Worlds over, it's now on to 2012 for gymnasts
LONDON (AP)The warm-up is over. Now it's time to focus on the real thing.
The world championships gave gymnasts a look at the arena where they'll be competing at the London Olympics, an idea of who might be medal threats and motivation to make a return trip in three years.
"I'll be better for it," said Jonathan Horton, who came in as a multi-medal threat but left empty-handed after a dismal performance in the all-around and a fall in the high bar. "I'll get back in the gym and train harder. There's nothing like completely falling on your face at a meet, particularly one like this, to pick yourself up."
The Americans leave here with five medals, second only to China, serving notice that they will again be a force in this Olympic cycle.
Bridget Sloan and Rebecca Bross went 1-2 in the all-around, gymnastics' glamour event, and each of the four women won a medal. The Americans unearthed a new dynamo in Kayla Williams, who won the vault title and nearly qualified for the floor final a mere five months after making the jump to the elite level.
"I'm very pleased," said Martha Karolyi, coordinator of the women's national team. "Finishing 1-2 in the all-around, it just shows the level of the USA."
The U.S. men didn't win any medals, but this wasn't a flameout like the 2006 world championships. Not long ago, putting one guy in an event final would have been a cause for celebration. Four made it here, the most since the early '80s, and three were rookies.
Danell Leyva missed a medal on high bar by just .025, and two of the three guys in front of him were Olympic gold medalists. Tim McNeill is going to give Horton some competition, posting the third-best score in qualifying and finishing seventh in the all-around final at his first major international competition.
Better yet, McNeill put up one of the best scores on pommel horse, an event that has long been the Americans' undoing. When Sasha Artemev, the 2006 bronze medalist on the event, returns from a back injury, the Americans will have two gymnasts who can put up monster scores on the event. That doesn't compare to China or Japan, but at least pommel horse won't be the black hole it usually is when Olympic qualifying begins next year.
"These guys showed me up, which is awesome," said Horton, the only carry-over from the U.S. team that won the bronze medal in Beijing. "I've got another team that's going to come back out for the team competition and do awesome."
Make no mistake, though, the Americans have work to do if they hope to match or surpass what they did in Beijing.
Sloan has one of the best floor routines in the world, Karolyi said, but small errors here and there in qualifying kept her out of the event final. Bross does one of the toughest beam routines in the world, but she didn't make the final, either, after botching her dismount in qualifying.
"You pay for little mistakes," Karolyi said. "So we'll put special effort in that direction."
Now that the guys are getting to the finals, they've got to make that jump to the medals podium. Part of that is experience and confidence, which has grown tremendously over the past eight years. But strategy in men's gymnastics has changed, and the Americans will have to adapt.
Most of the top gymnasts did easier, safer routines in qualifying, then added tougher tricks in the final to bump up their difficulty scores. Horton tried that, and while he didn't come away with a medal, it's the direction the men have to go.
"They're all looking at it the same way, they've got nothing to lose," said Ron Brant, coordinator of the men's team. "We've got to get to that next level."
Especially since the competition isn't getting any easier.
China's performance at worlds showed it will be as formidable in London as it was in Beijing - maybe even more so. Despite sending a team of youngsters for what was essentially a scouting mission, the Chinese men won four of the event titles. The women won on balance beam and uneven bars, and they continue to push the limits with huge difficulty scores.
"Our team performed very well," said Deng Linlin, the winner on beam. "It's perfect success."
Look out for Britain, too. Never a gymnastics powerhouse, the British are on the rise - right in time for the London Games. Beth Tweddle won her second world title, and it came on floor, not her signature event of uneven bars. Daniel Keatings gave Britain its first all-around medal, a silver.
And then there's Romania. Marian Dragulescu is rejuvenated after his brief retirement, reclaiming his titles on floor and vault, and he's not ruling out sticking around for London. The women are rebuilding - again - but little Ana Porgras has the makings of a good one, and there's a crop of talented juniors back home in Deva.
"The big thing is the Olympic Games," Romanian coach Nicolae Forminte said. "That is my big target."