China dominates for gymnastics gold at worlds; U.S. finishes fourth

Updated: September 6, 2007, 3:24 PM ET
Associated Press

STUTTGART, Germany -- For a year, the American men quietly took the criticism.

They weren't any good. They'd be lucky to qualify for the Beijing Olympics. They were little better than backups to those guys who won the silver medal in Athens.

How's this for an answer: A fourth-place finish at the world gymnastics championships that could have been even better. If not for two falls off the high bar, the U.S. men would have been the bronze medalists Thursday.

Not bad for backups.

"Obviously, we showed today we have the talent," captain David Durante said. "We're definitely not backups. We're definitely guys that can step out on the floor with anybody in the world. And eleven months from now, we're going to be a team that's going to scare other teams."

Don't bet against them.

Although the Americans finished almost 10 points behind the Chinese, nobody got close to the defending world champions. China breezed to its third straight title -- and seventh in the last eight world championships -- by an almost five-point margin. That's monstrous in a sport that's often decided by tenths and hundredths of a point.

But with 272.275 points, the United States was only 1.25 points behind Germany. Take away those misses on high bar and another on pommel horse, and it's the Americans sharing the podium with China and Japan.

"It's hard to be criticized time and time again, knowing the hours and hours we've spent in the gym, knowing the family we've created," Sean Golden said. "Finally, it just makes you fed up. It makes you say, 'You know what, it's time to go out there and do our job. I don't care what they say, we know what we believe.'

"I feel like we've done that very well today. Sure it could have been better, but I feel we've done that very well today."

Don't think they're satisfied, either. As much as the negativity following their 13th-place finish at last year's worlds fueled them, so, too, will knowing how close they came to that medal.

The Americans got to see up close how much fun it is to go home with some bling.

"The fact it didn't happen, we're a little hurt," Kevin Tan said. "But at the same time, it may be a blessing in disguise, because this team is one that's going to go back home and work twice as hard. We're not going to make the same mistakes."

Until now, the biggest problem for this group of Americans was timing. They had the unenviable task of not only following a team that did historic things -- the silver in Athens was the first team medal since the boycotted 1984 games, and Paul Hamm was the first American man to win all-around titles at both worlds and the Olympics -- but doing it from scratch.

With Hamm and twin brother Morgan taking almost three years off after Athens to finish their degrees, the U.S. men took a team with no Olympians to worlds last year. That's unheard of in this sport, where there's always a carryover or two. Throw in a case of food poisoning for Tan and some rookie mistakes, and the U.S. men finished a dismal 13th.

"We had so many people saying this team would never be what the team was in the past ... things that I don't like to read about the team," Jonathan Horton said.

Given another chance, they promised things would be different. And on Thursday, they were.

The Americans were sitting fourth with two events to go and likely to move up a spot. South Korea, the team ahead, had two of its weakest events, while the Americans closed with high bar and floor, two places they can post big scores.

But Durante and Sasha Artemev both flopped off the high bar on release moves, and Horton's routine wasn't nearly as polished as usual. The team posted three scores below 15 -- China counted two sub-15 scores the entire day Thursday -- and dropped to sixth place.

"I wanted to hit a perfect routine and got ahead of myself," Artemev said. "Instead of thinking about staying on, I was trying to do it really perfect. ... I feel bad. The medal was in our hands."

But unlike last year, when the Americans couldn't keep it together after the mistakes began, they rallied on floor.

Golden was up first and showed not the slightest bit of nerves, landing all his tumbling passes with certainty. Guillermo Alvarez has deceptive grace as he does strength moves that would have most people screaming in pain -- just try balancing your entire body on your hands while pulling your legs up to your nose.

Horton closed with a spectacular show. The folks who do trampoline don't get the height he did on his tumbling passes, yet he landed them with pinpoint control. He did have to windmill his arms after his last pass to keep his balance, but he never wobbled.

When all of the marks were in, the Americans had scored 46.800 -- best of any team, including China, on floor.

"To go out there and fight for every tenth and finish off strong, that's what the USA is about," Tan said. "It's about not giving up. It's about not holding anything down on yourself and going out and performing to the best of our abilities. And I think we really showed that on our last event."

Even more, they showed they have to be taken seriously.

"We could have easily been on that podium today. No doubt in my mind," Horton said. "People see that we're back. We're not an inexperienced team anymore. We know what we're doing, we know how to compete and I think we're going to do it next year."

Copyright 2007 by The Associated Press