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World gymnastic championships

Resilient US men headed for Beijing

STUTTGART, Germany - Take that.

After hearing for a year how bad they were, how they might not make it to next summer's Beijing Olympics, the US men silenced everyone with an impressive performance at the world gymnastics championships yesterday.

Not only were they good enough to secure a spot in Beijing, they earned themselves a repeat performance in tomorrow night's team finals.

"It's hugely satisfying," team captain David Durante said. "When this is your passion, this is your life's work, and you hear people say you're not very good at what you do, it's frustrating.

"It really fueled us. It is a sense of relief to be able to say, 'Look at us. We can compete with anyone in the world.' And we're going to do that."

With 364 points, the Americans were fourth behind China, Japan, and Germany. They had only three notable errors in 30 routines - that's fewer than they had on some single events last year. All of their scores were safely in the 14s and 15s, and Jonathan Horton was ninth overall.

The top 12 teams qualify for Beijing, and the top eight get to come back tomorrow for a try at a team medal. Of course, after the show China put on Monday, it sure looks like everyone else is tumbling for second.

The defending world champions weren't at their best - some of their high bar routines were so sloppy, they should have been wearing another country's uniform - but they closed with a show-stopping performance on the rings.

Germany passed the Americans in the final rotation of the day. Romania and Canada both advanced to Beijing despite missing their best gymnasts. Romania, minus reigning world floor champ Marian Dragalescu, was sixth; Canada, which lost Olympic floor gold medalist Kyle Shewfelt to two broken legs last week, was 11th.

Italy finished 10th, clinching a spot with Olympic gold medalist Igor Cassina's acrobatic high bar routine.

Ukraine, the silver medalist in 2000 and winner of the bronze in 1996, finished 13th and will miss the Olympics for the first time since declaring independence in the wake of the breakup of the Soviet Union.

The Americans have no designs on beating China. Silver medalists in Athens only three years ago, they would have been quite happy to leave Germany chanting, "We're No. 12!"

The Americans may not have been flashy like the Chinese, but they didn't need to be. They played it safe on their roughest events, sacrificing difficulty for consistency, all in the name of staying in the top 12.

Horton's high bar routine will have kids across the country heading for the monkey bars. He threw himself up and over the bar not once, not twice, but three times, doing the same move in three different positions. Each time, he grabbed hold of the bar as easily as if he was reaching for a strap on the subway.

Guillermo Alvarez led the way on floor. His tumbling passes were solid, but what really set him apart was his positioning. He kept his legs so tight together not a bit of light showed through, and his toes were always perfectly pointed. He landed his dismounts - two somersaults in a layout position - so solidly, he looked as if he'd landed in wet cement.

The best routine of all came in the pommel horse.

Reigning gold medalist Sasha Artemev had perfect form in taking top marks in the event. "A lot of people were talking this and that," said Artemev. "But we proved today that the USA's men's team is still a No. 1 team. And in team finals, who knows? Anything can happen."

There were more smiles when the final score was posted. Durante gathered the team for one more huddle, and they broke with a loud chant of "U-S-A!"

"We came here today trying to prove the world wrong," Horton said. "I think that's what we did."

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