American Sabrina Vega competes on the balance beam at the World Gymnastics… (Lintao Zhang / Getty Images )
It was apparent from the very first apparatus at the World Gymnastics Championships in Tokyo that the United States women had something special going.
First Aly Raisman did what she described as her "best vault ever." U.S. all-around champion Jordyn Wieber followed with a nerveless and technically well-scored vault that was marred only by a tiny bobble on the landing.
Finally, in the three-up, three-count format of the team finals, 15-year-old McKayla Maroney completed a huge amanar (a difficult move requiring 2 1/2 twists), where she soared high over the apparatus.
Maroney, from Laguna Hills, landed lightly and without the movement of a toe. She scored a 16.033, the highest of any competitor Monday night and even the Russians burst into applause.
The U.S. had a total of 46.816 on vault, more than two points better than any of the other eight teams, and went on to win the world title by four points over Russia. And that was without Alicia Sacramone, the defending world vault champion, in the lineup.
Sacramone tore her Achilles' tendon during a practice tumbling pass and flew home to Massachusetts for surgery in hopes of keeping her Olympic dream alive. In addition, bars specialist and former UCLA gymnast Anna Li suffered an abdominal injury in Tokyo that kept her on the sidelines.
The U.S. finished with an overall total of 179.411 while Russia was well behind with 175.329. Defending Olympic champion China took the bronze over Romania with a score of 172.820.
Besides the injuries in Japan to Sacramone and Li, the U.S. had lost its 2010 all-around champion Rebecca Bross to a broken kneecap at nationals in August and one of its top hopes on uneven bars, Mackenzie Caquatto, to a sprained ankle during the final training camp before worlds.
Team coordinator Martha Karolyi had also raised eyebrows by choosing to send four-time 2008 Olympic medalist Shawn Johnson and her Beijing teammate Bridget Sloan to the secondary international meet at the Pan Am Games in Mexico later in the month.
"I was hoping for gold but I could not be 100% sure because there were so many newcomers," Karolyi said afterward. "These girls were standing up very confident, very powerful out there."
Indeed the U.S. hit all 32 routines during preliminaries and the team finals and also earned Sacramone a record 10th world championship medal even though she was in Massachusetts. Because Sacramone was an official member of the six-woman team, she got a medal without setting foot on an apparatus.
Maroney said Sacramone gave a pep talk before leaving Japan. "She told me to win the vault for the USA," Maroney said. Her chance for that will come later this week.
With less than a year to the London Olympics, it seems there will be fierce competition for the five U.S. spots.
Olympic all-around champion Nastia Liukin announced in Japan she was going to try a comeback for 2012, joining Johnson, Sloan and Chellsie Memmel on that path. And the U.S. also has reigning junior world champion Kyla Ross of Aliso Viejo, who will be age-eligible for the 2012 Games.
Pucin reported from Los Angeles.