Something was amiss from the moment the American women's gymnastics team walked onto the floor Sunday afternoon for the team qualification event. Instead of five gymnasts suited up and ready to compete, only four members of the squad marched in outfitted in their leotards. The fifth athlete, Samantha Peszek, walked in wearing her warmup outfit.
In the run-through minutes before the event was due to start, Peszek tweaked her ankle on a tumbling run on the floor exercise. "On the take off, she initiated twisting a little early," says Martha Karolyi, national team coordinator. "It wasn't a fall or anything. But it gave us a tiny disturbance at the last minute we had to reorganize things, and readdress." It was the women squad's second injury in as many weeks the first came just days before the Games, when Chellsie Memmel, a contender for the all-around title and a critical part of the U.S. women's bid against the Chinese for the team gold, also aggravated a fickle ankle on a tumbling combination. The second mishap's timing clearly rattled the team, which looked jittery on the first few events of the afternoon. In the end, the U.S. safely qualified for the team final Wednesday 1.475 points behind China, and Americans Shawn Johnson (the only member of the team to draw a chant of "U-S-A, U-S-A" with her balance beam routine) and Nastia Liukin sit in first and second place in the individual all-around competition but getting there was a bit of a tumble and run.
In the qualification round for the team finals, each six member team can ask five gymnasts to compete on each event floor, bars, beam and vault. The lowest score is omitted, and the top eight teams with the highest scores compete in the team finals. The U.S. women are the defending world champions, and are expected to battle with China and defending Olympic team champs Romania for the coveted team gold medal, which the Americans last won in the 1996 Atlanta Games with the Magnificent Seven. But without Peszek, all four of the girls' scores had to count, and thus there was no room for error. "It was a big shock to us," says Shawn Johnson, who nevertheless laid down four solid routines and now leads the point count for the all-around title. "It's something we weren't expecting. It threw us for a loop. It's more stressful knowing we only had four [gymnasts] and that it is four up and four [scores] count. But we put it into our minds that we couldn't let anything get to us."
Peszek was still able to compete on the bars, the only event of the four in which the U.S. used all five of its allotted athletes. The shock of Peszek's injury, along with Memmel's, clearly weighed on the remaining team-mates Johnson, nine-time world medalist Nastia Liukin, Alicia Sacramone and Bridget Sloan, as they took to the first rotation on floor exercise an event at which the U.S. generally excels. Sacramone, a former world champion on floor, unexpectedly stepped out of bounds, costing her a deduction and lowering her score by enough of a margin to keep her out of the individual event final, in which she was expected to finish on the podium. "I missed out on the floor exercise finals, which is sad," she says, "but you get hyped up, and throw a little too much power into it, and before you know it, you're out of bounds."
When they got to bars, the U.S. finally had the five gymnasts it needed to compete including a not fully fit Memmel, whose five release moves make her a high scorer on this apparatus. But she lost her grip in one of those flights, and took a hit in her score. "It just happened," she says. "There wasn't anything wrong, I fell. It was a mistake." While she normally scores above 16, she had to be content with a 15.05. Then came Liukin, who has one of the most difficult routines in the world and might have been shaken to see Memmel slip off the bars. After a typically flawless program, Liukin uncharacteristically landed awkwardly and fell onto her back, dropping her score; in qualifying for the Olympics, she had earned more than 17 points for the same program.
It was a trial by fire, in some respects, but at least the U.S. women have a taste of what the pressure cooker team finals will be like later in the week, when only three gymnasts will be competing on each apparatus and all three scores count. With the home crowd rooting for their team in a sure to be sold-out National Indoor Stadium, the stakes and the stress will be even higher come Wednesday. "We've definitely done better, but we've also seen worse," says Sacramone. "We will ice up, rest tonight and hit the gym tomorrow. We want that gold medal more than anything."