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 á 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):
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.