Heart, not mistakes, defines U.S. women's performance in qualifier

BEIJING -- At 1:25 p.m. Sunday, the U.S. women's gymnastics team walked out onto the floor at National Indoor Stadium, its usual confident swagger suddenly gone.

What those watching didn't know was that about 15 minutes earlier, Samantha Peszek, who was slated to compete in all four events in the team all-around, sprained her left ankle while warming up on the floor. The distress was visible on the faces of Shawn Johnson, Alicia Sacramone, Nastia Liukin, Chellsie Memmel and Bridget Sloan, athletes who rarely show visible signs of stress.

"I don't know if anyone noticed, but we did not walk out onto the floor looking like our usual selves," Liukin said after the competition. "This was more stress than we were planning for."

People noticed.

If they didn't notice on the march out, they did when Sloan and Sacramone, the first two U.S. gymnasts to compete in the first rotation, stepped out of bounds on late passes in their floor routines. "It was rough, but we got through it," said Sacramone, who is close friends with Peszek and had a hard time keeping her friend's disappointment out of her mind.

Now she must deal with her own disappointment after not making the individual finals on floor, an event that could have earned her a medal. "It hurts a lot," she said. "Floor has been my specialty for a long time."

After floor, the team's struggles continued. With Peszek gone from three events (she competed on bars with her ankle taped), the team lacked a throwaway score on floor, vault and beam, which placed added pressure on the girls competing in those events.

But uneven bars proved their greatest nemesis. Memmel and Liukin, both former world champions in the event, had uncharacteristic falls. "By the end of the routine, I wanted everything to be so good that I overrotated my dismount," Liukin said. "But I'm not concerned about that happening in finals."

The mistakes and bobbles and falls, however, did not define this team's performance. Their hearts did. By the final rotation, the balance beam, it was obvious that the Americans' confidence had returned. They finally looked like the defending world champions.

Before Sloan mounted the beam to start the rotation, Sacramone pulled her teammates together and told them that no matter what happened, she was proud of how far they'd come, and reminded them they were the best gymnasts in the world.

Then, one by one, they nailed their routines.

At the end of the event, falls and all, Team USA was in second place, less than 1½ points behind China. Johnson and Liukin finished 1-2 in individual qualifiers, and at least one member of Team USA qualified in each individual event.

"It was sure nice to end on a good note," Liukin said.

Talk about understatement.

Alyssa Roenigk is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine.