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BEIJING 2008 : WOMEN'S GYMNASTICS

For top two teams, nothing routine at all

The 2007 world champion U.S. and the silver medalist host country go to the mat again.

August 09, 2008|Diane Pucin | Times Staff Writer

BEIJING -- Bela Karolyi sums up the women's gymnastics team competition in five easily understood words: "U.S., China, no one else."

One of the most anticipated Olympic battles begins Sunday with team qualifying. Twelve countries are entered, including traditional contenders such as Romania and Russia, but it is the battle between the 2007 world champion United States and silver medalist and home country favorite China that could offer some of the most tense athletic moments of the Games.

"These are the two teams most prepared, most ready," Karolyi said after watching the young Chinese team and the veteran Americans perform all their tricks and try out their best landings and intricate dance steps on the Olympic equipment Thursday at the National Indoor Stadium.

At the world championships in Stuttgart last September, the U.S. beat China by the slimmest of margins: 184.400 to 183.450.

But these aren't the same teams. The U.S. has two new team members. Chellsie Memmel and Bridget Sloan replace Shayla Worley, who broke a leg and couldn't compete, and Ivana Hong, who was named an alternate after a series of lusterless performances throughout the Olympic trials.

The anchors are still the same, though. Defending world all-around champion Shawn Johnson and balance beam gold medalist Nastia Liukin have hopes of not only team gold but also multiple individual medals.

The Chinese also have two new members, He Kexin and Deng Linlin. A trio of 16-year-olds -- He, Yang Yilin and Jiang Yuyuan -- have had their age eligibility questioned as several media organizations, including The Times, have received documents from provincial registration lists indicating that all three were born in 1993 or 1994, which would make them ineligible according to the rules of the international gymnastics federation, FIG.

"We aren't thinking about this at all," said U.S. women's team coordinator Martha Karolyi. "We will only worry about what we can control, and that's our performances."

At the last head-to-head meeting, the U.S. beat China by 1.575 points on the vault, .675 on the uneven bars and 1.050 on floor exercise but lost the balance beam by 2.350 when both Johnson and Liukin took unexpected falls.

China's He drew the attention of the national team late last year with a series of high-scoring routines on the uneven bars. The country's most veteran gymnast, 20-year-old Cheng Fei, hopes to avoid the disastrous fall she took on the vault in team finals last year where she scored a 15.025. Cheng won the individual vault gold medal with the help of a 16.000 vault.

Performing in Beijing will be emotional for both Johnson, 16, and her coach, Liang Chow.

Chow, 40, is from Beijing and was once a captain of the Chinese national team. With a feeling of wanderlust and a sense of adventure, Chow accepted a job as an assistant coach at Iowa in 1990. In a state with no gymnastics history, Chow eventually built his own gym and has nurtured the ascendant career of Johnson with both caution and creativity (he sent a tape of Johnson to Karolyi three years ago and got her an invitation to the national training center).

Now Chow has been named coach of the U.S. team. His assistant is Valeri Liukin, Nastia's father and a former Russian Olympic gymnast.

A third U.S. gymnast, Samantha Peszek of Indianapolis, is also coached by a Chinese native, Peter Zhao, who grew up in Tianjin, the city where the Chinese team trains.

Chow said the value of the internationally diverse coaching staff is that the American women have incorporated the graceful ballet style of Russian gymnastics with the willingness to do difficult routines that are the staples of Chinese gymnastics.

The Chinese team is notably younger than the U.S. team. The U.S. has a pair of 20-year-olds in Memmel and Alicia Sacramone, the 18-year-old Liukin and the 16-year-olds Johnson and Sloan. Cheng is the only Chinese team member older than 16.

So who has the advantage?

"I can tell you one thing about youth," Sacramone said. "You don't wake up in the morning wondering how many ice buckets you need today, you don't have as much pounding going on.

"But with experience you gain things too. It's like turning on a light switch. Turn on the switch, we're in routine mode. Then we finish, we're out, we're done, move on to the next thing. So maybe the nerves are a little less and the big moments don't get to you so much."

Asked to assess how this competition will go, Chow gave an unequivocal answer.

"I think the Chinese women's team is a very strong squad this year," he said, "but we won the world championships last year, we have had that title for almost an entire year and I think we are up for the challenge."

--

diane.pucin@latimes.com

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