why it's so surprising that heading into Beijing, she's being labeled something far different: Underdog.

Not everyone is buying it. "She's more special than any other gymnast in the world," says U.S. women's team coordinator Martha Karolyi. The 18-year-old Texan has won two national all-around titles (2005, '06) and nine world championship medals. But three months before the Games, the 5'2'' Liukin finds herself in the shadow of 4'9'' teammate Shawn Johnson.

In Johnson's first year on the senior national team, the pint-size powerhouse swept all-around golds at the 2007 nationals, worlds, American Cup and Pan-Am Games. Johnson also has received all the pre-Olympic love. Liukin, meanwhile, spent most of 2007 recovering from surgery on her right ankle.

Her physical pain paled in comparison with how she felt when some said her career was over. They questioned whether Liukin's ankle could handle the explosive force required on floor and vault. "People said I wasn't an all-around gymnast anymore," she says. "At first it got to me, then it made me push harder."

The extra nudge helped. In March, a fully healed Liukin won the Tyson American Cup in New York, edging Johnson by .325 points. "She looked like a ballerina," Karolyi says. "Nastia has the rare grace and beauty of a dancer, with the strength of a gymnast."

Credit her folks. Mom Anna Kotchneva won the 1987 rhythmic gymnastics worlds for the Soviet Union. Her father and coach, Valeri, won four medals for the U.S.S.R. in Seoul. The family came to the U.S. in 1992 and opened WOGA Gymnastics in Plano, Texas.

The influence of her Russian heritage shows in routines. Unlike many American gymnasts, Liukin doesn't have the compact power required to win the vault and floor exercises. But her classic elegance helps turn beam and uneven bars into high-scoring events. And until the June 20 Olympic trials, Liukin will run two miles a day and do squats to improve leg strength.

Anything to gain one definitive label: Olympic gold medalist.

Already the Liukin vs Johnson debate is rekindled. They both have their strengths and weaknesses, but yes I would totally love for Nastia to really factor in this Olympics. Awww to Martha's comment, but hey we always knew that Nast is special! And to those people who have stated Miss Liukin would no longer be an All Around hope- I do believe well hope that she is success a the upcoming trials!

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