BEIJING -- Who's got more pressure on them in Beijing? The Chinese women's gymnastics team, which has never won an Olympic team title and is looking to ride a wave of hometown support to end that surprising drought? Or the U.S. women, the defending world champions, whose only Olympic team title was brought home by the legendary "Magnificent Seven" in 1996?
"Pressure cuts both ways," says Liang Chow, head coach for the Americans and personal coach of 2007 world all-around champion Shawn Johnson. "It can be an advantage competing at home, but there's lots more pressure on the Chinese team than us."
That's what this much-anticipated showdown between the gymnastics powers will come down to: who can better withstand the pressure. And with all due respect to the perennially strong Romanians, winners of the last two Olympic team titles, and the Russians, 2008 will be a battle between the Americans and Chinese.
First, the Americans. The 16-year-old Johnson, America's smallest Olympian at 4-foot-9, 94 pounds, is their anchor. If she holds, the ship is in good hands. The West Des Moines, Iowa, native is so consistently brilliant that it's easy to forget she's human, but the U.S. will need her to remain so if it's to beat the formidable Chinese. Johnson is refreshingly candid about the expectations that have been placed on her. "I feel quite a bit of pressure," she admitted after Thursday's practice. "Chow told me just to be myself, not to try to do anything differently now that we're here."
The perpetually smiling Chow is a native of Beijing -- this is the first time in 14 years he's returned home -- adding to the pressure they must feel. But Johnson seemed unfazed after an excellent workout on Thursday. "I'm healthy as can be and more confident now going into the competition. I love the equipment here. It feels perfect."
Her roommate at these Games? Nastia Liukin, the other half of the Americans' dynamic one-two punch. Liukin, too, looked terrific on Thursday, remembering the advice given to her by parents Valeri and Anna, both former Olympians from Russia. "My parents have taught me to treat the Olympics just like an ordinary competition," she says.
A Dallas native, Nastia's wide-eyed Olympic moment came when she saw Mavericks star Dirk Nowitzki in the Village and posed with him for a picture. A close second was when she saw her own face on the Village's ATM machine. But she seems at peace with her moment in history. "Now that I'm here, it doesn't seem as big as it does when you're at home watching on television."
Twenty-year-old Alicia Sacramone, who'll compete on vault, floor, and beam, and 16-year-old Samantha Peszek, whose best event is vault, also looked rock-solid on Thursday. Sixteen-year-old Bridget Sloan, named to the team primarily to help with the uneven bars, appeared nervous, falling off the beam in practice. But her second run-through was clean.
The only real negative for the U.S. team -- and it's a pretty big one -- is that 20-year-old Chellsie Memmel, the 2005 all-around world champion who was in top form at the Olympic trials in June, badly sprained her right ankle a week ago during training. As a result she'll only compete on the uneven bars, where her 7.0 start value is second only to Liukin's among the Americans. She was visibly wincing during her landings on Thursday, but she fought through the pain and stuck them. "This is the cards I've been dealt," she said. "As a gymnast, you're used to pain. I'm landing more on both feet than I was a couple of days ago."
As for China, you can bet they're not losing sleep over the accusations leveled at them by the Western press about using underage gymnasts. The government has issued passports saying the two team members in question, He Kexin and Jiang Yuyuan, are 16, so as far as these Games go, that's how old they are. (As recently as May the government-approved China Daily identified Kexin, the best Chinese gymnast at uneven bars, as being 14.)
Both Kexin and Yang Yelin have scored over 17 points on uneven bars this year -- only Liukin among the Americans has scored that high in the new scoring system -- and China hopes to build on their advantage in that event to neutralize the Americans' superior tumbling in the floor exercise and the vault. Cheng Fei, 20, is the only holdover from the 2004 Olympic team that finished seventh in Athens. But the star of the team is Yuyuan, the Chinese national all-around champion, who will be Johnson and Liukin's primary competition for the coveted Olympic all-around title.
Keys for the U.S. women:
1. Johnson must do what Johnson has done since becoming a senior in 2007: be flawless.
2. Sloan, Memmel and Liukin must stay close to the Chinese in the uneven bars.
3. Sacramone has to be the rock behind Johnson and Liukin, contributing solid performances on beam, vault, and floor.
4. Liukin must be clean. No big mistakes in her high-risk beam and high bar routines.
Gold: U.S. Silver: China. Bronze: Russia.