| Hollie Vise on the balance beam during qualifying at the world gymnastics championships on Sunday. (AP)
Anaheim (California): The United States started poorly on the pommel horse but then rallied on the rings to not only win the team qualifying at the World Gymnastics Championships but advance to the Athens Olympics.
The Chinese team, expected to dominate the show, showed vulnerability and finished third.
“We got the ball rolling with the rings and then took it through to the high bar,” said US men’s gymnastics coach Kevin Mazeika. “We wanted to be aggressive.”
The hosts finished with 227.743 points, just 0.697 points ahead of Japan (227.046), while China was third with 225.119 points. Romania (224.770 points) and South Korea (224.047) rounded out the top five.
The women’s competition got underway on Sunday evening, and France was in first place after early results in the team qualifying with 142.835 points.
Paul Hamm was the catalyst for US men’s, posting a solid routine in the floor exercise (9.562 points) in front of about 3,000 fans at the 16,000-seat Arrowhead Pond arena.
Hamm was placed second in the overall individual rankings and was one of two Americans to compete in all six events.
Japan’s Naoya Tsukahara was first in the qualifying all-around with 57.224 points, just 0.376 points ahead of Hamm. The other American to take part in six events was Jason Gatson who had a superb rings routine for a 9.700 score.
“He exemplifies the US spirit. He has unbelievable tenacity,” said Mazeika of Gatson.
The top 12 teams at the Worlds qualify for the 2004 Athens Olympics. Twelve more gymnasts will be added from teams ranked 13 to 18 in Anaheim and 10 athletes — one per country — from teams 19 to 28.
The US started off poorly on Sunday, with modest scores on the floor exercise then a disastrous pommel horse when two of their first three gymnasts fell.
The worst fall was by Morgan Hamm (Paul’s brother) who landed on his head but luckily was not injured.
The US bounced back on the next event — the rings — to post the highest score (38.637 points) of any country on any event in the team preliminary round. It was smooth sailing from then for the Americans, who are now tipped to win Tuesday’s team finals.
Mazeika blamed Sunday’s poor start on nerves. “It took them some time to get settled,” he said. “It was their first time in front of a big crowd.”
The score on the rings even surprised the US coaches. Rings was thought to be the Americans weakest event heading into the Worlds.
“At training camp we really worked hard on holding strength moves and sticking landings,” Mazeika said.
Canada qualified in ninth spot, becoming just the second Canadian men’s team to ever make it to an Olympics.
But they would be the first to actually compete as the Canadians qualified at the 1979 Worlds but then Canada joined a US-led boycott of the 1980 Moscow Olympics.
Germany grabbed the final Olympic team berth with 219.132 points while 2001 World Champions Belarus (219.120 points) provided the biggest shock of the competition as they placed 13th and missed out on sending a full men’s team to Athens by the slimmest of margins.
Belarus’ top gymnast Ivan Ivankov will not compete in Friday’s all-around in Anaheim because of a achilles injury.
France looked impressive in placing seventh despite competing without two of their best gymnasts Benoit Caranobe (ankle) and Yann Cucherat (wrist).
France, who were placed ninth in Sydney Olympics, suffered another injury on Sunday when Florent Maree hurt his left ankle.
“If Florent hadn’t got hurt we could have done much better — maybe fourth,” said French coach Marc Touchais, who was pleased with his team’s performance. France was in fourth spot prior to Florent’s injury.