Americans in the lead after a colorful performance

Updated: October 17, 2006, 8:44 AM ET
Associated Press

AARHUS, Denmark -- One more day like this and the American women will have some gold to go with those bright new fuchsia leotards.

Led by Chellsie Memmel's fine all-around performance and a stellar set on uneven bars from Nastia Liukin, the U.S. women did exactly what was expected of them Monday, jumping to a 3.8-point lead over China in qualifying and confirming their status as the gold-medal favorite at world gymnastics championships.

"I think we're on the right track," team coordinator Martha Karolyi said. "I think we'll be a factor."

The Chinese emerged as the team that might best challenge the United States. But only, that is, if they stay on the equipment better than they did in their qualifying round Tuesday.

After getting off to a strong start on the beam -- actually scoring nearly two points higher than the Americans did the night before -- the Chinese fell once on the floor and twice on the uneven bars.

They finished with 239.525 points -- the only team within five points of the Americans.

In third was Ukraine, which was 8.3 points behind, followed by Russia, another .25 points back. The scores revert to zero for Wednesday's finals and the format is different. Instead of throwing away the lowest score as they do in prelims, three athletes go on each event and all three scores count -- no room for error.

"The Chinese team is OK," China coach Lu Shanzen said. "The uneven bars were not very good."

The biggest surprise came when Zhang Nan, the Athens all-around bronze medalist, fell from the bars. Li Ya, an 18-year-old former Olympian, also wobbled at the top of a handstand and fell.

But Cheng Fei, whose double-twisting Yurchenko is the toughest vault any woman tries, put up the highest scores of the meet on both vault and floor. And Zhang led the way on beam. Those are results that show the strength of the Chinese team and its ability to scoop up some medals come event finals.

The U.S. women will challenge for those medals at every position, though.

Karolyi bypassed the traditional red-white-and-blue look this year for a bold blast of pink. She said it was a response to a request from the International Gymnastics Federation to have the women's sport look more, well, feminine.

"I think we pleased FIG," Karolyi said.

Indeed, there wasn't much to quibble about, save one technical misunderstanding involving Alicia Sacramone's floor exercise.

Sacramone, the defending world champion on floor, was docked a half point for an almost imperceptible pause she made during a dance sequence as she moved across the floor. The error will cost her a chance to defend her title. The Americans protested the deduction, but were overruled.

"We didn't anticipate it would be interpreted that way," USA Gymnastics president Steve Penny said. "But we can't argue their interpretation. If we could, we would."

Elsewhere, there were two falls off the balance beam. Besides that, pretty much everything was perfect.

"We're comparing with the highest level that we want to get, not comparing with anybody else," Karolyi said. "I always try to emphasize that."

Memmel jammed her ankle in training, but performed as if she was in no pain.

"When it's 'go time,' she's ready," said her dad and coach, Andy Memmel. "There are never any excuses."

Earlier in the day, Vanessa Ferrari of Italy put in an impressive performance that made her someone to watch in the all-around. But Memmel finished first with 61.35, .25 more than Ferrari and .725 ahead of another strong American, Jana Bieger.

Liukin hurt her ankle more severely in training this month and was limited to the uneven bars when she could have been contending for the all-around.

Her 60-second show didn't disappoint. It was filled with nice tight lines, perfect angles, and a scary 180-degree turn and grab of the high bar that was executed to perfection. She stepped forward slightly on the landing, but her feet hit the mat solidly.

"It's all right. A little sore, but you have to pull through it," she said of the aching ankle.

She scored a 16.2 and will be the woman to beat in event finals. Not that that was the point.

"The first priority is the team," Liukin said.

Still, she and Memmel were the top two finishers on bars and will be in event finals. Sacramone will still have a chance to medal on vault while Memmel and Jana Bieger will both be in floor finals and the all-around.


Copyright 2006 by The Associated Press

This story is from ESPN.com's automated news wire. Wire index

ESPN TOP HEADLINES