Alicia Sacramone wins world vault title

ROTTERDAM, Netherlands -- Alicia Sacramone had to wait two years and an extra 30 minutes for redemption at the gymnastics world championships.

Sacramone came out of retirement to help erase the memory of her spills on the beam at the 2008 Beijing Games. She considered those costly in the U.S. loss to China for the gold medal.

The 22-year-old Sacramone capped her return with a world championship gold medal in the vault on Saturday, beating 16-year-old Aliya Mustafina of Russia.

Or so she thought.

The Russians protested the judging of Mustafina's vault, and Sacramone had to wait as the judges deliberated.

"That was like the longest 30 minutes of my life," Sacramone said.

Hands to her hips, staring blankly ahead, she waited with her coach Mihai Brestyan while other competitors, oblivious of the controversy, came over to congratulate her.

Then the judges finally threw out the Russian complaint. Before Sacramone knew it, she was atop the podium, taking in the Star-Spangled Banner she had so desperately wanted to hear in Beijing.

Her gold not only chased away those demons, but with nine medals overall, she joined Shannon Miller and Nastia Liukin as the U.S. athletes with the most medals at the world championships.

And it gave the United States its first gold at the nine-day championships.

The whirls and twirls of a well-executed vault are over in a flash, but it takes months of consistency to program such flights of fancy in the brain. Sacramone certainly had an edge in experience over the 16-year-old rookie Mustafina.

"I am focused on counting my step and making sure that the entry into the [vault] table goes well. After that, it is autopilot and you go through to the finish," Sacramone said. "It is just kind of like a walk in the park."

Her two vaults were solid and gave her a 15.200 average. When Mustafina followed with a first vault of 15.733, it seemed Sacramone was reduced to silver at best.

"To be honest, after her first vault I was like, 'I like silver.' I like it. It doesn't bother me," Sacramone said.

Still, Mustafina had shown one slight weakness on her second vault in qualifying. On Saturday, the judges deducted heavily for a technical deficiency. It made the difference between silver and gold as her average slumped to 15.066.

"Her landing was a little bit low, and I was kind of waiting it out like everybody else," Sacramone said.

The Russians vehemently protested, but they were too late. A formal protest must be filed before the next gymnast ends their routine, and Russia had waited too long.

The minutes that ticked away put it all in perspective for Sacramone.

"To walk away from gym the way I did, with so many injuries and to be disheartened, and then come back, work hard and get a big reward for all the work that I've done, it makes it worth the while," she said.

That sinking feeling after Beijing stayed with her for a year, leading her to announce her retirement. Few thought she could come back.

"After the experience in Beijing -- it wasn't the best for her personally -- she showed she has a strong character and is able to work with the psychological factor also," U.S. national team coordinator Martha Karolyi said. "So that is a great accomplishment."

That golden step has been taken, and she still has the beam final for Sunday.

Looking ahead, Sacramone has the ebullience and swagger needed to carry a young U.S. team still missing veterans like Liukin.

"She still has the joy and she definitely is dedicated to keep going," Karolyi said.

In other competition, Mustafina was second in the uneven bars behind Elizabeth Tweddle of Britain, giving the Russian two silvers Saturday to add to two golds.

Olympic and defending champion He Kexin fell off the bar, ending her overwhelming domination of the event. That gave Rebecca Bross of the United States her third medal and second bronze of the championships.

Mustafina is the most successful gymnast at the world championships so far with four medals, and she still has two events on Sunday. The United States and China lead the medals tables with five medals overall, followed by Russia with four.

The men's all-around champion Kohei Uchimura won his third medal, finishing second behind Greece's Eleftherios Kosmidis on the floor. He still has the parallel bars on Sunday.

On the pommel horse, specialists dominated with Krisztian Berki of Hungary taking gold ahead of Louis Smith of Britain. "Lord of the Rings" Chen Yibing added the world rings title to his Olympic gold, beating fellow Chinese Yan Mingyong.