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U.S. women get high rise on beam

Without a wobble, they take first in qualifying for team finals, finishing nearly four points ahead of China at gymnastics' world championships.

September 03, 2007|Diane Pucin | Times Staff Writer

STUTTGART, Germany -- It is no one's favorite apparatus, that balance beam. It is four inches wide and unforgiving of the slightest misstep, the tiniest waver, the merest shiver of nerves.

It was on the balance beam that the U.S. women's gymnastics team began its performance at the 2007 world championships Sunday night and in a matter of 15 minutes the American women rocked that piece of wood with four of the top eight individual scores.

Propelled by such a wobble-free start, the U.S. scored 245.025 points, nearly four ahead China (241.175), the defending world champions.

Romania qualified for Wednesday's team finals in third place. Russia, bronze medalists last year, finished fourth and afterward Coach Andrei Rodionenko left some of his girls in tears after he issued a loud tongue-lashing in a hallway.

The top eight teams made it to the team finals where everybody starts with a score of zero. Italy, Britain, France and Brazil round out the field. The top 12 teams also qualified for the 2008 Beijing Olympics. Japan (228.175) edged out North Korea (226.675) for 12th.

This round also determined the 24 women who will compete in the all-around final Thursday and the event finals Saturday and Sunday. For the U.S., 17-year-old Nastia Liukin (second overall) and 15-year-old Shawn Johnson (third) advanced. Shayla Worley, who turned 17 Sunday, finished eighth but only two women per country are eligible. Romania's Steliana Nistor had the highest all-around score of 61.600.

The top eight on each apparatus also qualified for the event finals. For the U.S., Johnson advanced on balance beam and floor exercise, Liukin on uneven bars and balance beam, and Alicia Sacramone on vault and floor exercise.

Johnson, who hasn't lost an all-around competition in more than a year, took an unlikely tumble on her uneven bars landing, her last event of the night.

"She never misses that," U.S. team director Martha Karolyi said.

"She rarely makes a mistake like that," Johnson's personal coach Liang Chow said.

"I won't make that mistake again," Johnson said.

It was a rare misstep for the Americans who posted the best scores on floor exercise and vault as well as beam.

"We could afford those mistakes then," Chow said, hinting the U.S. girls had sneaked a peak at the scoreboard and understood how far ahead of the field they were.

Sacramone, a college sophomore and the emotional leader of this young team that has four world championship rookies, cautioned that feeling good about winning qualifications is meaningless.

Last year the U.S. also won the first round but settled for the silver medal.

It was a redemptive night for the two national team veterans.

Sacramone, the 2005 world floor exercise champion, was denied her chance to defend that gold medal a year ago in Denmark when judges controversially deducted a half point for a small stop in her dance routine. Though she stepped out of bounds on her last tumbling pass, Sacramone's floor exercise was so filled with difficult acrobatics and saucy attitude Sunday that she finished with a wink at Karolyi.

Liukin had been an all-around favorite before she injured her ankle in Denmark. She has struggled since and lost her national title to Johnson last month.

"This is more what I want to be," Liukin said.

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diane.pucin@latimes.com

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