A swimmer in her first international meet; a women's gymnastics team with two bronze medals in 80 years; a fencer who ranked 22nd at last year's world championships; an archer who was 10th at the Athens Olympics.

These are four of the reasons why China is surging ahead in the gold-medal table at the Beijing Olympics, putting the U.S. bid for a fourth straight Summer Games as the leading nation in jeopardy.

The Americans, who typically exert their strength during track-and-field competition that began today, ended day eight of the Games 12 gold medals behind the hosts. In total medals, the U.S. regained the lead over China 46 to 41.

"It will be competitive all the way through," U.S. Olympic Committee spokesman Darryl Seibel said in an interview. "We embrace that and our athletes like that."

Screaming crowds, intense competition to get on the team and a state-financed push for success at the nation's first Olympics are driving the Chinese toward their best Games.

China trailed the U.S. by 17 to 15 gold medals at the end of the seventh day in Athens and finished four gold medals behind, with 32. The Chinese have reached 26 golds six days earlier than in 2004.

All around, there are tales of overachievement.

A 19-year-old named Liu Zige won only her country's third swimming gold since 1992 while competing for the first time at an international meet yesterday. With a resume amounting to two national championships, she sliced more than a second off the world record, and said she was spurred on by a raucous crowd.

Golden Surprise

"I never expected I could be this fast and it's a surprise that I can score gold," Liu told reporters at the Water Cube pool yesterday. "I had never thought I could score gold."

South Korea had collected every women's individual archery gold medal since the 1984 Games until Zhang Juanjuan took the title yesterday—another Chinese first in an Olympic sport. Zhong Man achieved what no other male Chinese fencer had when he won a gold three days ago, 13 years after giving up track and field to try swinging a saber.

Yang Wei almost retired from gymnastics after falling off the horizontal bar and slumping to seventh in Athens. Yesterday, he secured the individual all-around title to make it three wins out of four for the home team in gymnastics.

"We brought our dream for gold to Athens and our dream got crushed hard," said Huang Yubin, Yang's coach. "There's no doubt our training and efforts are better than others."

New Approach

China's women gymnasts, seventh in Athens, won the team title for the first time two days ago. Coach Lu Shanzhen said a new approach, common for much of the Chinese Olympic team, had helped his athletes take a step up.

"We used to train more and compete less, so we made a lot of mistakes during competitions," Lu told reporters. "During this Olympic cycle we sent the athletes to compete overseas and increased competition among the team. These six members were selected from fierce internal competition."

Michael Phelps secured one of three swim gold medals for the U.S. today with his sixth victory after the entire team failed to get one yesterday. The U.S. will now turn to track and field athletes, who bagged 17 titles at the 2007 world championships, to boost its medal count.

"There is a lot of Olympic competition still to come and we have a good sense of what we're capable of," Seibel said. "And when we look at where we stand in medal production and in overall performance, we're pleased where we are."