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Chinese women win gymnastics gold as Americans stumble

August 13, 2008

BEIJING (AP) -- Nerves.

The Americans' supposedly were made of steel. The Chinese? They were going to succumb to the stress.

Maybe on another day, in another venue, that scenario would have played out, as it has many times before. On Wednesday, as the home team in the Beijing Olympics, the Chinese kept their wits and the top three U.S. women bumbled just when gold was within reach.

If there were two team gold medals the Chinese absolutely had to win, they were in gymnastics. So not long after China's men routed the field for the Olympic title, its women did the same -- with lots of help from the faltering Americans.

"This is the most important gold medal," China coach Lu Shanzhen said after a 2.375 point margin over the United States gave the women their first Olympic crown. Romania got the bronze.

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"This proves, once again, the Chinese women's team is the best and most excellent."

That's what the Americans were last year at the world championships, and they went into the final two routines -- balance beam and floor exercise, both strengths -- with an excellent shot at their first Olympic gold since 1996.

But from the moment Alicia Sacramone, the veteran of the squad, mounted the beam, then fell off, they were doomed.

"No one else made mistakes, so it's kind of my fault," the U.S. team captain said, her resolute stare gone, replaced by tear-filled eyes and a quivering lower lip. Sacramone experienced a long delay before she was allowed to begin her routine, and it clearly affected her.

"My fall kind of rattled everyone up a bit."

Not right away, though. Still, despite strong performances by Nastia Liukin and world champ Shawn Johnson on beam after Sacramone's struggles -- and a fall off the beam by China's Cheng Fei -- the Americans didn't erase their rival's lead.

And then it all fell apart.

With three of the best floor performers in the world in its lineup, the United States handed over the gold even before the Chinese left their seats for the final rotation.

Sacramone fell on her second tumbling pass. Later, she stepped out of bounds. She gave the judges a cursory salute before, stone-faced and shaken immeasurably, she left the floor.

"It was a little too hard for me to get out of that funk," she admitted. "It affected me on floor a little bit."

Liukin, so often a ballerina on floor, blew right over the out-of-bounds line on her first tumbling pass. And Johnson, otherwise so solid, even spectacular on Wednesday, also went over the line.

By then it was over.

"We're just as good as China," national team coordinator Martha Karolyi said. "We made mistakes. They did not."

Certainly not on the floor, when they could have gone through the motions and still clinched the gold. Instead, fortified by constant shouts of "Jia You," from the sellout crowd, they jumped and jived and rocked the National Indoor Stadium.

Indeed, the smiles on the faces of Deng Linlin, Jiang Yuyuan and Cheng -- during their routines; no more stoicism for these girls -- matched those of their adoring fans in the stands.

And on perhaps a billion more faces across their land.

"Before they go out there, I want them to believe in themselves. And they all did," Cheng said. "I didn't have to say anything to them. Even though they are very young, they have a lot of experience as well, and they have their own ways to learn from their own experiences, and they used those ways."

One thing did stun Cheng: "I was also surprised at the mistakes made by the U.S. team."

Because of those mistakes, the Americans had to watch China's exuberant celebrations. After sharing hugs with their conquerors, the U.S. women left the stage to the gold medalists, who practically floated out of the arena.

Oh, they stopped occasionally to pose for pictures and wave to their worshipful fans. They held hands during the medals ceremony, and later bit their prizes -- just as their countrymen had done Tuesday.

Then they picked up one of their coaches and tossed him into the air -- with an assist from a few other people, of course. Although, on this triumphant afternoon, who is to say these young athletes couldn't have done the job themselves?

The job they had performed was extra meaningful for their nation, Lu said.

"As for the gymnastics, this gold medal can attract more children to the gymnasiums in China," he said, ignoring the irony of his comment -- three of China's team members have been accused of being younger than the 16-year-old minimum. "With today's performance of the team, we really showed this is a sport full of vitality, expectations and hope.

"In China, we'll have more people coming into gymnasiums and we will be stronger in the future."

Just what the rest of the world wants to hear.

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