AARHUS, Denmark (AP) – Those wrong-colored medals could well be tossed into the backs of sock drawers across America.

The unsettling lessons that came with them, these women can only hope, will make for better results when the spotlight is brighter.

China knocked off the heavily favored U.S. women in the world gymnastics championship finals Wednesday, an upset that came courtesy of a mistake-filled evening that stunned and perplexed them and the team that beat them.

“Totally, totally unexpected,” national team coordinator Martha Karolyi said.

A team that goes through dozens of training sessions without making a single error made a gob of them, large and small. A team that dominated in qualifying two nights earlier barely looked the same with the medals on the line. A team that was setting itself up as the one to beat two years from now at the 2008 Beijing Olympics – well, it settled for silver in Denmark.

Chellsie Memmel, the defending all-around champion, fell off the uneven bars, landing face down with a ghastly thump. Jana Bieger had to put both hands down behind her to keep from totally biffing on her vault landing.

That was the worst of it. But there were other slips, slides and ricochets – too many for a meet where every routine, every score, counts.

“That’s the name of the game in three-up, three-count in the finals,” said Kathy Kelly, senior director of the women’s program. “You have to stay on. We didn’t stay on.”

The Chinese did.

They scored 182.2 points, 0.85 more than the Americans and nearly five ahead of Russia, which finished in third – a good result for a team rebuilding after the retirement of Svetlana Khorkina.

“China was consistent tonight, and I thought they deserved to win,” Karolyi said. “But they didn’t beat us. We beat ourselves.”

Either way, what a great day for the Chinese, who won their first world title and capped a sweep at the worlds after the men’s championship Tuesday. That victory could have been expected. This one wasn’t.

China finished seventh at the Athens Olympics and hadn’t won a team medal at worlds since 1999. In 2003, the Chinese infamously gave away the bronze when an athlete was penalized for warming up for her beam routine on the podium near the beam, which wasn’t allowed.

In all, this was thought to be a program that was slowly improving – maybe timing it to make a big splash at the Beijing Olympics?

“This victory has already passed,” said Zhang Nan, who gets a gold to go with her all-around bronze from Athens. “Next time, we start again at zero. At the Olympic Games, we will have the same competition.”

Maybe then, a victory won’t come as such a surprise.

“Before the games, we knew there was a little gap between the Chinese team and the Americans,” said Chinese vault and floor specialist Cheng Fei. “It makes it so we could come in with no pressure and we could give a top performance.”

They smiled, high-fived and hugged their way around the intimate gym in Aarhus. The Americans never seemed as happy – drooping off the podium after imperfect routines, not smiling much. One time, they left the floor completely while China went on vault.

The Chinese women took the lead into their last event, the floor, and Pang Panpan opened the festivities there with the routine of the night. It was sassy, technically strong and full of pizazz. The fans clapped along, and when the music stopped, she brought her hand to her cheek and pushed her head to an angle to smile to the crowd.

Maybe the Americans won’t be the only team with star power in Beijing.

A few minutes later, the Chinese were celebrating, hugging and high-fiving, even though the Americans still had to go.

Who would’ve ever guessed the favorites would be an afterthought?

Alicia Sacramone, the defending world champ on floor, did her usual best – another head-turning number that will be her last on the floor this week due to a judging decision in qualifying that knocked her out of event finals.

Memmel was superb, too. Maybe on Thursday, when she competes in the all-around, that set will mean something. In this meet, it was already too late.

“I was just a little bit off tonight,” Memmel said.

Any loss comes with some second-guessing, and there was at least one question for Karolyi to answer.

She left Ashley Priess and national runner-up Natasha Kelley on the sideline for the entire competition, the result of their falls off the beam in the United States’ otherwise-perfect preliminaries.

Could they have made a difference? Who knows. All three Americans stayed on the beam this time, but their scores were average. Memmel did a great job to keep from falling after one foot ricocheted off after a flip. Still, it knocked her down to 15.050, ceding precious ground on a night when every tenth counted.

“We met about it. We discussed it. Absolutely everybody agreed with the decision,” Karolyi said of the lineup.

She left the gym convinced she still has the best team in the world. That has been the thinking for at least a year, since the women came back from worlds in Melbourne with a handful of medals and the two best gymnasts.

One of them, Nastia Liukin, was limited to one event this week because of a nasty ankle injury. Still, when a team is so strong that it’s OK to bench the national runner-up, that must say something.

“I guess that’s why they call it sport,” Kathy Kelly said. “Totally unexpected. But you can’t take anything away from China.”

Maybe when the Americans look back two years from now, they’ll thank China.

AP-ES-10-18-06 1840EDT


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