"I think it was kind of cool, that we got to go back and forth," said Liukin, soured, ragged and tired all evening after a disappointing effort on bars, her signature event. "And it was good for the audience."
For this pair, these Olympic gymnastic trials were little more than a training run for Beijing in August. Johnson finished the 2-day trials in first, with 127.65 all-around points, Liukin second, with 125.85, to lock up the two automatic berths on the six-woman Olympic team (plus alternates).
The rest of the team - reigning world champs and the team to beat in Beijing - will be determined by July 20, when a selection committee pares from Johnson, Liukin and 10 others at final camp.
That might be, but specialist Alicia Sacramone finished first in the vault, just ahead of Johnson; she is probably a lock. (Sacramone will join Liukin and Johnson on NBC's "Today'' show tomorrow morning.) Veteran Chellsie Memmel, third last night and last month at the Visa Championships, showed herself to be indispensable.
"The team would not be the same without Alicia," gushed Martha Karolyi, the team's coordinator. Karolyi stood with the rest of the audience when Memmel finished: "Chellsie was excellent. She is back where she was [in 2003 and 2005]."
Karolyi called fourth-place finished Samantha Peszek "a person we can count on" and made special mention of young performers who stepped up strong in front of a big spotlight.
Those would be Ivana Hong, 15, who finished fifth, and Mattie Larson, 16, who finished seventh and was stunning on the floor.
All of those gymnasts will attend the camp. Those are technical decisions, for later.
For anyone watching the trials this weekend - especially in prime time last night - Johnson and Liukin were introduced to America as objects of hope and charisma.
They will be the tip of the U.S. spear: Johnson, 16, a two-time defending national all-around champion and reigning world champ; Liukin, 18, spectacular on the uneven bars (she took first last night) and, repeatedly, a hair's breadth from overtaking Johnson.
Thirty minutes later they repeated the theater, Johnson with that first-place floor routine, electric and peppy; Liukin with an imperfect, fifth-place vault.
Memmel, the 2005 world champion who has battled back from a devastating shoulder injury suffered in 2006, finished the evening with a spectacularly executed floor exercise with a pair of pike moves that brought the crowd to its feet. Her 124.80 mirrored her third-place finish at the Visa Championships last month and perhaps was the best thing done all night, reflected by her 9.65 score in execution.
Plus, it was her 20th birthday.
But TV loves a rivalry. Last night, it set it up.
Stay tuned. They know you will.
The rest of the 12-person selection-camp squad: Jana Biege
r, who finished sixth at the trials; Chelsea Davis, Corrie Lothrop
, Bridget Sloan
and Shayla Worley
, who is coming off a back injury and fell on her belly during her uneven bars routine . . . Mattie Larson's
floor exercise thrilled the crowd almost as much as Shawn Johnson's
did; her 15.50 score, with a one-tenth deduction, elicited boos for the judges . . . Darling Hill
, of Mount Laurel, N.J., and Amber Trani
, of Richlandtown, Pa., didn't make the selection-camp squad. *