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Japan leads early qualifying at worlds, US 2nd

USA's Danell Leyva performs the floor exercise during the men's qualifying of the Artistic Gymnastics World Championships in Tokyo, Japan, Sunday, Oct. 9, 2011. USA's Danell Leyva performs the floor exercise during the men's qualifying of the Artistic Gymnastics World Championships in Tokyo, Japan, Sunday, Oct. 9, 2011. (AP Photo/Bullit Marquez)
By Nancy Armour
AP National Writer / October 9, 2011

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TOKYO—Japan has the advantage -- for now.

The Olympic silver medalists topped the United States and Germany in the first day of men's qualifying at the world gymnastics championships Sunday. But the Americans are clearly making up ground, and the unforgiving format of team finals can't come fast enough.

"We go with our top three, we are as good as anyone in the world and we know it," Jonathan Horton said. "Not to be cocky or overconfident, but we have that belief in us that we are as good as these teams, and we are just excited to put on a great competition in team finals."

Qualifying continues Monday with China, the Olympic champion and winner of the last four world titles, competing along with Russia, Britain, France and Korea. The top eight earn spots at next summer's London Olympics.

Content only a few years ago with a place on the podium, the U.S. has its eyes on gold in London. It's an audacious goal considering China and Japan have had a stranglehold on the top spot for the last 20 years, yet the Americans insist it's possible.

Sure, Japan's score of 364.291 points Sunday was a healthy 2.7 points ahead of the U.S. But consider that the Americans whittled that margin down by 1 1/2 points from last year's prelims, and their total score (361.583) was 4 1/2 points better. They had just one fall in 30 routines, and posted the best scores on floor exercise and vault.

John Orozco and Danell Leyva had the second- and third-highest individual scores, and Horton also was in the top five. No other country could even manage three in the top 10.

"I've said it before and I don't know if people believed us, but this is the best team we've ever had on a world championship floor," Horton said. "We're trying to stay very grounded and very humble, and I think we're doing a good job with that. At the same time, we're excited. We can't help but know we're a good team."

And the U.S. might be even better under the scoring format for Wednesday night's team finals, where three gymnasts compete on each event and all three scores count. On paper, at least, the Americans can put up at least two monster scores on every event -- even pommel horse -- and a third very solid one.

Hit, and the Japanese and Chinese are at least within reach.

That's exactly what happened this summer at the Japan Cup, when the Americans finished less than a point behind their hosts -- even with a fall on high bar by Horton.

"All we have to do now is go in there and treat it like another Japan Cup," Orozco said.

Added Leyva: "When we get that pressure, we feel really good. It's just a competition, you go up and do what you have to do. It's not `three-up, three-count, there's like a pool of sharks under high bar and you have to do something different.' No, it's the routines you do every single day."

Of course, Japan has some pretty good routines, too.

The stylish Kohei Uchimura is, simply, otherworldly, doing every routine with precision and grace. On still rings, an event that causes pain just watching it, he did three somersaults and came to a dead stop, the cables not moving a millimeter. He could have been a model in an art class on parallel bars, holding his handstands with statue-like stillness for what seemed like ages.

And every gymnastics coach needs to get a DVD of his high bar routine and put it on repeat. His release moves were massive, soaring so high above the bar it's a wonder he didn't bang his head on the ceiling. As the crowd oohed and ahhed, Uchimura gave a smile and pumped his fist.

"I had some mistakes," said Uchimura, who has been bothered by pain in his legs.

Japan got a scare on floor exercise, when Yusuke Tanaka landed his first tumbling pass on his head. Tanaka was clearly dazed, but still attempted his next skill before the Japanese coaches could climb onto the podium and pull him off the floor. He walked down under his own power and took a seat on the sidelines, putting his face in his hands.

He was later taken to the hospital for tests.

Tanaka was leading the all-around at that point, and it will be a big loss if Japan doesn't have him Wednesday. But they have plenty of depth -- as Makoto Okiguchi showed. Okiguchi wasn't supposed to compete on pommel horse, but he had little choice because of Tanaka's injury and a fall off the horse by Tanaka's older brother, Kazahito.

With the home fans urging him on, Okiguchi put on a solid show and earned a more-than-respectable 14.533.

"It is just the first competition," Uchimura said through an interpreter. "But I have the full confidence to get the gold medal."