U.S. women win worlds, Olympic favorite status

TOKYO -- The U.S. women won the team gold medal at the world gymnastics championships in dominant fashion Tuesday evening in Japan, beating defending world titlist Russia by an enormous four-point margin and setting themselves up as favorites for team gold at next summer's Olympic Games.

Pretty inspiring, given the team seemed headed for disaster less than a week ago.

The U.S. lost veteran team leader Alicia Sacramone last Thursday when she tore her Achilles tendon doing a floor routine in the training gym. Sacramone, who flew back to the U.S. for surgery on Monday, was not in Tokyo to accept her 10th world medal, which she will receive as a member of the U.S. team, even though she wasn't able to compete. This gold sets an American record for the most world medals; Sacramone had been tied with Shannon Miller and Nastia Liukin, with nine.

But even without Sacramone, the young Americans -- first-year seniors Gabrielle Douglas, Sabrina Vega, Jordyn Wieber and McKayla Maroney, as well as Alexandra Raisman -- performed like seasoned pros, showing the confidence and maturity of a team that has been training together for 10 years.

Which is what it might have felt like, given the arduous selection process for choosing the team and all they endured before the competition. The selection process included the U.S. Championships and two additional competition-style training camps at the Karolyi Ranch, the national team training center in New Waverly, Texas.

The seven named to the world team were then whisked to Tokyo, where twice-daily workouts in the official training hall were the norm. Even when compared to the other top teams training in the same hall, the U.S.'s workload, overseen by the gymnasts' personal coaches and national team coordinator Martha Karolyi, seemed heavier than the rest. Practices were intense sessions with many full routines and little talking other than instructions from coach to gymnast.

It seemed enough to break bodies, and for five 2012 Olympic hopefuls, it was. Beijing Olympian Chellsie Memmel suffered a shoulder injury on bars at the U.S. Championships; Rebecca Bross, a knee injury at the same meet; Mackenzie Caquatto sprained her ankle on beam at one of the selection camps; Anna Li strained her abdominal; and finally Sacramone tore her Achilles three days before the meet began.

That left the U.S. women with only five gymnasts healthy enough to compete, while other teams had six. But Karolyi has always maintained that this kind of intense preparation is the stuff world and Olympic champions are made of. After the medal ceremony Tuesday night, Karolyi attributed the team's success to the intense work the team members had put in. "I'm so happy," she said, "that actually it proved the preparation was right."

By the final rotation, the U.S. was so far ahead of defending world champion Russia that each gymnast only needed to score slightly above 10.0 -- a very low score in gymnastics these days -- to guarantee the team gold medal. Raisman was the last to perform, and halfway through her routine U.S. coaches Mihai Brestyan and Jiani Wu were jumping up and down with excitement. After Raisman came off the floor, the rest of team followed suit.

Yoshikazu Tsuno/AFP/Getty Images

Russia counted a fall on beam and ended up second overall.

Russia, the only team that seemed to have a chance at catching the U.S. after China counted a fall on bars during the first rotation, seemed incomplete without reigning world champion Aliya Mustafina, who is recovering after having torn an ACL this spring. Though the Russians showed their signature grace and had solid performances from Olympic veteran Ksenia Afanasyeva, a fall on beam from rising star Viktoria Komova effectively ended their campaign for the gold.

"On this day, Americans were unbeatable, and it was clear that even if Komova hadn't made any mistake on the beam, America would have won," Russian team coach Alexander Alexandrov said through an interpreter. Although the Russians finished more than four points below the U.S., Alexandrov was satisfied with how his team performed, noting that Komova has had a hard time recovering from an ankle injury and reigning European champion Anna Dementyeva had been sick with a fever earlier this week.

Though absent from Tokyo, Mustafina remains Russia's ace in the hole, and from the way Alexandrov talked, she may soon be ready to compete again. Mustafina will travel to Munich to visit the German specialist who operated on her knee in April, and the Russians are hoping she receives clearance to compete. If so, Mustafina may even take part in meets later this year, Alexandrov said.

As it was, the 2010 world champion was thoroughly upset not to be selected to the team. "Just a week ago, when I told her that she wouldn't take part, she was crying because actually despite of her injury she thought [she would be here]," Alexandrov said, "She really wanted to, and she had chances, but we decided not to take the risk because there's the Olympics next year."

China, the 2008 Olympic team gold medalists, edged Romania for the bronze for the second year in a row despite having to count falls on balance beam and floor exercise from newcomer Tan Sixin. Unfortunately, Tan embodied what the Chinese team was before 2008: talented but extremely inconsistent. China, which opted not to compete Olympic bars champion He Kexin after she fell on a release skill in team prelims, also had to count a fall there from Huang Qiushuang.

Great Britain, fifth, was jubilant after recording its best-ever finish at a World Championships. The British women were the only team beside the Americans in the eight-team final that didn't record a fall or major error, and they left the arena brimming with confidence that they can improve and challenge for a place on the podium in London.

So is Team USA, which will enter the Olympics as the team to beat. It's a familiar place for the U.S. women, who won the world title the year before the 2004 and 2008 Olympic Games as well but haven't captured Olympic gold since the team nicknamed the Magnificent Seven did it in 1996.

"I think it does give us a little bit of confidence," said Wieber, who qualified to Thursday's all-around final in second place behind Komova. "We still have a lot of hard work to do in the next year before the Olympics, but I know that having this in our pockets is really good."

"I don't want to get too cocky, because the Russians, Romanians and Chinese have amazing gymnasts," added Raisman, the only team member to have competed at a World Championships before. "You never know what they're going to have in a year, so we all just have to go back home and keep working hard." As she stood on the podium listening to the national anthem, Raisman thought about the Magnificent Seven.

"I was just trying to cherish the moment," she said. "I thought about when I was younger, when I watched the '96 Olympics and watching them all stand there with the gold medal, and I was doing the same thing. It was pretty cool."

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