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Liukin, Phelps are golden for U.S.

August 15, 2008

BEIJING (AP) -- Under other circumstances, Nastia Liukin would've been the star of the Olympics for the U.S. delegation Friday. After all, she was crowned the all-around champion of women's gymnastics and has a heck of a backstory about overcoming the exact obstacle that stopped her father 20 years ago.

Alas, her performance came on the same day Michael Phelps was in action.

Phelps ratcheted up the buzz surrounding him to yet another level by winning his sixth gold medal in as many tries, this time the 200-meter individual medley. The bigger news is that he's now on the cusp of catching Mark Spitz for the most medals ever won at a single Olympics, and still has a chance to bump the record to eight.

Phelps is in the midst of the greatest Olympics anyone has ever had. He's already branded himself the greatest Olympian by shattering the record for most career golds; this was his 12th, further separating him from Spitz and three others, who each have nine.

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Watch Phelps during the award ceremony and you can tell it never gets old. But his pursuit is a grind. After collecting his latest prize, he was in such a rush to get to a preliminary swim for the 100 butterfly that he shoved the medal into a pocket of his warmup jacket.

"The next two races are pretty important," said Phelps, who matched his gold total won in Athens. "I have to conserve as much physical and emotional energy as I can."

The finals for the 100 butterfly -- his signature stroke -- is Saturday. His last event is the 400 medley relay Sunday. Then, immortality.

Liukin's victory likely will inspire a generation of youngsters to roll faster, tumble harder and fly higher, just like Mary Lou Retton did with her all-around win in 1984 and Carly Patterson did four years ago.

The difference this time is that Americans finished 1-2, with reigning world champion Shawn Johnson getting silver. And that's where Liukin's saga gets so interesting.

At the 1988 Seoul Olympics, Valeri Liukin got silver in the men's all-around, losing to one of his Russian teammates. He won two individual golds, but never forgot that loss. History seemed to be repeating as the toughest foe in the world for his only child was her teammate.

In addition to the world championship, Johnson beat Liukin at the national championships and at the Olympic trials only a few weeks ago. But not when it counted most.

"There is nothing bigger or greater than this," Liukin said.

Friday was the first great-weather day of the Beijing Olympics, the sky so clear that many first-time visitors discovered there are mountains around the city. Haze and clouds blocked them until a heavy rain Thursday gave the skies a good rinsing.

Just in time, too, because track and field got under way at the Bird's Nest.

Through 10 of the 18 events finishing Friday, the United States led the medal count with 44 and China was next with 37.

The American count was boosted by shooter Jason Turner getting moved up from fourth to bronze after a North Korea shooter failed a drug test and was stripped of his third-place finish in 10-meter air pistol. Kim Jong Su also lost a silver medal in the 50-meter pistol. A Vietnamese gymnast also was caught doping, making it three ousted athletes so far.

In the gold chase, the hosts still set the pace with 23, more than the total prizes for every other delegation but the Americans. The U.S. has 14 golds, Phelps accounting for nearly half.

Also intriguing: The International Olympic Committee and Beijing organizers called off a news conference scheduled for Saturday, likely because they were tired of answering questions about Tibet, Falun Gong, air quality and the decision to award the games to China.

The official reason is that things are going so well there is nothing to discuss.

Women's gymnastics

Leaving their room at the athletes' village Friday morning, Liukin and Johnson probably figured one of them would bring home gold. And, perhaps, that the other would get silver.

But which would get which? That still was in doubt after Johnson walked off the mat with a smile following the final performance of the meet.

Liukin went right before her, posting the best score on the floor thus far. Johnson needed to beat it by 0.6 for a first-place tie. Instead, she matched Liukin's floor score, leaving her in second.

"We both supported each other 100 percent, and we just wanted to go out there and give it our all and have fun, because this is the games," Liukin said.

It was the first time Americans went 1-2 in the event and the first time the U.S. has won two medals of any color. With Carly Patterson having won the event in Athens, this also is the first time the U.S. has won this prestigious crown at consecutive Olympics.

"I gave my heart and soul out there today," said Johnson, who hurried to offer congratulations to her friend when the scores went up. "Nastia deserved the gold."

Swimming

Phelps wasn't the only American to set a world record Friday.

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