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U.S. women stay focused on team final after messy qualifying round

8/11/2008

BEIJING -- A sleepless night beckons for
Chinese gymnast Cheng Fei, but it is not just the pressure of
leading the host nation's bid for their first Olympic women's
team crown that is worrying her -- it is the 10:30 a.m. start
for the final.

Traditionally medals in the sport are contested in the
evening, but NBC wanted morning finals to show
on prime-time TV in the United States, which has meant some
athletes face wake-up calls as early as 6 a.m.

"I'm tense about it because I'll be lying awake worrying
about it all night, I'll be very tired by the morning," triple
world vault champion Cheng said.

The sight of a drowsy Chinese team could cheer up the
Americans, as they have been beset by injury woes, with Chellsie
Memmel and Samantha Peszek both hurting their ankles, and were
outclassed in qualifying.

After dethroning China as world champions in Stuttgart, Germany, last
September, they had arrived in Beijing poised to give the
United States its first Olympics team title on foreign soil.

The team will be spearheaded by world all-round champion
Shawn Johnson and Nastia Liukin and they feel the injuries
should not affect them too much since they still have four
healthy athletes in their ranks.

"You only have to find three strong girls for each event, so
we're confident we can come away with a good score," said
Liukin.

In Wednesday's team final, three gymnasts from each country
compete on an apparatus and every score counts.

Since drawing a blank at the 2000 Sydney Games, the
Americans have been the team to beat. They have captured 13
golds in the past six world championships, including two team
titles and all-around crowns for Johnson and Memmel in 2007 and 2005, respectively.

In qualifying Sunday, it all seemed to go wrong and
their routines were littered with errors -- Alicia Sacramone
and Bridget Sloan tumbled outside the area on floor while
Liukin and Memmel had mistakes on the uneven bars.

U.S. team coordinator Martha Karolyi urged her charges not
to hit the panic button.

"I've told them don't dwell on mistakes and make sure you
stay focused," Karoyli said after the Americans were beaten by only 1.475
points despite the mishaps.

The Romanians have been in disarray since their triumph in 2004
and have already lowered their expectations with floor
specialist Sandra Izbasa declaring the "the team's goal is a
bronze medal."

If Sunday's qualifying session turns out to be a true
indicator of form, they could find themselves off the podium as
a resurgent Russia claimed third place.

Johnson and Liukin will be eager to renew their personal
rivalry in the individual all-round final Friday.

With China topping the preliminary leaderboard for the team
and all four apparatus finals, the all-round could turn out to
be the only event in which the U.S. claims a one-two punch.