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
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."
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The only real negative for the U.S. team -- and it's a pretty big one -- is that 20-year-old
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,
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.
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.