BEIJING -- Alicia Sacramone crouched on the ground near the floor, her head buried in her hands, disbelief etched across her face.
The Olympic gold medal was in the Americans' grasp, the title that would say, yes, they really are the world's best team. And they fumbled it away.
With a fall off the beam here, a splat on the floor there and two more steps out of bounds Wednesday, the Americans all but personally handed the gold medals to the Chinese team and settled for silver.
China's score of 188.9 points was more than two points ahead of the U.S., a blowout in a competition that was supposed to be decided by the slimmest of margins.
"No one else made mistakes, so it's kind of my fault," Sacramone said, still trying to blink back the tears from her red-rimmed eyes. "I think everybody knows you always have good days and bad days. I just wish today was a good day."
It was a spectacular day for China. The American mistakes turned China's final three routines on floor into victory dances, and oh did Deng Linlin, Jiang Yuyuan and Cheng Fei play their parts to perfection.
Jiang worked the crowd, looking out with a mile-wide smile that made a difficult routine look like fun. Cheng has better springs than just about anyone and, with the pressure off, she made great use of them, bounding across the floor and landing as if she had glue on her little feet.
When she threw up her hands after her final pose, her teammates jumped up and down and hugged each other. All the questions about their ages -- there were suspicions that perhaps half the team wasn't old enough to compete -- didn't distract them. Nor could the expectations of all those adoring fans.
"The Chinese women's gymnastics team made history today, showing the world the China women's gymnastics team is the greatest," coach Lu Shanzhen said.
They practically floated out of the arena, stopping occasionally to pose for pictures and wave to the cheering fans. They held hands during the medals ceremony, often looking down at their new treasures in wonder. Afterward, they picked up one of their coaches and tossed him into the air -- with an assist from a few other people, of course.
It was the first Olympic gold for the Chinese, and now they have both team titles -- men and women.
"Before they go out there, I want them to believe in themselves. And they all did," Cheng said. "I didn't have to say anything to them. Even though they are very young, they have a lot of experience as well and they have their own ways to learn from their own experiences, and they used those ways."
Shortly after the competition, U.S. team coordinator Marta Karolyi had some disparaging words about the ages of the Chinese gymnasts.
An inquiry was made in July into the ages of Chinese gymnasts He Kexin, Yang Yilin and Jiang after several reports from online outlets and The New York Times pegged their ages much younger than 16. The average size of the six-member Chinese team is 4-foot-9 and 77 pounds (that's 13 pounds lighter than American Shawn Johnson, who is also 4-foot-9), and gymnast Deng Linlin doesn't even break the 70-pound mark.
International Federation of Gymnastics (FIG) said the issue with the Chinese team had been cleared up, as the athletes provided copies of their passports, which confirm their ages as 16.
"Well, I have no proof, but one of the little girls has a missing tooth," Karolyi said.
The Americans also went to Athens as the reigning world champs four years ago, only to falter and settle for silver.
"I am not disappointed at all," Johnson insisted. "We are human when it comes down to it. We make mistakes. And it came down to China had a better day today. Give us another day, we could probably come out on top."
The truth is, the Americans wanted gold not silver.
The Americans have dominated women's gymnastics since falling short in Athens, winning the world championship last year and a slew of individual titles. They're stocked with the reigning world champ in Johnson, and her closest rival, Nastia Liukin, not to mention 2005 world champion Chellsie Memmel.
But China wasn't far behind, winner of the world title in '06.
With the scoring format in finals so unforgiving -- three gymnasts up on each event, all three scores count -- there was room for one mistake. Maybe two, if they were small.
Two big ones? And four in the last two events? They don't give gold medals for reputation.
"We're just as good as China," Karolyi said. "We made mistakes. They did not."
Though China led halfway through the meet, the teams finished up on balance beam and floor exercise, the Americans' best two events. And when Cheng fell off the beam, it gave the Americans the opportunity they needed.
Get through those last two events, and the gold would be theirs.
But Sacramone, first up on balance beam, was held up for what seemed like 15 minutes before she was given the go-ahead for her routine, and she appeared to get edgier and edgier as she paced back and forth.
Sure enough, as she came down to land the somersault that opens her routine, her right foot slipped off the edge of the 4-inch beam. Sacramone windmilled her arms and twisted her body, but she couldn't save herself and dropped off as the crowd gasped. Not only is the fall a penalty, but she never did the backflip that usually follows, costing her more precious points.
"I was just eager to do my routine and get the show on the road," Sacramone said. "The judges decided to hold me and I guess I just let my nerves get the best of me."
Karolyi later claimed the BOCOG (Beijing Olympic organizing committee) was trying to get into her gymnasts' minds.
"It's a psychological war in this sport." Karolyi said.
Karolyi believed Sacramone was forced to wait before the beam and officials held her on purpose to freeze her.
Television may have been the culprit, according to a report in the Philadelphia Daily News.
"There was a two-minute delay, so the world feed could get Alicia's routine into the world feed," USA Gymnastics president Steve Penny told the Daily News several hours after the event. "That was unfortunate, but it is not unusual. The hold could have had an effect on Alicia."
Liukin gathered the team together, telling her teammates, "Just shake it off, that's all you can do. Shake it off." And they went over to floor only a point behind, a margin they might have made up if everything went perfectly.
Sacramone was again first up, and floor is her signature event. She won a world title on it in 2005, and her routines usually have so much sass, they rival anything you see in Vegas.
Not Wednesday. She didn't have her usual sparkle. Or her usual surefootedness.
On her second tumbling run, her feet slipped out from under her and she fell flat on her back. She briefly shut her eyes before continuing, but her face was a blank the rest of the way.
"I guess it was a little too hard to get out of the funk," she said, "and it affected me on floor."
Liukin and Johnson also stepped out of bounds. Not major errors, but they certainly didn't help the Americans' cause.
So instead of playing it safe when it was their turn, the Chinese let loose. Deng soared high above the floor on her tumbling passes, her every landing punctuated by the appreciative roar of the crowd. Jiang dipped and danced, delighting her teammates and the arena.
And Cheng was simply magnificent, the perfect close to China's big show. The audience was on its feet, cheering the twists and flips that seemed to get more powerful as her routine went on.
"I respect China for what they've done," Johnson said. "They really brought their game today."
Information from The Associated Press was used in this report.