Short-handed U.S. wins gymnastics gold

USA's gymnasts, from left, Jordyn Wieber, McKayla Maroney, Sabrina Vega, Alexandra Raisman and Gabrielle Douglas, celebrate on the podium winning the women's team final at the Artistic Gymnastics World Championships in Tokyo, Japan, Tuesday, Oct. 11, 2011.
AP Photo/Bullit Marquez

TOKYO - Just imagine if the Americans were at full strength.

Unfazed by the loss of Beijing Olympic captain Alicia Sacramone, the Americans won their third title at the world gymnastics championships Tuesday night with a commanding performance that lets everyone know they're the team to beat next summer in London.

Regardless of who's on the roster.

"Team USA is really strong," Aly Raisman said, "and we're just going to keep getting stronger."

The Americans scored 179.411 points, finishing a whopping 4 points ahead of Russia, last year's champion. To get an idea of just how big the rout was, think of the pastings that college football powerhouses put on their nonconference opponents and you get the idea. Even the Russians had to applaud as the Americans finished on floor exercise, the gold medal already decided.

As the last notes of Aly Raisman's music faded, the Americans jumped up and down and exchanged hugs. They gave a big cheer of "U-S-A!" as they waited for Raisman's score, then walked off the floor, index fingers held high in the air.

"I was hoping for it, but I could not be 100 percent sure because there were so many newcomers," said national team coordinator Martha Karolyi, beaming. "These girls were standing up very confident, very powerful out there."

The gold is the 10th medal at worlds for Sacramone, breaking the American record she'd shared Shannon Miller and Nastia Liukin. Sacramone, who had surgery Monday to repair a torn Achilles tendon, sent a message to the team on Twitter afterward, saying, "Words can't describe how proud I am of all of you!"

Alexander Alexandrov, Russia's coach, insisted he was more than "satisfied" with the second-place finish. The Russians were without defending world champion Aliya Mustafina, who blew out her knee in April, and Alexandrov said Anna Dementyeva had been running a fever in recent days.

The Americans were dealt a huge blow when Sacramone tore her Achilles during training last Thursday. Not only did that leave Raisman as the only American who'd competed at a world championships — Jordyn Wieber, McKayla Maroney, Sabrina Vega and Gabby Douglas are all first-year seniors — but Sacramone puts up huge scores on vault, where she's the defending world champion, balance beam and floor exercise.

But the youngsters never faltered, cruising through qualifying without a single missed routine. However, team finals are a different type of pressure-cooker. Scoring starts from scratch and the format changes, with three gymnasts competing on each event and all three scores counting.

There is zero room for error — or growing pains.

"I just told them, `We're going to remember this night for the rest of our lives so let's make it count,"' Raisman said.

They sure did, strutting onto the floor and turning the meet into their coming out party.

"There's only one better way to follow a 20-for-20 performance (in qualifying), and that's 12-for-12 in team finals," U.S. coach John Geddert said. "I think they're oblivious. I didn't see one ounce of nerves out there. It was `Let's have fun and go do gymnastics."'

They started on vault where, even without Sacramone, they're a fearsome bunch.

Raisman had the "weakest" vault — any other country would have been thrilled to count it for their highest score — and she executed it perfectly. Wieber and Maroney each do one of the hardest vaults in the world — a roundoff onto the takeoff board, back handspring onto the vault and then 2.5 twists before landing — yet make it look like child's play. Wieber's was possibly the best she's done all year, soaring high above the vault and needing only a small step to the side to control her landing.

The Americans had barely finished slapping hands when Maroney did one even better. She got such great height the folks in the lower section had to crane their necks to see her, and her legs were pencil-straight in the air. Despite all that power, her feet hit the mat with a solid thud and stayed put, not budging a centimeter. A bright smile spread across her face as she threw her hands in the air, and her teammates screamed.

The Americans scored a 46.816, and Russia couldn't match it — either in difficulty or execution. All three of their gymnasts did less-difficult vaults, and Tatiana Nabieva was so low she was lucky not to land on her knees. By the time they moved to the second rotation, the Americans had built a 2.3-point lead.

Good thing, too, because uneven bars is Russia's best event — and the Americans' worst. If Russia was going to catch the U.S. anywhere, it would be there. Viktoria Komova looked like a ballerina as she pirouetted on the high bar, and flitted from one bar to the other with the lightness of a feather. She had a slight hop on her dismount, but her score — 15.566 — helped the Russians pare the American lead down to about 1.5 points midway through the meet.

But that was as close as they'd get.

Raisman had to wait for what seemed like 10 minutes before she was given the signal to go, but the delay didn't faze her a bit. She opened with a front aerial somersault, landing it easier than most folks do a cartwheel. On flat ground. She landed each element with precision and perfect control, and she trotted off the podium with a look like, "What? That's what I expected to do."

That brought up Wieber, who has only solidified herself as the favorite to win another gold medal in Thursday's all-around final. The beam is a mere 4-inches wide and 4-feet in the air, yet Wieber makes it look as big and wide parking lot. She appeared to land one aerial series with one foot halfway off the beam, yet never even wobbled, and flows from one difficult element to the next as if to say, "Oh, you liked that? Well here's another one."

"It already was exciting," Karolyi said. "But once balance beam was finished, in my mind, I said, 'We have this."'

The Russians ended all suspense moments later when Komova melted down. She couldn't hang on after a series of back handsprings and fell off the balance beam, the stumbled backward after underrotating her opening pass on floor exercise.