STUTTGART, Germany The tears of joy started as soon as Alicia Sacramone saluted the judges.
Even when they're not at their very best, the Americans are good enough for gold.
Bouncing back from mistakes that would have cost a great team the gold medal on most days, the Americans finished with two of the most dazzling routines of the entire competition to clinch their second title at the world gymnastics championships Wednesday.
The United States finished with 184.400 points, nearly a point ahead of defending gold medalist China. Olympic gold medalist Romania took the bronze.
"Why do they make it so hard?" said a very relieved and happy Kathy Kelly, senior director of the U.S. women's program.
The Americans came into the finals as heavy favorites after breezing through qualifying, finishing almost four points ahead of China, a massive margin in a sport decided by tenths and hundredths of points. But scores start over in team finals, and the U.S. faltered badly on balance beam, going into the final rotation .100 points behind China.
But the Americans can strut their stuff like nobody else, and the Chinese didn't have a chance. National champion Shawn Johnson got so high on her tumbling passes she could practically have touched the flags hanging from the ceiling, and she landed every one without a wobble or a wiggle.
And that wasn't even the best the Americans had to offer. Alicia Sacramone, the world champ on floor two years ago, was the anchor, and Las Vegas might want to get her under contract now. This was no athletic performance, this was a show.
She sashayed and sauntered, playing to the judges and crowd. She tumbled as if she had springs in her legs, and landed as if she had sticky tape on her feet.
Martha Karolyi, the national team coordinator, threw her hands into the air and was jumping up and down before Sacramone even finished her routine. Sacramone knew it was good, too, beaming as she finished. As soon as she turned away from the judges and began trotting toward her teammates, the tears began to flow.
Gold seemed like a given for the Americans, especially after their romp through qualifying. China had only two carryovers from last year's gold medal squad, and was testing some youngsters in preparation for next summer's Beijing Olympics. Russia was so beaten up that Elena Zamolodchikova made the squad despite being two weeks shy of her 25th birthday.
But team finals isn't always about who has the best team. Unlike qualifying, every single mark counts. Teams put up their three best gymnasts in each event and pray for no mistakes. With this format, one botched routine will cost a gold medal. Two usually means the only prize is a souvenir T-shirt.
And after their debacle on beam, the Americans appeared to be off the top of the podium.
Nastia Liukin, a former world champion on beam, had been practically perfect. She landed so effortlessly on the 4-inch wide beam she seemed weightless. She has the kind of positioning coaches dream about: perfectly extended legs, toes pointed just so.
But as she landed her final trick before her dismount, there was that loud thud. It wasn't clear if she'd aggravated the ankle injury that's slowed her the last year, but something had definitely gone wrong.
Instead of her usual dismount, a dazzling twisting flip, she did a simple somersault, a move so easy grade schoolers do it. She ran her hands over her hair as she walked off the podium, despair written across her face. Her score of 15.175 was almost a full point below what she normally scores.
Liukin's troubles appeared to rattle the rest of the Americans. Johnson, normally rock solid, landed awkwardly on a back somersault and couldn't save herself. She wobbled and bobbled but couldn't save it, finally jumping off the beam. Her score of 15.025 left the Americans only .10 behind China heading into the final rotation.
That's when things really got weird.
Li Shanshan, China's first gymnast up on floor, had the crowd going with a bouncy, acrobatic routine. But she put way too much power into her last tumbling pass, two piked somersaults. She stumbled backward, toppled over and skidded out of bounds.
Not a good way to finish, and her score of 13.825 put China in a big hole.
Meanwhile, over on vault, Russia's Ekaterina Kramarenko flew down the runway and put her arms up to ready herself for a roundoff onto the springboard. But she suddenly cut her speed, stayed upright and stopped at the top of the springboard.
It was a sight rarely seen, especially at this level, and it meant Russia had to count a zero. After being in position for a bronze medal or better Russia wound up dead last in the eight-team finals.
As Kramarenko sat in a chair on the sidelines, crying, Zamolodchikova stood on the runway, tears filling her eyes. The former Olympic champion did her vault, but it was meaningless. She sobbed and shook her head as she walked off the podium.
All of that left the door wide open for the Americans. Going after China on floor, they needed to average less than 15 points per routine to win the gold.
With Johnson and Sacramone leading the way, it wasn't even a question.