BEIJING The most memorable image of Nastia Liukin from Sunday's qualifying round at the Beijing Olympics will be the Texas gymnast falling flat on her back after her somersaulting dismount from her signature event, the uneven bars.
But it won't be the defining one.
Liukin and the shorthanded United States, shaken by a late injury to Samantha Peszek certainly had their trying moments as they opened Olympic competition at the National Indoor Stadium.
But the 18-year-old Liukin a balance of fragility and strength and her American teammates showed grit, pulled themselves back up and came out OK for their spills and trials.
"After I fell, I was sitting there like 'what am I doing on the floor?"' Liukin said. "'I'm not supposed to be here.' Other than that I felt like I had a very good day."
True, rival and host China topped the U.S. in qualifying, 248.275 to 246.8. Third-place Russia tallied 244.4.
But the nations competed in different subdivisions, not head-to-head, and the numbers will be thrown out moving forward. The scoring in Wednesday's team final a glorious fight awaits no doubt will be a different deal as three gymnasts compete on each apparatus for each nation, with all three scores counting.
Two Americans finished atop the all-around standings. Iowan Shawn Johnson, the reigning world all-around champion, and Liukin were 1-2. Just like usual, no matter that this is the Olympics. China's Yang Yilin was third; Russia's Ksenia Semenova fourth.
In addition to team finals, where the U.S. will try to win Olympic team gold on foreign soil for the first time, Liukin qualified for the all-around finals and individual finals on balance beam, floor exercise and bars. Her routine on the bars is so hard she can sustain the eight-tenths lost for the fall.
Johnson also qualified for the all-around and floor and beam finals. Alicia Sacramone qualified for vault finals.
But back to the drama.
The confident U.S., the reigning world champions, was finishing warm-ups at the training venue, when Peszek sprained her left ankle doing a tumbling pass.
"We all kind of freaked out," Liukin said.
Peszek, like teammate Chellsie Memmel, injured in training a week before, could compete only on bars, doctors decided.
This left the U.S. in a lurch. The qualifying round allows for five of a team's six gymnasts to compete on each apparatus, with only the top four scores counting. When you've got only four gymnasts on three of the four events, you lose any wiggle room.
"We certainly stressed that four scores count, and we still have four people," said Martha Karolyi, the U.S. national team coordinator. "'You can do it guys and the responsibility is on your shoulders."'
The Americans did so-so opening on floor. Liukin and Johnson hit their routines, but Bridget Sloan and Sacramone, usually a star on floor, lost points for stepping out of bounds.
They looked fine on vault and appeared to have pulled it together.
They paraded to the bars, where disaster awaited.
Already their weakest event, the U.S. gave up big points to China.
Peszek, Sloan and Johnson performed well-enough. But then Memmel, capable of a high-scoring routine, missed the bar after a release move.
Liukin, the big gun on bars, whirled around perfectly, all perfect lines and elegance.
Then, boom. As she landed her dismount, she sprawled backward.
Though dad/coach Valeri reassured her, Liukin was worried she wouldn't make the bars individual finals. It did get hairier than it should've, as she was fifth overall (scoring a 15.950; her personal best is 17.1) and only the top eight advance.
The only rotation remaining was the 4-inch-wide beam not a good event to tackle flustered and down a teammate.
But the U.S. showed its true mold.
Sloan, Sacramone, Liukin and Johnson all nailed their routines.
Suddenly, the rockiness gave way to relief.
The team huddled, laughing and reassuring each other and perhaps steeling for the showdown that awaits Wednesday.