STUTTGART, Germany – Bouncing back from mistakes Wednesday that would have cost a great team the gold medal on most days, the Americans finished with two of the most dazzling routines of the entire competition to clinch their second title at the world gymnastics championships.
The tears of joy started as soon as Alicia Sacramone saluted the judges. Even when they're not at their very best, the Americans are good enough for gold.
"We all started crying," Nastia Liukin said. "It's such a great feeling to know that finally we're on top of the world again. It's just a great feeling to know we're on top again."
The Americans' only other world title came in 2003, when they won on their home turf.
The United States finished with 184.400 points, nearly a point ahead of defending gold medalist China . Romania , which missed a team medal last year for the first time since 1981, returned to the podium as the bronze medalist.
"I certainly want to win the gold, and in Beijing also," said Lu Shanzhen , China 's coach. "But it's competition. There's only one gold, and you cannot always keep the gold."
The Americans learned that the hard way last year, when they breezed through qualifying only to lose the gold with two major mistakes in the finals, where scores start over.
And when Liukin and Shawn Johnson faltered badly on the balance beam, it looked as if it might be more of the same this time. The Americans trailed by .10 points heading into floor exercise, their and China 's final rotation — and China was going to close with Cheng Fei, the reigning gold medalist on the event.
But the Americans can strut their stuff like nobody else. If they were on, the Chinese didn't have a chance.
"I told them, 'Everyone makes mistakes, but we still have one more event and it's one of our best events, so we might as well go out there and have fun and show everybody what we've got,'" said Sacramone, the team captain. "This is what we came to do."
Johnson, the new national champion, got so high on her tumbling passes she could practically have touched the flags hanging from the ceiling. She landed every move without a wobble or a wiggle, and the smile on her face could have powered every light in the arena.
Her teammates were whooping and hollering when she finished, and the 4-foot-8 Johnson walked off looking a foot taller.
"I knew I brought us down a little bit on beam. I knew I had to go out and perform and redeem ourselves and redeem the team," Johnson said.
Her score of 15.375 was the second-highest of the night, and it meant that Sacramone needed to score only 14.375 to clinch the gold. She can get that just by walking onto the floor.
"It was a lot of pressure to put on myself," Sacramone said. "All the girls were like, 'You can do it,' and 'It's fine.' I was like, 'Guys, c'mon. I'm fine.'"
Sacramone was the world champ on the event two years ago, and her routines are performance art. Somebody in Las Vegas might want to get her under contract now, because people would pay money for her performances.
She sashayed and sauntered across the floor, playing to the judges and crowd. Her legs must have springs in them for the height and bounce she gets on her tumbling passes, but she lands them with precise control.
And unlike most gymnasts, whose music may as well be background noise, Sacramone actually does her tricks to the rhythm.
Sacramone hadn't even finished, and national team coordinator Martha Karolyi was already jumping up and down, hugging any coach within arm's reach. Sacramone looked over at her teammates with a smile when the music finished and then, after saluting the judges, the tears started flowing.
"It was awesome," Sacramone said. "To finish that floor routine after a horrible fall, it was a long road to get here."
It wasn't supposed to be. After giving away the gold medal last year with mistakes in finals, the Americans were supposed to be stronger this year — certainly healthier — and even better built for the three-up, three-count format that makes team finals such a beast.
The gold seemed practically guaranteed after they romped through qualifying. China had only two carryovers from last year's gold medal squad, and was testing some youngsters in preparation for next summer's Beijing Olympics. Russia was so beaten up that Elena Zamolodchikova made the squad despite being two weeks shy of her 25th birthday.
But team finals isn't always about who has the best team. Unlike qualifying, every mark counts. Countries put up their three best gymnasts in each event and pray for no mistakes. One botched routine can cost you a gold medal. Two usually means all you're getting is the souvenir T-shirt.
And after their debacle on beam, the Americans appeared to be off the top of the podium.
Liukin, a former world champion on beam, had been practically perfect, landing so effortlessly on the 4-inch wide apparatus she seemed weightless. She has the kind of positioning coaches dream about: perfectly extended legs, toes pointed just so.
But there was a loud thud as she readied for her dismount: Her foot had slipped off the beam. Instead of doing her usual twisting flip off the beam, she was forced to do a simple somersault — a move so easy grade schoolers do it.
"I think I just rushed too early," Liukin said. "I did a good beam routine and I guess I just got too excited too early. I felt like my foot slipped, and I knew I wasn't going to be able to complete the twist."
Her score of 15.175 was almost a full point below what she normally scores, and she ran her hands over her hair as she walked off the podium, despair written across her face.
The rest of the Americans seemed rattled, too. Johnson, normally rock solid, landed awkwardly on a back somersault and couldn't save herself. She wobbled and bobbled but couldn't save it, finally jumping off the beam. Her score of 15.025 left the Americans only .10 behind China heading into the final rotation.
That's when things really got weird.
Li Shanshan, China's first gymnast up on floor, put way too much power into her last tumbling pass, two piked somersaults. She stumbled backward, toppled over and skidded out of bounds.
Not a good way to finish, and she scored only a 13.825.
Meanwhile, on vault, Russia 's Ekaterina Kramarenko flew down the runway and put her arms up to ready herself for a round off onto the springboard. But she suddenly cut her speed, stayed upright and stopped at the top of the springboard.
It was a sight rarely seen, especially at this level, and it meant Russia had to count a zero. After being in position for a bronze medal — or better — Russia wound up dead last in the eight-team finals.
As Kramarenko sat in a chair on the sidelines, crying, Zamolodchikova stood on the runway, tears filling her eyes. The former Olympic champion did her vault, but it was meaningless. She sobbed and shook her head as she walked off the podium.
All of that left the door wide open for the Americans.
"Shawn was like, 'Only one-tenth guys,'" Liukin said. "We were all really worked up. After she said that we said, 'OK, it's still possible. Don't give up, keep fighting, you're right there.'"
Right there, at the very top of the podium.