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Monday, August 11, 2008
U.S. women stay focused on team final after messy qualifying round


BEIJING -- A sleepless night beckons for Chinese gymnast Cheng Fei, but it is not just the pressure of leading the host nation's bid for their first Olympic women's team crown that is worrying her -- it is the 10:30 a.m. start for the final.

Traditionally medals in the sport are contested in the evening, but NBC wanted morning finals to show on prime-time TV in the United States, which has meant some athletes face wake-up calls as early as 6 a.m.

"I'm tense about it because I'll be lying awake worrying about it all night, I'll be very tired by the morning," triple world vault champion Cheng said.

The sight of a drowsy Chinese team could cheer up the Americans, as they have been beset by injury woes, with Chellsie Memmel and Samantha Peszek both hurting their ankles, and were outclassed in qualifying.

After dethroning China as world champions in Stuttgart, Germany, last September, they had arrived in Beijing poised to give the United States its first Olympics team title on foreign soil.

The team will be spearheaded by world all-round champion Shawn Johnson and Nastia Liukin and they feel the injuries should not affect them too much since they still have four healthy athletes in their ranks.

"You only have to find three strong girls for each event, so we're confident we can come away with a good score," said Liukin.

In Wednesday's team final, three gymnasts from each country compete on an apparatus and every score counts.

Since drawing a blank at the 2000 Sydney Games, the Americans have been the team to beat. They have captured 13 golds in the past six world championships, including two team titles and all-around crowns for Johnson and Memmel in 2007 and 2005, respectively.

In qualifying Sunday, it all seemed to go wrong and their routines were littered with errors -- Alicia Sacramone and Bridget Sloan tumbled outside the area on floor while Liukin and Memmel had mistakes on the uneven bars.

U.S. team coordinator Martha Karolyi urged her charges not to hit the panic button.

"I've told them don't dwell on mistakes and make sure you stay focused," Karoyli said after the Americans were beaten by only 1.475 points despite the mishaps.

The Romanians have been in disarray since their triumph in 2004 and have already lowered their expectations with floor specialist Sandra Izbasa declaring the "the team's goal is a bronze medal."

If Sunday's qualifying session turns out to be a true indicator of form, they could find themselves off the podium as a resurgent Russia claimed third place.

Johnson and Liukin will be eager to renew their personal rivalry in the individual all-round final Friday.

With China topping the preliminary leaderboard for the team and all four apparatus finals, the all-round could turn out to be the only event in which the U.S. claims a one-two punch.