AARHUS, Denmark (AP) – Overlooked for so long, what a great day it was for American gymnast Jana Bieger.

It would have been even better if it weren’t for that darn Ferrari in the lead.

With the top Americans hurt and sitting out, Bieger finally got her chance Thursday. She won a surprising all-around silver medal, outdone only by the irrepressible Vanessa Ferrari, who zipped and zoomed her way around the arena to bring Italy its first world title.

Bieger hardly felt like a runner-up.

“It’s fantastic,” she said. “It’s really hard to say anybody lost.”

In the men’s all-around, Yang Wei won the third gold of these championships for China, to go with a sweep of the team events earlier in the week.

Defending champion Hiroyuki Tomita of Japan won silver and Fabian Hambuechen of Germany took bronze. American Guillermo Alvarez finished 18th, and teammate Sasha Artemev was 22nd.

Romanian Sandra Raluca Izbasa won a surprise bronze in the women’s all-around and made up for her country’s first shutout at worlds in the team event since 1981.

American Ashley Priess came in 10th, but it was hard to quibble with her performance.

Priess found out she was in the all-around early in the morning when teammate Chellsie Memmel, the defending champion, withdrew with a shoulder injury. The 16-year-old newcomer, benched for team finals after a fall off the beam in prelims, closed the night on floor and had a chance for a medal. A fall out of bounds ended that.

“I called her in the morning to tell her she was in,” said Priess’ coach, Mary Lee Tracy. “She called me back and said, ‘What time did you say we’re going to breakfast?’ I asked her if she’d heard a thing I told her.”

Indeed, it was another crazy day in what has turned into quite a jumbled week for the Americans. They earned a disappointing silver in the team event Wednesday night, the result of some stunning mistakes, none more than Memmel’s fall off the uneven bars.

During that routine, she tweaked her shoulder, the same one that had been bothering her since April. That’s how she found herself sitting in the stands near teammate and national champion Nastia Liukin, last year’s all-around silver medalist, on the biggest night in gymnastics. Liukin is at less than full strength with an ankle injury.

“I’d rather be out there competing,” Memmel said, trying to hold back tears. “It was a hard decision. But when I go out there, I don’t want to give it 50 percent, I want to give it 100 percent.”

The Americans are thought to be the deepest team in the world – it’s the reason they were favored here – and Memmel’s late withdrawal gave them the perfect chance to show it.

Pushed to the front of the American lineup, Bieger made it through the evening without a fall. One key moment came at the start, where she stuck the landing on her vault – the same one she messed up in team finals.

Her closing floor routine was super. With the crowd clapping to the music, she moved her arms in big circles and clearly was enjoying the dancing, not simply trying to get through it. She stuck her landings on every tumbling pass and scored a 15.375 to briefly take the lead.

When the set was over, there were two key scenes. One was in the stands, where national team coordinator Martha Karolyi gave her a standing ovation – the first she’d given anyone all week. “It was big because of all the frustrations we’ve had,” Karolyi said.

The other came on the floor, where Bieger shared a long embrace with her mother and coach, Andrea Bieger, a former Olympic gymnast in West Germany. “I told her ‘Thank you for everything you’ve given me back,”‘ Bieger’s mother said.

Ferrari followed with a zippy routine that was even better – vaulting her 4-foot-9 body into the air with twists and turns and nary an error. It scored a 15.5 – enough for the win, and to overcome a fall on the beam that would have been fatal before the new scoring code was put in this year.

“After I fell on the beam, I knew I had to fight to the last note of the music, and I did,” Ferrari said.

Her coach, Casella Enrico, spent part of the postgame interview handing out business cards, celebrating a long-awaited victory for a program he’s helped build practically from scratch. He calls his star athlete “The Cannibal” because she’s so tenacious. Last December, surgeons inserted four screws into Ferrari’s palm to fix her broken hand.

“She started in a little gym near her home,” Enrico said. “She wanted to find a place where the real gymnasts go, and they sent her to me when she was 7. There were things to correct, but we slowly improved and turned it around.”

She’ll go home with the gold and certainly will be someone to watch two years from now, in Beijing.

The Americans have someone to add to that mix, too.

At last year’s worlds, Bieger found herself on the sideline most of the time, cheering Memmel and Liukin. She took it in stride, hoping her chance would come.

“Unfortunately, Chellsie got hurt,” Bieger said. “But I was able to go out and show what I could do. It was totally different.”

Different in many ways. Only one night earlier, the Americans were drooping out of the arena, befuddled by their mistakes, wondering how a team with so much talent could finish second.

But on this night, they were smiling. And the story was about team depth and tenacity, and coming through when the odds are against you.

Suddenly, silver looked a whole lot better.

“Chellsie Memmel and Nastia are still the best in the country,” Andrea Bieger said. “So, this is an amazing thing for us. With Jana, I think it shows we’ve got three girls who can make a part of a very, very great team.”

AP-ES-10-19-06 1909EDT


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