- The Washington Times - Monday, August 11, 2008

BEIJING | Their strides looked confident as the four healthy U.S. women’s gymnastics team members came out into the arena Sunday afternoon for their Olympic debuts.

Nastia Liukin said their looks were deceiving.

“I don’t know if you could tell, but we didn’t have that same look in us going out to the floor,” she said.

They had reason to be edgy. Moments before the start of team qualifications, Samantha Peszek sprained her left ankle while practicing a floor routine. She would join Chellsie Memmel in being limited to only one event, the uneven bars.

That left only a quartet of full-time gymnasts and no margin for error because of the scoring system - five can compete in an event, and four scores are counted.

“We had some tension finishing up, so that was a tiny bit of disturbance,” national team coordinator Martha Karolyi said.

The tension showed early when Alicia Sacramone committed a major foul on the floor exercise, having both feet go out of bounds. The United States, though, quickly regained its footing. Aside from two errors on uneven bars, it finished second to host China.

The United States is 1.875 points behind China, setting up a team duel in the finals Tuesday night EDT. Russia, Romania and Australia round out the top five.

“[The injury] took us all by surprise, and we were all freaked out,” Liukin said. “It’s always hard going into something knowing one of your teammates is injured and can’t help you out. But we knew we had to even fight harder for it.”

Shawn Johnson (62.275) and Liukin (62.375) were the top two individual finishers, earning each a berth in the all-around competition later in the week.

The United States had the best team scores in vault, balance beam and floor exercise.

Johnson was solid as usual although not as dynamic after adopting a conservative approach.

“I feel I still have a lot more to give,” she said. “I thought I was pretty calm, cool and collected today. I wanted to hit big routines, and when the team finals and all-around finals come around, I want to keep fighting.”

The fight became a little more stressful without Peszek, who was going to compete in each event. But on a combination floor pass, Karolyi said Peszek initiated her twist too early and was injured.

“We had to figure it out and make a lot of quick decisions, and the team doctor was having me do some exercises, and they were like, ‘Come on, come on - we need an answer,’” said Peszek, whose Olympics are over. “By the time I got back in, we were already marching out. The whole team was a little flustered, but they handled it great.”

The team handled it eventually. On the first rotation, Sacramone - a former medalist on floor exercise at the world championships - earned only a 14.425 when she went out of bounds.

“We all tried to pretend Sam didn’t get hurt; obviously that didn’t work,” she said. “It hurts a lot [to struggle on floor] because that’s been my specialty for so long.”

Said Karolyi: “Some of the girls get a tiny more disturbed by adversity, and Sam’s injury was certainly like that. Alicia couldn’t probably put all of it together in a very short time. She’s able to do much higher quality.”

The United States got its legs in the vault when Johnson scored a 16.000 and Sacramone a 15.850.

But then came another hiccup. On uneven bars, Memmel had a hold of the high bar, but her grip slipped and she fell to the mat. Liukin had a great routine going until she landed … and fell backward. Even so, she scored a 15.950.

“On bars, I have zero explanation for what happened,” Karolyi said.

Finishing on the balance beam, the United States posted three scores of at least 15.950.

Although 1.875 points is a big deficit (1.525 points of it because of the mishaps on the uneven bars), the Americans’ best hope is the scoring system, which shifts to a “three-up, three-down” format in which only a trio of gymnasts perform each event and all their individual scores count.

Johnson and Liukin figure to compete in all four events, and Sacramone is likely to join them on vault, floor and beam. That leaves Karolyi to decide whether Memmel can rebound from the uneven bars fall. But with the top two individual scores, the United States knows it has a chance.

“We have proved to be consistent in three up-three down,” Sacramone said. “We can relax knowing that in those tense situations, we can get the job done.”

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