BEIJING -- China issued the challenge, and the short-handed U.S. women couldn't answer on Sunday.
Now on to the showdown in the gymnastics team final at the Beijing Olympics, where every element truly counts.
Neither powerhouse was at its absolute best, and the Americans were severely handicapped after Samantha Peszek sprained her left ankle in warm-ups. On floor, vault and balance beam, the Americans could put up only four gymnasts -- meaning they had no room for error.
Peszek and Chellsie Memmel did one event each, the uneven bars, and neither performed particularly well. Memmel even fell.
So despite the excellence of world champ Shawn Johnson, who drew the only chants of "USA, USA" with her balance beam routine, the United States trailed the hosts by 1.475 points in second place after two of four rotations.
"There somewhat is relief the day is over. We overcame so much, it was all kind of a whirlwind," Johnson said. "And we got the nerves out and the mistakes out."
Johnson and Nastia Liukin were 1-2 in the all-around halfway through the day's qualifications, which should stand up.
"I knew things were happening I couldn't control and that were obviously not very good," Johnson said. "So I couldn't let it affect me."
But Peszek's injury -- her status for Wednesday's team final is uncertain -- had to take a toll on the Americans. It meant they basically were going 4-on-6 against the Chinese on Sunday.
"It was a little bit hard to go out from there," Liukin said. "A few of us had tears in our eyes because we know how badly she wanted to be out there. We said let's do it for her, let's do it for our families, let's do it for the people back home."
With the slates wiped clean for team finals, the Americans aren't in a mathematical hole.
"We'll come back strongly in the team finals and fight for it." Johnson promised.
China won the first subdivision, although most of the passion came from the audience. The Chinese women almost stoically went about their business: setting the bar high, then watching the world champion Americans fall short of it.
Give the U.S. team some slack, though, because Johnson, Liukin, Alicia Sacramone and Bridget Sloan had to carry most of the load. They were able to beat China's score in vault, but were hurt when Liukin fell on the landing in her specialty, uneven bars -- and her father-coach, Valeri, a 1988 double gold medalist for the Soviet Union, leaped off the side of the podium in frustration.
"I wanted to make my dismount so bad," Liukin said. "I've been doing it so well in training. I think I just pulled so hard and I overrotated."
Still, to surpass the Chinese on Wednesday without a full team will be extremely difficult. Then again, look how close they came despite five major mistakes.
Maybe by then, China's women will show the kind of emotion their fans displayed Sunday morning.
Oh, there was a hint of a smile here and there, particularly from Deng Linlin following a precise vault. And He Kexin, the subject of age-eligibility questions before the games -- is she really 16, or too young to be competing -- wiped away tears after falling from uneven bars.
But while the fans at a sold-out National Indoor Stadium cheered every move the Chinese made, the women mainly treated it as another day at the office.
In sweeping all four apparatus, the Chinese posted 248.275 points, far ahead of Romania's 238.425. The hosts, some of whom don't look old enough to be in high school, despite some sloppiness, gave the U.S. athletes a little too much to match.
"Today's performance was about 70 percent," China coach Lu Shanzhen said through an interpreter. "I am very satisfied with the Chinese girls' performance. If I can give them a score, I would say 70 percent, mainly for He Kexin falling off the uneven bars. It's a big pity for her."
The fans fell nearly silent when their favorites went on uneven bars, with only the high-pitched shouts of encouragement from the other team members piercing the air. That was in direct contrast to the rollicking atmosphere when Cheng Fei and company were rocking it on floor.
And there was a huge gasp when He fell. She got back onto the bars, though, and received a charitable 15.725.
"Maybe she was nervous because she wanted to perform her best," Cheng said of her teammate.
Overall, China's Yang Yilin led teammate Jiang Yuyuan in the all-around standings.
As they left the arena, the Chinese women finally loosened up, smiling and waving.