- The Washington Times - Tuesday, August 19, 2003

ANAHEIM, Calif. (AP) — The way the Russians were flopping and flailing, the U.S. women’s gold medal hopes didn’t look so bad after all.

Then came the Romanians.

Despite overhauling their team after winning gold two years ago, the Romanians showed why they’re a favorite to win their sixth straight title at the World Gymnastics Championships. With one clean routine after another, the Romanians made easy work of preliminaries yesterday.

They finished with 148.120 points, edging the United States by four-tenths of a point. China and Ukraine were still left to compete yesterday.

The top eight teams advance to tomorrow’s finals, and the top 12 secure spots in next year’s Athens Olympics.

“Today was only a rehearsal. The real competition starts the day after tomorrow,” said Octavian Belu, Romania’s coach. “I don’t have the attitude to make big expectations and talk about how strong we are.

“All gymnasts are human beings,” he added. “It’s possible to be well. At the same time, it’s possible to not be well.”

Just look at the Americans and the Russians.

The Americans had golden hopes when they arrived in Anaheim, bringing a squad many said was even stronger than the Magnificent Seven in 1996. Then world beam champ Ashley Postell got the flu and vault specialist Annia Hatch blew out her knee.

Suddenly, the Americans were scrambling, and the disorder showed on the floor Sunday night. Of the six U.S. gymnasts, only Chellsie Memmel made it through the night without any problems — and she was one of the alternates.

National champion Courtney Kupets slipped up twice on her floor exercise. Veteran Tasha Schwikert showed very little of her trademark flash, falling on floor and banging her feet against the mat during her bars routine. Carly Patterson, who’s won every event she’s been healthy enough to enter since last summer, fell on her beam dismount.

“Obviously, last night wasn’t our best performance and we struggled,” USA Gymnastics president Bob Colarossi said. “But we look forward to putting our three best against the rest of the world’s three best. It’s all about execution.”

Surely, the Americans couldn’t have been intimidated by Russia’s scores. The Olympic silver medalists made the Americans’ struggles in the preliminaries look downright minuscule. They had to count a score in the 8s in all but one of their four events, and finished with 145.572 points — almost three points behind Romania.

The Russians should’ve known they were in for a rough day when their very first competitor of the day, Yelena Anochina, stumbled backward on the landing of her vault and slammed into the horse.

Things were particularly brutal on uneven bars, normally one of Russia’s strengths. Anochina went first again and promptly fell again. Tossing herself backward over the bar on a release move, she couldn’t hang on and landed on her backside, tumbling backward and smacking her head on the mat.

Ludmila Ehova, the reigning world bronze medalist on bars, was up next, but she dropped off, too.

There were more problems on the balance beam. And on floor, Anochina, Yelena Zamolodchikova, and two-time world all-around champion Svetlana Khorkina all stepped out of bounds.

“There was a little bit too much pressure for the team, and they didn’t perform what they’re capable of doing,” said Leonid Arkaev, head coach of the Russian team.

“When the team competes for the medals, it’ll be a completely different look.”

In team finals, scores are wiped out and each squad puts three gymnasts on each event, with all three scores counting.

The Romanians have won every world title since 1994, and they’d like to continue that streak here. But the Romanians are also in a rebuilding period. No one from the 2001 worlds team is left, and Oana Ban is the “veteran” at the ripe old age of 17.

“We need another year to work very hard to be well during the Olympic Games,” Belu said. “It’s like teaching a kid to swim in a small pool and after, you drop them in the ocean.”

But the Romanians are doing more than just treading water. After getting bars, their weakness out of the way, they cruised through the final three events, not scoring lower than 9.175 the rest of the way.

Their floor routines were marvelous, with impossibly huge tumbling passes for girls who are barely big enough to be seen off the podium. Their lively, bouncy music was the perfect showcase for their bright personalities, too.

“I asked each girl to try her best,” Belu said. “We have to work very hard.”

So do the Americans and the Russians.

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