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US gymnasts 1st in qualifying at worlds in Tokyo

China's Yao Jinnan performs the floor exercise during the women's qualifying of the Artistic Gymnastics World Championships in Tokyo, Japan, Saturday, Oct. 8, 2011. China's Yao Jinnan performs the floor exercise during the women's qualifying of the Artistic Gymnastics World Championships in Tokyo, Japan, Saturday, Oct. 8, 2011. (AP Photo/Shuji Kajiyama)
By Nancy Armour
AP National Writer / October 8, 2011

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TOKYO—Experience is overrated.

The American Kiddie Corps looked as if they'd been on the big stage for years Saturday, responding to the loss of Beijing Olympic captain Alicia Sacramone with a commanding performance that topped qualifying at the world gymnastics championships and secured a spot at the 2012 London Games.

"They rose to the occasion," national team coordinator Martha Karolyi said. "This was special, showing how young girls are growing into international gymnasts."

The U.S. was dealt a massive blow Thursday when Sacramone tore her Achilles' tendon during training. The Americans were counting on her veteran poise to calm and reassure the youngsters -- Jordyn Wieber, McKayla Maroney, Sabrina Vega and Gabby Douglas are all first-year seniors -- not to mention the big scores she puts up on vault, balance beam and floor.

And with uneven bars specialist Anna Li sidelined by an abdominal injury, the remaining Americans would have to do every event. It was a tall order for the youngsters -- and they handled it like old pros.

"These guys are basically on a mission," U.S. coach John Geddert said. "I'm very, very proud of them. But again, it's only one step."

Team finals are Tuesday night.

The Americans didn't have a single fall, and their score of 234.253 points was more than three points better than defending champion Russia and almost four points ahead of Olympic champ China. They posted the highest team score on floor exercise and vault, and were second-best on uneven bars and balance beam.

All five Americans were in the top 12 of the individual standings, with Wieber trailing Russia's Viktoria Komova by a mere 0.125 points. Aly Raisman was fourth in the all-around and had the highest score of the meet on floor exercise, while Maroney posted the best score on vault.

The U.S. qualified the maximum for the event finals on uneven bars (Douglas and Wieber), as well as balance beam and floor exercise (Raisman and Wieber).

"We had a team huddle, and I just told everyone we're all so prepared and that we're all going to do amazing," said Raisman, who qualifies as the Americans' "elder stateswoman" by virtue of her place on last year's world team. "I told them just to picture yourself doing an awesome job, and it will work out."

There was never a question that the young Americans were talented. All Wieber did in her first meet as a senior was beat defending world champion Aliya Mustafina. And Maroney, Douglas and Vega led the U.S. to the gold medal at last year's Pan American Championships, and divvied up the event titles among themselves.

But nothing compares to the world championships, especially when so much is on the line.

"I didn't really think about the pressure. I just went out there and performed, did my stuff," Douglas said. "We've been preparing a long time for this, preparing and training, so I didn't really feel any pressure."

The Americans did seem skittish at the start, with Maroney leading off the competition with two big wobbles on balance beam. But Raisman steadied the team with a solid set, landing an aerial backflip on the 4-inch wide beam easier than most people could do a cartwheel on dry land, and the Americans were off and running.

You could practically see their confidence growing with every event, one routine better than the next.

"As much controversy or as many knocks as the USA program takes, the kids are well-trained," Geddert said. "They're going to weather adversity because of that training. There was an initial deflation when Alicia went down, but the next day at practice, they used that as motivation."

Of course, it helps having a gymnast like Wieber, who seems unflappable.

The 16-year-old makes the balance beam look as wide as a parking lot, and she stuck her landing perfectly, not budging the inch -- or 10 -- that some gymnasts need to steady themselves. Her opening tumbling pass on floor was so high it's a wonder she didn't collide with the camera above the floor, yet she landed it as securely as if she had glue on the bottoms of her feet. She had the crowd clapping as she shimmied and shook to her peppy music, and she looked like a rubber ball as she bounced from one tough skill to another.

She does one of the hardest vaults in the world -- a roundoff onto the takeoff board, back handspring onto the vault and then 2.5 twists before landing -- and needed only a small step at the end. Geddert, Wieber's personal coach, threw up his hands and screamed "Yes!" before sprinting down the floor.

Even Wieber's mistakes were impressive. She landed her third tumbling pass on floor on her heels, and most gymnasts would have gone skidding out of bounds. But she managed to put on the brakes and, with a little shimmy, was off to her next trick. On uneven bars, she got so far away from the bar on a release move it seemed unlikely she'd stay on the apparatus. Yet she somehow managed to get her hands on the bar.

"I guess I should come to expect it. She's just a competitor when it comes down to it," Geddert said. "But again, she had a couple of little hiccups that, in the finals, might make the difference. We'll go back in, come back down to earth and go from there."

Scoring starts over in team finals, where three gymnasts compete on each event and all three scores count. The stakes are high and the pressure higher, but the Americans don't appear fazed by either.

"We'll head back to the gym tomorrow and improve on the final details of our routines," Wieber said, "so we can come back even stronger for team finals."

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Nancy Armour can be reached at http://www.twitter.com/nrarmour