Don't even think about missing the women's gymnastics competition in Beijing. Bag the basketball, if you must. Torpedo the track and field. By all means, skip the swimming. But cancel all plans the night of the ladies' team final, Wed., Aug. 13, because the U.S. and China will be fighting World War III on four inches of the balance beam.
OK, OK ... guilty as charged of overhype and gross hyperbole. But I'm not kidding. I can't wait! This is the rubber match. The Chinese women won the world championship team title in 2006. The U.S. ladies waxed the Chinese in the rematch at the world championships in '07. Now the big prize awaits.
Can the Americans beat the traditionally powerful Chinese on their home turf? In an arena packed with whistling, flag-waving Chinese fans? Judged by judges who would not be human if they weren't influenced to some degree by the hometown crowd. Yes, yes and yes.
I love this U.S. team. It's led by spunky, thoughtful, power-packed Shawn Johnson, apparently nerveless at the ripe old age of 16, who's won eight of nine competitions since becoming a senior in '07. I've never seen anyone so consistent in her sport, but the Olympics are unlike any other stage. Will she continue her incredible run of success?
She's coached by Liang Qiao (pronounced: Chow), a former member of the Chinese men's gymnastics team, who grew up in Beijing and whose family still resides there. What a story for him to return as the coach of the reigning world champion!
Then there's the elegant, stylish Nastia Liukin. To see her perform on the balance beam and the parallel bars is to watch gymnastics at its finest: strength, beauty, grace, flexibility and daring in a single package. But she sometimes misses. And in the finals of the team competition, a bad miss can cost a team the gold.
Behind her is Chellsie Memmel, the '05 world all-around champion, who missed nearly the entire '07 season with a shoulder injury but has worked her way back from gymnastics oblivion and is now in top form. And Alicia Sacramone, the Brown University sophomore, who nearly quit the sport after missing out on the '04 Olympic squad, but is now a vault and floor exercise specialist and the spiritual leader of the team. Talk about personality. It bubbles out of Sacramone like foam from a shaken beer.
None of these American gymnasts wilt in front of a notepad or microphone. All are charming, funny and bright. And they have a track record of performing under pressure. They are, in short, a team the country should fall in love with.
If they win. More than anything, I'm looking forward to seeing them try.