BEIJING - The contrast is stark.
There are the Chinese women gymnasts, tiny tots so light and lithe yet so fiercely unafraid they will throw themselves, all 73 pounds, one, two, three times off the uneven bars in a whirl of speed that makes it hard to count the tricks.
There are the U.S. women gymnasts, taller, older, carrying the aches and pains from hundreds of practices, years of pounding. Chellsie Memmel has an ankle that throbs. Alicia Sacramone is taped from knee to foot. The Americans offer both the power of Shawn Johnson's thuddingly ferocious balance beam routine to go with the finesse of Nastia Liukin's elegant uneven bars work.
Two U.S. women, defending world all-around champion Johnson and nine-time world medalist Liukin, qualified first and second in the all-around qualifying. But the Chinese team finished ahead of the U.S. women by 1.475 points in yesterday's Olympic gymnastics qualification round.
On Wednesday there will be eight teams in the team finals but, based on the results of the last world championship and the qualifying event here, only two will battle for gold.
China and the United States.
After finishing second to China in the qualification round by the score of 248.275 to 246.800, the defending world-champion U.S. team is heading off to lick its wounds, practice its landings and polish its confidence.
The Chinese women walked through an interview area with their heads down Sunday.
"The coach tells them not to talk," a translator says.
The U.S. women spent 30 minutes dissecting their mistakes and emotions. Why did Memmel fall off the uneven bars yesterday? "Just a mistake," she says. Why did Sacramone step out of bounds on her floor exercise? "I threw myself too hard on my two and a half," she says. "I still want a do-over."
Sacramone and her teammates had to absorb the emotional blow of seeing teammate Samantha Peszek injure her ankle on a final warm-up pass just five minutes before yesterday's action began, then put aside their nerves after having Memmel fall off the uneven bars and Liukin stumble backward on her landing on the same apparatus.
Yet the U.S. gymnasts left the National Indoor Stadium with the momentum of a strong balance-beam performance and the comfort of knowing they are better than they showed.
"We had to overcome so much today," Johnson said after posting an all-around score of 62.725, best among the 98 women in the contest. "It was a whirl of emotions for us. I'm glad we got the nerves out, got the few mistakes out of the way and now we go out and get ready for finals."
During team qualifying, teams could use five of their six gymnasts on each apparatus and count only four scores. Peszek's unexpected injury and Memmel's bad ankle, which also held her to competing on one apparatus - uneven bars - left U.S. coaches scrambling with a makeshift lineup.
But in the finals, only three gymnasts per team compete and all three scores count. Even before her injury, Peszek was likely to only do vault.
"When it comes to three up, three count, this is a totally different ball game," Valeri Liukin said. Valeri is Nastia's father and a team assistant coach.
Liang Chow, team head coach and Johnson's personal coach, agreed. "I believe the girls will do a better job at finals," he said. "We have more experience at the three up, three count."
China coach Lu Shanzhen suggested that his team also has room for improvement. His top uneven bars worker, He Kexin, also fell and Jiang had a vault error.
"They (his team) get a 70 percent because He dropped from the bars," Lu said. "We expected to win a medal on that event. The disappointment was He's mistake.
"But we are a young team. I think we can do it better next time."
U.S. team coordinator Martha Karolyi pointed to the fact that Sacramone is capable of scoring over a point better on her floor exercise and that Memmel and Liukin have also scored at least a point better on their uneven bars routine.
By taking only yesterday's scores of the three likely competitors for China and the U.S., China would have won the gold medal by less than a point - 147.970 to 146.550. The U.S. won the world championship last September by .500.
So a blowout Wednesday seems unlikely.