BEIJING - As the reigning world champions, the U.S. women were expected to sail into the Olympic gymnastics team final without drama.
But yesterday's qualifying session was rife with it - starting when Samantha Peszek sprained her ankle during warm-ups before the squad was due to march onto the floor at Beijing's National Indoor Stadium.
The hobbled Peszek, scheduled to compete in all four disciplines, could manage only one, joining the similarly sidelined Chellsie Memmel, who sprained an ankle last weekend.
And the last-minute shuffling of the lineup sent jitters through the team. Alicia Sacramone stepped out of bounds during her floor routine. Memmel fell midway through her uneven-bars routine, and Nastia Liukin concluded hers by landing flat on her back.
The team's only rock was its tiniest member, Shawn Johnson, who at 4-foot-9 delivered high marks on floor, vault and beam. She was also first overall, scoring 62.725 points to advance to Friday's individual all-around final as the favorite for gold.
But the qualification was about culling eight medal-worthy teams from a field of 12.
And China, which desperately wants to win its first Olympic team title after a disastrous showing at the 2004 Athens Games, led all, scoring 248.275 points with a breathtaking display of acrobatics that was undercut by occasional bouts of nerves. A different Chinese gymnast delivered the team's high marks on each of the four apparatus - a strong statement of the team's versatility and depth.
The Americans, competing with only four able bodies, finished second (246.800). Russia was third (244.400), followed by Romania (238.425) and Australia (235.450). France, Brazil and Japan rounded out the qualifiers. The scores will be erased on Wednesday, and the eight nations will start from scratch.
It was Johnson, fittingly, who found the silver lining in yesterday's rough outing.
"We're human; we're not robots," she said. "It's the perfect time to make mistakes to get the nerves out. We have our world title from last year, and we feel like we are the world champions, and we want to show the world that."
The Americans got off to a shaky start. Sacramone, the team's senior member, incurred a costly deduction for stepping out of bounds after her second tumbling pass. The uneven bars proved a disaster, with Bridget Sloan missing a skill, Memmel falling, and Liukin botching her dismount.
"I cannot imagine what happened," U.S. women's team coordinator Martha Karolyi said afterward. "I am totally surprised. It's some type of nerves. I just have no explanation."
Even with the error, Liukin earned the team's high score on the bars - 15.975 - but it was well shy of the 17-plus she is capable of delivering.
"Both of us have hoped and prayed that when this day came, we would be one and two," Johnson said. "Whether it was her first or me first, it didn't matter. Going into the all-around [final], it's going to be great knowing that, no matter what, I'll have my teammate right there. And she'll be helping me, and I'll be helping her."
China's Yang Linlin had the third-highest score (62.350) and could well spoil the Americans' dream.
As for the U.S. men, Penn State's Kevin Tan on Saturday helped his injury-depleted team qualify for the finals, which will begin Tuesday.
The Americans, without Paul and Morgan Hamm, finished in sixth place among the eight qualifiers, behind leader China, Japan, Russia, Germany and South Korea.
Jonathan Horton and Alexander Artemev, who joined the team when Morgan Hamm withdrew last week, qualified in two individual finals, pommel horse and horizontal bars, as well as the all-around competition.
Tan, who had the Americans' top still-rings score, is the first reserve athlete on that apparatus. The International Gymnastics Federation rule allows no more than two athletes per country to advance to the final round.