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American women lead Chinese after gymnastics worlds qualifying

STUTTGART, Germany -- There were no medals awarded for this
performance. Still, what a great night for the Americans to say
they have the best gymnastics team in the world.

From Nastia Liukin's graceful comeback to Alicia Sacramone's
"Remember Me?" floor routine, the U.S. women set themselves up as
the team to beat at these world championships -- and maybe next year
in Beijing, too -- with a razor-sharp and nearly mistake-free romp
through the gym in qualifying Sunday.


They scored 245.025 points to take a 3.85-point lead over China.


"We feed off each other's energy all the time. When everybody's doing good, it gives you that extra pump," said Shayla Worley, one of the new faces on a team that is now the undisputed favorite for
world gold.


Skeptics might point out that this was the same story as last
year, when the Americans led after qualifying but settled for a
silver medal in the more taxing final round. But qualifying night
in Denmark had its share of slip-ups and disappointments. Not so
much this time in Germany.


Maybe the best story belonged to Sacramone. Last year, she felt gypped by the half-point deduction she received on floor for a
small stop during a dance move -- a technicality that not even all
the judges really agreed upon.


It kept her out of event finals, with no chance to defend her
world floor title. She'll get a chance to win it back this year
thanks to a 90-second dose of attitude -- the hip shakes a little
more pronounced, the jumps a little higher and that strut off the
mat past the judges table, complete with a wink toward her coach on
the sideline, filled with an unmistakable message.


"I let it be known, I'm back for floor exercise and everybody
better watch out," Sacramone said. "It was like, 'This is for
last year, this is what it's supposed to be."'


Liukin also looked at last year as a missed opportunity. She
hurt her ankle before worlds and has been nursing it back to health
ever since. At nationals, she was less than 100 percent, not even
sure she'd be in the all-around.


Liukin finished second in the all-around, one spot behind
Steliana Nistor of Romania and just ahead of American national
champion Shawn Johnson. Johnson was ahead of Liukin after three
events, but fell on her bars dismount. Scores revert to zero for
the all-around. It could be good stuff, watching the 15-year-old go
against her 17-year-old teammate next Friday.


"I was so proud of Nastia," Johnson said. "But it makes you
want to work harder. We're definitely two tough competitors. We're
head-to-head."


This American team left last year's all-around silver medalist,
Jana Bieger, and the 2005 all-around champion, Chellsie Memmel, at
home with injuries, but still made it look easy in qualifying.


Closing the deal in Wednesday's finals, where three gymnasts
perform and all three scores count, will be a more difficult
challenge, but the point made Sunday is that the U.S. is a deep,
talented threat on schedule for the Olympics in 11 months.


China, which is also trying out some new gymnasts this year,
figures to be America's biggest challenger in the finals. Russia
and Romania should also be there.


The Romanians were in third place in qualifying after a nice
night of gymnastics Saturday highlighted by the comeback of their
star, Catalina Ponor.


The Russians, meanwhile, gave the world its first glimpse of
national champion Ksenia Semenova. The 14-year-old scored a 16.325
on uneven bars -- tied for the best score of the meet -- to leave
Russia in fourth.


It looked like a good enough day for the rebuilding Russian
squad, one not quite deserving of the dressing down the gymnasts
received from coach Andrei Rodionenko in the hall behind the
competition area moments after they finished.


"Completely everything," Rodionenko said when asked what he
didn't like about the day. "They just did not do their program. I
will analyze and I will make a decision."


The Americans got a much different reception from national team coordinator Martha Karolyi.


Never one to hold back on her displeasure, she spent much of
this night clapping with her hands above her head, shouting out
words of encouragement from the stands.


The Americans opened on beam, normally the toughest apparatus on the floor, and after all five gymnasts made it through their
routines without anyone falling off, Karolyi ran to the railing to
show how excited she was.


"I'm just happy with the general atmosphere right now," she
said. "It's a happy group of young ladies who are all trying to do
their best."