Aliya Mustafina Wins Bars, Dominates Gabby Douglas in Round 2 of Budding Rivalry

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Aliya Mustafina Wins Bars, Dominates Gabby Douglas in Round 2 of Budding Rivalry
Phil Walter/Getty Images

In a throwback to the days of the Cold War, the rivalry between Russian and American gymnasts continues to grow. Last week, we saw the U.S. top Russia to earn team gold, but things have become a little more personal since then. 

Aliya Mustafina, a 17-year-old sensation who has worked her way back from a nightmare scenario, stole the spotlight from U.S. star Gabby Douglas in Monday's uneven bars final. Mustafina made her presence known, netting a gold medal with a score of 16.133.

The remarkable routine ended with a flawless landing and wide smile. Moments later, when her astounding score was announced, Mustafina launched into the arms of coach  Evgeny Grebenkin and enjoyed a moment of pure elation.

Douglas, the all-around gold medalist, followed soon after. She failed to duplicate the magic that went into her first individual gold and finished last in the eight-woman event final. 

On Thursday, Mustafina stood to Douglas' left as the Star-Spangled Banner blared throughout North Greenwich Arena and the American flag was raised. Mustafina edged out American Aly Raisman in a tiebreaker to earn bronze in the all-around final. 

Monday told a different story, as Mustafina stood atop the awards podium and watched the red flag of her homeland lifted. Sixteen months after suffering a devastating torn ACL, the 2010 World Champion was back among the globe's elite. 

"I am very, very happy I've won gold," Mustafina told ESPN. "Every medal represents its own thing."

She earned three medals during these Summer Games. Mustafina helped Russia earn silver in team competition, won the bronze in all-around action and capped off the journey with a golden exclamation point on Monday. 

"I was hoping very much I'd done everything I could to win it," Mustafina told ESPN. "It's the worth of all the hard work I've put in."

If gymnastics had a fluid individual ranking system, like professional golf or tennis, it seems Mustafina would be in the mix for a top spot. Russian teammate Viktoria Komova and Americans Douglas, Jordyn Wieber and Aly Raisman would also surely have their own cases to present.

Mustafina might be the most intriguing member of this group. Before suffering the knee injury, she was a reigning world champion. 

The Moscow resident led Russia to a world title at the 2010 Championships in Rotterdam. During that competition, Mustafina claimed gold in the all-around, and took silver in vault, uneven bars and floor exercise. 

In Mustafina's absence at the 2011 World Championships, Wieber emerged as a star while winning all-around gold. Douglas overshadowed her American teammate in London, becoming the third consecutive U.S. woman to win an individual all-around title. 

Douglas will return to action on Tuesday to participate in the balance beam final, seeking her third medal. Mustafina's trio of medals fuel future meetings between the stars of long-rivaled nations. 

The 2013 World Championships in Antwerp present another opportunity to add to a burgeoning rivalry. Mustafina will be out to take another step in her recovery process, while Douglas will look to defend her status as the globe's all-around champ.

Neither gymnasts are locks for the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Games. The shelf life of even the most elite performer is short (ahem, Nastia Liukin). 

Russia's women's gymnastics program seems to be back after an Olympic lull. The U.S. just enjoyed its finest run in 16 years. 

If these two young women carry on as the faces of their respective squads, get used to seeing them compete in many showdowns to come. 

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