BEIJING - The gold medal went away a little for the United States today when the tiny Chinese uneven bars workers twirled and let go and caught those chalky bars as if they were in a gym with a few friends and no pressure.
And it went away a little more when Alicia Sacramone fell on her mount on the balance beam and scored nearly half a point lower than usual. It was gone for sure when Sacramone, up first on floor exercise, fell on her second pass, a hard sit down when the U.S. needed perfection.
China won the women's gymnastics team gold medal. Defending world champion United States took the silver with Romania taking the bronze.
While the young Chinese team had only one major mistake, by its 20-year-old Olympic veteran Cheng Fei, the U.S. women crumbled after Sacramone's beam fall. Nastia Liukin stepped out of bounds on her floor exercise routine and by the time Shawn Johnson came up, Liukin was crying in the arms of Samantha Peszek and the Chinese women were able to do their final floor passes without pressure.
The atmosphere at the National Indoor Stadium had become raucous after the Americans had taken an early lead on vault. As soon as a "USA" cheer began, though, the Chinese fans chanted louder and longer and the Chinese girls got more steady.
The United States and China competed on the same events, head to head and the teams began with vault.
The Chinese made a surprise substitution, putting up Deng Linlin as their third vaulter even though the start list had Jiang Yuyuan as up third. Yuyuan, who has qualified for the all-around finals, had missed her vault in team qualifying and scored only a 14.775.
Yang Yilin was the first vaulter and with one hop on her landing and a start value of 5.80, Yilin posted a 15.100. Defending world vault champion Cheng Fei, with her big vault and its start value of 6.50, landed with bent knees but no other flaw and had a 16.100. Deng, with her face scrunched in concentration, landed with a step and had a 15.250.
Up first for the U.S. was Bridget Sloan. Had teammate Samantha Peszek not injured her ankle during warm-ups for Sunday's team qualifications Sloan would have been on the sidelines for today's finals, where only three girls on each apparatus compete.
Sloan earned coach Bela Karolyi's bear hug by finishing with a tiny hop and scoring 15.200. Shawn Johnson, who has a start value the equal of Cheng's, soared higher and landed with one foot crossed in front of the other. She too received a 16.000 and Alicia Sacramone, the 20-year-old defending world vault bronze medalist, hit her vault with only the tiniest of extra steps and earned a 15.675, giving the U.S. the best of round one, 46.875 to 46.350.
The two teams moved to uneven bars, where the Chinese were expected to have the better of it, especially with their two 16-year-old newcomers, Jiang and He Kexin, both of whom have had their passport ages called into question when regional registration lists from two and three years ago had them being born in 1993 and 1994.
The youngsters swung the momentum. Yang, with every pointed toe and finger and with her release moves done precisely, had a 16.800. He, who had fallen during team qualifying and left the floor in tears, had no hint of a nerve and when she held on to all her releases and resolutely made her landing, China had outscored the U.S. 49.625 to 47.975, even though Liukin had the best number, 16.900.
Chellsie Memmel didn't fall, as she did on Sunday, but she was slow and cautious and Shawn Johnson's routine didn't have the difficulty of any of the Chinese girls.
Momentum left China quickly for a moment.
The next apparatus was balance beam and China's sole 20-year-old, Cheng, fell off on her first tumbling pass. It was the first major mistake by any of the two contenders. After Deng and Li Shanshan both scored high for China, Sacramone was up.
And then down, fallen on her mount and left in tears too early. The U.S. went to the final rotation, floor exercise, needing three high scoring routines but Sacramone fell fast and the oomph was gone from them all.