US gymnasts ahead of Chinese, for now
The Americans have beaten the Chinese! The Americans have beaten the Chinese!
OK, so it was only qualifying at the world gymnastics championships. And the US men actually finished second, behind Japan. But considering the gold rush the Chinese have been on of late, this counts as big news.
"We're extremely proud of what our guys did in the preliminary round," national team coordinator Kevin Mazeika said Monday night. "Regardless of where we place, it doesn't change our game plan. Our task is exactly the same."
Japan and the Americans competed in the first qualifying session Sunday morning. Then they had to wait until the last one Monday night to see how they stacked up against China. With a current who's who of men's gymnasts watching in the stands, including the Americans, it became clear about midway through China's session that something unusual was going on.
The Chinese weren't bad, and they had only one major error. Chen Yibing did his usual imitation of the world's strongest man on still rings, Feng Zhe and Zhang Chenglong were models of precision on parallel bars, and Zou Kai put on a tumbling clinic on floor exercise.
But instead of their usual air of invincibility, the Chinese looked — dare we say it? — almost ordinary. They finished with 359.126 points, more than five behind Japan (364.291) and almost 2-1/2 behind the Americans (361.583). Germany, last year's bronze medalists, and Russia filled out the top five.
It is the first time since the Athens Games that China has failed to finish in first place, in every phase, at an Olympics or world championships.
"Of course we want to get the best score," Yibing, who owns two gold medals from the Beijing Olympics and six from worlds, said through a translator. "But it's competition. It happens sometimes."
Yes, but not usually to the Chinese. At least, not lately.
Since their dismal showing in Athens, where they were fifth, the Chinese have dominated men's gymnastics. They ran away with the team gold medal at the Beijing Olympics and all but one of the seven individual titles. They added a fourth straight title at last year's worlds, as well as the golds on still rings, parallel bars and high bar.
A similar gold rush was expected here. China returned four gymnasts from last year's title squad (a fifth, Yan Mingyong, is the alternate), and the six team members have six Olympic gold medals and 16 golds from worlds among them.
"I'm not so surprised," Chen said. "The result was not so good."
Of course, this could mean nothing in Wednesday night's team finals. Scoring starts from scratch and the format changes, with three gymnasts competing on each event and all three counting.
Based on prelims, China would count six scores below 15 while Japan would have four and the Americans five. Asked if he or his teammates were planning to increase their difficulty in team finals, Chen played it coy.
"Maybe," he said. "I don't know."
Germany's Philipp Boy has seen China in the training gym, and he has no doubt.
"With the finals, China is very, very strong," Boy said. "They have three persons on each apparatus who are very, very strong. I don't think about (catching) Japan and China."
The Americans sure are.
They've been telling anyone who will listen they believe they can contend for the gold medal here and in London, and finishing ahead of China will only fuel that confidence. This is the first time the US has beaten a full-strength China team since Athens. Yes, the Americans did finish in front of the Chinese at this summer's Japan Cup, but that was China's B squad.
"We're a much stronger team in three-up, three-count," double Olympic medalist Jonathan Horton said. "When we go with our top three, we are as good as anyone in the world and we know it. Not to be cocky or overconfident, but we have that belief in us that we are as good as these teams. We're just excited to put on a great competition in team finals."
The Americans finished with the highest team score on floor and were second-best on vault, still rings and high bar. They had three of the top five individual scores, with John Orozco and Danell Leyva finishing second and third behind two-time world champion Kohei Uchimura. Horton (rings), Leyva (parallel bars), Orozco (high bar) and Steven Legendre (floor exercise) all made event finals, and Jake Dalton and Alex Naddour are alternates on vault and pommel horse.
"I've said it before, and I don't know if people believed us, but this is the best team we've ever had on a world championships floor," Horton said. "We're trying to stay very grounded and very humble, and I think we're doing a good job with that. At the same time, we're excited. We can't help but know we're a good team."
After all, they beat China.