China's Women Send a Powerful Message

Times Staff Writer

Fan Ye spoke no English, but her smile said it all Monday after her spectacular balance beam routine helped propel China to the top of the women's preliminary team standings at the World Gymnastics Championships.

"I feel very confident, very good," she said through a translator. "I'm not the best one on the team."

If her teammates can improve on Monday's performance, which was spectacular everywhere but floor exercise and only slightly lacking there, they might be the team to beat in Wednesday's team finals.

Boosted by Fan's 9.712 and a team total of 38.224 points on balance beam, China finished the qualifying round at the Arrowhead Pond with 148.671 points. That was enough to pass Romania, which had taken the lead in an earlier session with 148.120 points. Rounding out the top eight, which will advance to the teams finals, were the U.S., Ukraine, Russia, Spain, Australia and Brazil.

"Our real goal is [the Athens Olympics] next year," China Coach Shanzhen Lu said through an interpreter. "Tonight we have a little bit of mistakes and we were not as good as we should be. The girls are pretty young. There is pressure and they made mistakes."

The International Gymnastics Federation was reviewing the scores before releasing a list of qualifiers for the individual event finals.

The men's team finals will take place tonight. The U.S. had the highest score in the preliminary round, but no U.S. men's team has won a world team title.

Earlier Monday, Romania's women enchanted the crowd with a series of vibrant floor exercise routines. Their prospects had been unclear because the team had changed drastically since it won the team gold medal at the Sydney Olympics, but the pipeline that produced Nadia Comaneci, Simona Amanar, Andreea Raducan and many other standouts appeared to be flowing again.

Catalina Ponor, who will be 16 Wednesday, tied for first in floor exercise (9.537) with Spain's Elena Gomez, and Romanian champion Andreea Munteanu ranked in the top 10 overall. Oana Ban and Alexandra Eremia also impressed with routines packed with difficult tumbling passes.

Nonetheless, longtime national team coach Octavian Belu said the measure of how far his young team has rebounded will come Wednesday.

"It's like you teach your child to swim in a small swimming pool and then drop them in the ocean," he said.

In the all-around standings, Gomez led Chellsie Memmel of the U.S., 37.549 points to 37.449. Defending world all-around champion Svetlana Khorkina of Russia was third at 37.249, with Fan fourth at 36.823 and Russia's Anna Pavlova fifth at 36.812. Carly Patterson and Courtney Kupets of the U.S. were sixth and seventh, respectively. Only two women per country can compete in the all-around final.

Scores from the preliminaries don't carry over to Wednesday's team finals. Also, the competition format changes to a three-up, three-count format. That means each team can send out merely three athletes per apparatus and all three scores will count. In preliminaries, teams could send out five gymnasts and drop the lowest score.

The Russians made many uncharacteristic mistakes, and Elena Anochina, who is in her first year at the senior level and won't be 15 until October, fell on each apparatus. That cost her team because some of her teammates didn't do much better. Russia had to count four scores below 9.0 on the uneven bars, with only Khorkina's 9.45 commanding respect.

The Russians also had problems on balance beam, where they had to count Elena Zamolodchikova's 8.637, and on floor, where their scores ranged from 8.187 for Alexandra Chevtchenkova to Khorkina's 9.312.

"It was a bit too much pressure for the team, and the team didn't perform to what they're capable to do," coach Leonid Arkayev said.

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