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Associated Press

BEIJING — Nastia Liukin's twists and turns had the grace of a ballet dancer. Every flip was carefully choreographed and repeatedly rehearsed to get the most out of her lean body.

This is how Liukin put her stamp on the Olympics and her sport.

The Russian-born American gymnast won her fifth Olympic medal Tuesday. She earned a silver on balance beam behind teammate Shawn Johnson, 16, who won her first gold medal of these Games.

The 5-foot-3 Liukin, 18, won one gold medal here, the one that counts most for gymnasts — the all-around title — against the favored Johnson. Liukin's silver on beam, silver on uneven bars by way of a razor-thin defeat, and a surprising bronze-medal performance in floor exercise in the last three days captivated audiences at the National Indoor Stadium.

The 1-2 punch she and Johnson, 4-foot-9, delivered throughout these Games makes a case for this U.S. women's gymnastics team to go down as the best ever.

"I'd have to say that's a true statement," said NBC analyst Elfie Schlegel, a former gymnast for Canada who is covering her seventh Summer Olympics.

The U.S. didn't win team gold as the Magnificent Seven did in Atlanta 12 years ago, instead earning silver against host China. Yet overall this team won eight medals, tying the 1984 team silver-medal winners. The 1996 team won four.

"When I think about this team, I immediately think about Nastia and Shawn," Schlegel said. "What Nastia Liukin did, she epitomized the sport as it should be — women's artistic gymnastics."

Liukin has secured a legacy at least alongside the sport's most famous American gymnasts — Mary Lou Retton and Shannon Miller. Liukin tied them for most medals by an American gymnast.

Liukin's place in history could reach well beyond theirs, however, on an international scale. She has distinguished herself as a supreme artist and gymnast, rare in a sport that over the years has become more dependent on dynamic tumbling than refined execution.

"Nastia is in a class of her own," Schlegel said. "That beauty, that combination of what she has is so special. I think there are going to be a greater number of people, especially in Europe, that will remember Nastia Liukin as a great Olympic champion.

"A lot of the European judges kind of looked at her and said, 'Ah, OK, I remember when."'

Liukin is a throwback to a time when Olympic champions incorporated almost as much dance as acrobatics. Her achievements put a spotlight on the beauty of her sport, rather than the confusing new scoring system that eliminated the perfect 10. She also cast aside, at least briefly, an ugly controversy that threatens to mar gymnastics.

The storming debate about whether three Chinese gymnasts are underage cast a shadow on China's victory in the team finals and on He Kexin's gold medal finish on uneven bars. The International Gymnastics Federation president, Bruno Grandi, repeatedly has said China's He, Yang Yilin and Jiang Yuyuan meet the minimum age requirement of 16 based on their passports. The New York Times and Associated Press have found contradicting evidence showing the gymnasts are younger.

Earlier this year, the federation adopted a long-discussed plan to issue licenses next year to gymnasts who compete internationally, including gymnasts in the junior division, a steppingstone to reach the Olympic level. Federation officials believe this will diminish the possibility of passport manipulation.

"We (will) follow the athlete longer in their career," Grandi said recently. "We follow (ages) already. For us, it's not enough. It's true. It's better to have one document. We've had many difficulties to solve this problem."

USA Gymnastics President Steve Penny has stayed out of the age debate since it surfaced in late July but said issuing international licenses is a good start to head off such problems.

"It's probably a smart thing," Penny said. "It would help eliminate questions and speculation."

There are some who disagree. Eberhard Ginger, vice president of the German Olympic Committee and a famous former gymnast, believes licenses might not prevent the manipulation of ages because a passport still will be used to confirm ages when issuing the cards.

"What if you're cheating from the very beginning?" he asked. "Probably you need to do analysis from hair. That might be better than licensing."

Ginger doesn't believe the Chinese are lying about gymnasts' ages. "We have many young-looking girls. I can't imagine they're falsifying passports. This is something a government wouldn't do to win a medal."

U.S. gymnasts have been complimentary of the Chinese and have steered clear of the drama over ages. Johnson said she feels a kinship with Chinese gymnasts. Her coach, Liang Chow, competed for China's national teams, and Johnson said she has grown up admiring Chinese teams.

Liukin came in as a veteran of international competitions despite not having Olympic experience (she missed the 2004 age cutoff by two months). She has competed in three world championships, winning nine world medals to tie Miller for most by an American gymnast. Liukin might stay for another year and try to break that record in the 2009 world championships.

"I hope people will remember me the way Shannon is remembered," Liukin said. "She is definitely an American hero and a legend forever. I'm not sure but I feel like there's a little more I can give, and go to another world championships (to) break that record and at least get 10."

Often, Liukin is compared with Russia's Svetlana Khorkina, whose long lines and execution helped her win an Olympic silver medal in all-around in the 2004 Athens Games. Khorkina lacked high difficulty, however, in some routines and lost to American powerhouse Carly Patterson. Patterson was Liukin's longtime training partner at a gym co-owned by Liukin's father in Plano, Texas.

Liukin is rare because she blends high difficulty with intricate dance elements.

"As a gymnast, Nastia reminds me a little of Svetlana Khorkina, but I don't want to directly compare her to anyone because she is unique," Romanian expatriate Nadia Comaneci, the 1976 all-around champion and the first gymnast to score a perfect 10, said by e-mail Tuesday. "In an era (where) the difficulty values of routines are a priority, Nastia still brings beauty and elegance to our sport."