Japan leads early qualifying at worlds, US 2nd
TOKYO (AP) — As good as the Americans were, the Japanese were even better.
The Olympic silver medalists took the early lead in qualifying at the world gymnastics championships Sunday with 364.291 points, finishing about 2.7 points ahead of the U.S. men. Germany, last year's bronze medalist, was third with 354.132 points. Though qualifying is only halfway over, that should be good enough to earn all three teams spots at next summer's London Olympics.
China, the Olympic champion and winner of the last four world titles, Russia, South Korea and Britain compete Monday. The top eight teams qualify for the Olympics and make Wednesday night's team finals.
"It is just the first competition," two-time world champion Kohei Uchimura said through an interpreter. "But I have the full confidence to get the gold medal."
The Americans have been saying they believe they can contend for the gold medal in London, and there's no question they are much, much improved. They had only one fall — Steve Legendre landed his vault on his knees — and posted higher scores than Japan on vault and floor exercise. John Orozco, who is not even 15 months removed from a blown Achilles, and U.S. champ Danell Leyva showed they're game for giving the stylish Uchimura a rare challenge, finishing about 2 points behind in the individual standings.
Even the worst U.S. event, pommel horse, was solid with the Americans counting two — two! — scores above 15. Alex Naddour and Orozco look almost un-American with their smooth and fluid routines. Naddour started by spending what seemed like ages working on one pommel, incredibly difficult because it requires a gymnast to maintain perfect rhythm and consistency.
And the Americans should be even better in team finals. Their team sets up better for that format, where three gymnasts go on each event and all three scores count. In qualifying, five gymnasts compete on each event with the top four scores counted.
"We're a much stronger team in three-up, three-count," said Jonathan Horton, a double medalist at the Beijing Olympics. "Not to put down my team at all, but our fourth score up on every single event is much lower than the top three guys. So when we go with our top three, we are as good as anyone in the world and we know it.
"Not to be cocky or overconfident, but we have that belief in us that we are as good as these teams."
That confidence was bolstered this summer, when the Americans finished less than a point behind Japan at the Japan Cup in this same arena.
"All we have to do now is go out there and treat it like Japan Cup," Orozco said. "It's going to be fun."
Still, there is a reason Japan has battled China for supremacy in men's gymnastics the past decade. Uchimura is, simply, otherworldly, doing every routine with polish and precision. On still rings, gymnastics' version of a torture chamber, he did three somersaults and came to a dead stop, the cables not moving a millimeter. He could have been a model in an art class on parallel bars, holding his handstands for what seemed like ages with statue-like stillness.
And every gymnastics coach needs to get a DVD of his high bar routine and put it on repeat. His release moves were massive, soaring so high above the bar it's a wonder he didn't bang his head on the ceiling. As the crowd oohed and ahhed, Uchimura gave a smile and pumped his fist.
"I had some mistakes," said Uchimura, who bounced back after hurting his leg when he fell on his vault landing.
Japan got a scare on floor exercise, when Yusuke Tanaka landed his first tumbling pass on his head. Tanaka was clearly dazed, but still attempted his next skill before the Japanese coaches could climb onto the podium and pull him off the floor. He walked down under his own power and took a seat on the sidelines, putting his face in his hands.
He was later taken to the hospital for tests.
Tanaka was leading the all-around at that point, and it will be a big loss if Japan doesn't have him Wednesday. But they have plenty of depth — as Makoto Okiguchi showed. Okiguchi wasn't supposed to compete on pommel horse, but he had little choice because of Tanaka's injury and a fall off the horse by Tanaka's older brother, Kazahito.
With the home fans urging him on, Okiguchi put on a solid show and earned a more-than-respectable 14.533.
Germany dug itself a big hole on its first event, with Fabian Hambuechen and Philipp Boy both falling off pommel horse. But the Germans rallied with stylish sets on parallel bars, where they posted the second-highest score of the day behind Japan.
"Team finals is a brand new day," Horton said. "And we're a really good team. We're going to do our job and fight to the end."