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Associated Press

BEIJING (AP) — Alicia Sacramone's foot slipped off the 4-inch-wide tightrope that is the balance beam, her body wobbling and shaking as she fought to stay upright. Another slip, this time in the floor exercise, sent her tumbling onto her back.

Mistakes of millimeters by the Americans made for just enough of an opening for the Chinese to slip through for the team gold medal in women's gymnastics Wednesday at the Beijing Olympics.

"I was surprised by the mistakes made by the U.S. team," conceded Cheng Fei, who has seen enough of the Americans the past four years to know they're made of pretty stern stuff.

Maybe too stern.

The Americans were plainly uptight, their faces scrubbed clean of emotion and looking very much like a team trying to hold on to something they didn't have instead of one gunning for gold. Their exuberance and personality — qualities just as vital as their somersaults and twists — were nowhere to be found while the Chinese let loose with abandon. They smiled. They giggled. They traded high-fives and even a chest bump.

And when it was all done, they were the ones beaming with pride and looking with wonder at the gorgeous gold medals dangling from their necks.

"They had a great meet, a great day and they deserve that medal," Shawn Johnson said. "Give us another day, and maybe we'll come out on top."

There aren't "other days" at the Olympics, though. Unless you count Friday's all-around, where Johnson and Nastia Liukin will get something of a do-over.

Johnson and Liukin may be the centerpieces, but the Americans rolled into the Beijing Games with a motherlode of talent. They are the reigning world champions, and had won more individual titles in the last three years than entire continents could hope to win in three decades. And they were veterans, hardened by their successes — and failures — on the international scene.

Two years ago they couldn't overcome injuries and their own mistakes, and watched the Chinese step over them for the world title. Last year, it was the Americans showing their truest grit by rallying in the final event to take the title back.

The Chinese, on the other hand, were young — just how young was a question of much debate: 14? 16, the minimum age for Olympic eligibility? — and had a history of crumbling when the stakes were highest. They were too stoic, too rigid to adapt when the pressure was strongest.

Or so the theory went.

When the teams walked into the arena Wednesday, the difference was as glaring as the sparkly shadow smudged above the Chinese girls' eyes. Unlike the Chinese men, who claimed their team gold a day earlier with swagger worthy of the NBA, the Chinese women looked like 4-year-olds let loose in open gym.

"Before this, I said I would feel that, no matter if it is failure or victory, it will be wonderful," Cheng said. "That is what I told myself. So no matter the final results, I was able to feel very calm."

When the United States threw down the challenge with three beautiful routines on uneven bars, China could have faltered.

But Yang Yilin flitted from high bar to low bar and back again with a hummingbird's lightness. When she landed, she threw back her head with a smile that lit up the upper reaches of the arena. He Kexin, so devastated after her fall off bars during preliminaries, tossed her 4-foot-8 body up and way over the bar, twisting her 73 pounds at the last second to reverse direction in a move that only looks physiologically impossible. After waving and giving a little bow to the adoring fans, she exchanged such enthusiastic high-fives with Cheng and Yang that they're all going to have sore hands for a day or so.

Yang and He's routines put the Chinese ahead. As the teams went to the balance beam, the Chinese chattered and laughed while the Americans marched with their eyes fixed straight ahead.

China showed its first signs of vulnerability on the beam, with Cheng taking a tumble on her first aerial move and Deng Linlin wiggling and wobbling.

"I was a bit nervous," Cheng said. "After falling off the beam, I told myself I need to do well for the rest of the routine and perform my best. So I quickly adjusted myself."

That's what champions do. They don't get rattled by crowd noise. They don't get flustered by their own mistakes.

And they sure don't get thrown off when broadcasters mess with their usual rhythm.

The Americans had three of the four highest scores on balance beam in prelims, and were hoping to do more of the same in finals to put some pressure on China going into the last event. But when Sacramone got ready to do her routine, she had to wait.

And wait.

And wait some more.

Two minutes in all, because the Olympic broadcast feed was focused on floor exercise.

Though national team coordinator Martha Karolyi later called it an "unusual hold," USA Gymnastics president Steve Penny said it was a "non-issue."

"In this sport, you know there are two reasons you're going to be held: One is for scoring, one is for television," he said. "In no way, shape or form are we blaming anyone for this."

"This," of course, would be the tumble Sacramone took off the beam as soon as she somersaulted herself onto it. Her left foot landed on the beam, her right foot didn't.

"I was just really eager to do my routine and get the show on road pretty much, but they did hold me for some time. I guess I let my nerves get the best of me," said Sacramone, the Americans' 20-year-old captain.

She blinked back tears as Karolyi consoled her, and seemed to not even see best friend Samantha Peszek. When her score flashed, Sacramone looked as if she were going to be sick.

Liukin gathered the team together, telling them all to shake it off. They had been in this spot last year, falling behind the Chinese at the world championships after mistakes on beam, and rallied to get the gold.

Not this time.

Up first on floor, Sacramone still looked haunted by her earlier mistake. Instead of the Vegas-like sass her routines usually have, she didn't have any punch. And as she landed her second tumbling run, her feet slipped from under her and she fell flat on her back. The Americans winced, then grew silent.

"She kept telling us she was sorry, but it's really hard to know what to say," Liukin said. "You know she obviously didn't purposely make the mistake. It was obvious it was just a mistake."

As was Liukin and Johnson stepping out of bounds on their floor routines. Not as big as Sacramone's errors, but errors nonetheless. Errors that allowed the Chinese to turn their three floor routines into victory dances.

Chinese teams in the past might have stumbled, knowing what they were so close to achieving. Not these girls. 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 magnificent, the perfect close to China's big show. She tumbled higher and higher with each pass, yet stuck each landing as if there was glue on the bottoms of her feet.

Oh, they weren't perfect. But they were good enough for gold.