Russia overtakes China at worlds

ROTTERDAM, Netherlands -- A brilliant all-around performance by Aliya Mustafina led Russia past China and into the provisional lead of the women's team qualifying at the world gymnastics championships Saturday.

With the U.S. women still to come early Sunday, the traditional powers of Russia, China and Romania topped the standings. But there was nothing old-fashioned about 16-year-old newcomer Mustafina.

With stunning elevation on the floor and vault topped with a natural grace, she took the lead in the individual standings with 60.666 points, giving her a huge 2.567 margin over Jiang Yuyan of China.

On top of her youthful vigor, Mustafina also showed composure. Forced to wait to start her beam exercise, she went through part of her routine next to the apparatus, totally focused and seemingly oblivious to the aggravation such a delay usually brings.

Mustafina competed as a junior at the European championships this year and helped Russia win that team title. She finished second in the all-around to Tatiana Nabieva, who was in provisional sixth place Saturday.

Together, they led Russia to 234.521 points for a small lead over China, which had 233.778.

The Russians were in the last group of competitors on the opening day and showed all the eagerness a day of waiting brings. They had been shut out of the podium at the Beijing Games and were expected to bounce back here. They did not disappoint the 5,000 fans at the Ahoy venue.

Not only was Beijing the first time since 1948 that Russia didn't win a team medal in an Olympics they competed in, the traditional powerhouse also failed to win a single individual medal.

Instead of a late show, it was the opposite for the Chinese women. They needed a 5 a.m. wake-up call to be ready for the first morning session, but with four members of the gold medal-winning team from the Beijing Olympics, their experience easily carried them through.

Despite two spills on the beam, Romania was in third place with 228.495, well ahead of Britain (224.921).

The team final is Wednesday.

China's He Kexin had perhaps the single most outstanding performance -- on the uneven bars -- and is the favorite to take gold on the apparatus to add to her Olympic and 2009 world title.

Not everything went smoothly for China though. On the floor, Huang Qiushuang stepped out of bounds early and looked uncertain. On beam, Sui Lu had to grab the beam briefly to regain her composure.

"It is fine for the first outing. It is very hard," considering the early start, China head coach Lu Shan Zhen said through a translator.

Lu specifically lauded He for her sterling uneven bars routine, and sees it as a possible key to clinch gold on Wednesday.

Lu said he expected the Americans to excel on the floor, the Romanians to dominate the beam and Russians the vault, leaving the outcome of the first team world championships since 2007 evenly balanced.

"The level of the teams is just about the same," Lu said of the top four.

The beam didn't look like Romania's strong suit on Saturday when two of its gymnasts fell off. A scare for sure, but it will have little impact since scoring starts from scratch in the eight-team finals.

"It was psychology," said Octavian Belu, Romania's most successful coach, who returned to the women's team this summer. He was not looking for immediate results, as he was already looking ahead to the 2012 London Olympics. So earning experience here was key, he said.

"I am not satisfied. But I am never satisfied," he said.

Romania took bronze at the Beijing Games, where China won ahead of the United States. The team event was not held at the London world championships last year.

With its strong showing in the individual all-around over the past few years, the U.S. team will certainly be considered a strong challenger, but defending all-around champion Bridget Sloan will be limited to the uneven bars and floor only because she has struggled with ankle and shoulder injuries. Despite a shin inflammation, last year's runner-up Rebecca Bross will compete in all four disciplines.