08/11/2012 01:14 EDT | Updated 10/11/2012 05:12 EDT

Kanaeva defends Olympic title, becoming 1st rhythmic gymnast with 2 individual gold medals

LONDON - Evgeniya Kanaeva laughed, already knowing the question that was coming.

She'd just defended her gold medal from Beijing on Saturday, the first rhythmic gymnast to win two Olympic all-around titles. Any chance she'll stick around through Rio and try to make it three?

"Everybody's asking me that," the Russian said through a translator. "Yes, I think I will. But you cannot imagine what hard work it is to be on the top. It is really, really hard work."

Yet she makes it look so easy.

Kanaeva posted the highest score in three of the four events Saturday and finished with 116.90 points, more than two points ahead of teammate Daria Dmitrieva. Kanaeva scored 9.65 or better for execution on all four of her routines, and only one of her event scores was below 29; a 30 is a perfect score.

Liubou Charkashnya of Belarus won the bronze medal.

"The Russians are unreachable," said Charkashnya, who kissed the carpet when she finished her final routine and sobbed when she saw she was in third place. "For me, it's pretty much a gold medal."

A Russian has now won the last four individual Olympic titles, and the country could have another four-peat in Sunday's group event, too.

The second Olympic title caps a spectacular four years for Kanaeva. The 22-year-old has won the last three world titles, and was so dominant at last year's world championships that she won all four individual events, and added a sixth gold from the team competition. Though a rare mistake left her trailing Dmitrieva after the first day of qualifying, she made it clear from the start Saturday that no one else was going to have a chance.

Kanaeva performs with such smooth elegance, the equipment often seems like part of her body — not just some ribbons, balls, hoops and clubs she's tossing around. Her ribbon looked almost lifelike as she twirled it, dancing and swirling in perfect time to music by Chopin. Her milky pink ball seemed to be moving on its own as she rolled it along her arm.

And the hoop, the source of her problems Thursday? She flicked the golden — would it be any other colour? — ring high into the air with her foot, and did a walkover before grabbing it with a graceful wave.

"I did worry about it," she admitted, "but I didn't make a mistake."

Dmitrieva was ecstatic with her silver — no surprise, considering she wasn't even supposed to be at the London Olympics. Only added to the roster a week before the Russians left for London because Alexandra Merkulova withdrew with an injury, the 19-year-old showed that the Russian dynasty in rhythmic gymnastics won't end with Kanaeva.

"I'm very pleased," Dmitrieva said. "It seems to me to be a very worthwhile result."

Contortionists would envy the flexibility Dmitrieva showed during her ball routine, doing the splits with her legs high in the air while cradling the ball in the nape of her heck. And she ought to think about hanging onto her club routine for Rio, the samba-ish program sure to be hit.

When her last score was posted, Dmitrieva smiled and laughed, then made a heart shape with her hands that she flashed to the cameras. It's a message to her fans, Dmitrieva explained, showing another heart she'd drawn on the inside of her forearm.

"I get so many letters on the internet," she said. "So these little hearts are for all the kind people who write to me."

Charkashnya spent most of the day in a tense battle for third with Azerbaijan's Aliya Garayeva, the bronze medallist at last year's world championships, and South Korea's Son Yeon-jae. But Son fell out of the running with a dropped club, and Garayeva couldn't match Charkashnya's polish and style.

Charkashnya gave her medal to her coach afterward. As she kissed it, Charkashnya snapped a photo with her phone.

"I have always waited for this moment," Charkashnya said. "I think I still don't believe I got it."