The U.S. women easily qualified for the gymnastics team finals on Sunday, but finished a disappointing 1.475 points behind their chief rivals, the Chinese, who competed in the subdivision before them. As a result, the Chinese will be favored to win gold when the two teams square off again in Wednesday's finals.
Perhaps worse for the Americans, they lost one of their top three vaulters, Samantha Peszek, who twisted her ankle in the final seconds of warmups and was unable to compete in vault, floor, or balance beam, leaving the U.S. shorthanded in those three events. Peszek was able to do her uneven bar routine.
The team learned the extent of Peszek's injury just minutes before they were to march out to compete in Subdivision 2 of the qualification round, and the news clearly flustered them.
"We were starting to cry just before we walked out," said Shawn Johnson, 16, who nonetheless was able to put up her customary huge numbers and was the leading qualifier in the all-around. "We were all shaken up."
The ramifications of Peszek's injury were compounded because Chellsie Memmel had sprained her ankle earlier in the week in training and, like Peszek, could only compete on uneven bars. The U.S. -- which prides itself on its remarkable depth -- suddenly had just four women available to compete in three of the four events. All four scores would count. (In the preliminaries, teams can start five competitors in each event, counting just the top four scores. The worst score is discounted.)
There was no cushion, no room for error. But errors occurred. Bridget Sloan, 16, the first American up on the floor exercise, stepped out of bounds on her final pass, an automatic .10 deduction. Twenty-year-old Alicia Sacramone, next up, did the same. It was obvious this wasn't going to be the Americans' night.
"We were all welling up before marching out," said Sacramone, the team captain. "Sam's my roommate here. I know how hard she's worked. It was hard to look past that. It messes up your smooth road, and we made some mistakes."
Nastia Liukin and Johnson both had clean floor routines, righting the ship. But the U.S. still finished .70 behind the Chinese on the floor, which is ordinarily the Americans' best event. The U.S. picked up .30 of that deficit on the vault. Then came the uneven bars, which were a disaster. "I have zero explanation what happened on bars," said team coordinator Martha Karolyi.
What happened was that, after the table was set for the two big scorers, Liukin and Memmel, both of them crashed. Hard. Memmel had both hands on the bar after a release move, but failed to hold on and bellyflopped to the mat. "I had a grip on it, but not enough to hold on," she said. "It was a surprise. I haven't missed it in workouts at all. I'm overthinking because I'm just doing bars."
Liukin was last, and did the sort of beautiful, high-risk routine only she can do ... until her dismount, which involves two somersaults in a half tuck and a twist. She shot backwards upon landing, splatting unceremoniously on her back. Even so, Liukin scored a team-high 15.95, but the damage had been done. The acrobatic Chinese had outscored the U.S. by 1.525 on the bars alone, which was a half-point more than their final margin of victory.
The U.S. was down, but, as is this team's nature, it fought back. On their final event, the treacherous balance beam, all four American women -- Sloan, Sacramone, Liukin, and Johnson -- were virtually flawless, putting up scores of 15.50, 15.95, 15.975, and 15.975 respectively. (Karolyi was shocked that Johnson's score wasn't higher -- she was magnificent.) It was an important moment, giving the team a boost of momentum they could rally behind. "We are the Beam Team," gushed Johnson afterwards, still so pumped up from the preliminaries she was ready to go out and start the finals immediately. "We were thrown curve balls, and had a huge distraction when our teammate went down. We made some mistakes, but we hopped back up and showed them on beam that we will come back in team finals and be better than ever."
The fact is that, except for the psychological impact, the preliminary scores don't matter. All the teams that qualify for finals start with a clean slate. Nothing's carried over. And the Americans were able to put a positive spin on their bad luck: The format for the finals is three competitors up, all scores count. The U.S. had a taste of that today: Four up, four counted on three apparatuses. So they already know what it's like to compete under the pressure of knowing your score, good or bad, will count.
Finally, Johnson and Liukin were the two top individual-point getters in the preliminaries. Both will compete in at least three events in the finals. That's six of the 12 rotations. The three-up, three-count format favors the shorthanded American team.
"We like being underdogs," said Karolyi. "We're fighters. In the finals, we will have a very good fight with the Chinese."
Bet on it.