The rivalry between China and the US for medals at the Beijing Games is nowhere keener than in the Gymnastics Hall, where the two perennial powerhouses will meet tomorrow in the women's team final.
Both teams gave error-strewn performances in the preliminaries, but still reached the finals as the top two qualifiers.
China faced an early-morning start and intense pressure from local fans, but managed to top the ranking with an overall score of 248.275. The star-studded American team suffered an injury to stalwart Samantha Peszek but finished second with 246.8.
"We are used to starting on the floor or vault, but that's just a matter of habit," said Cheng Fei, the only member of the Chinese team with Olympic experience. "We practiced a lot after the draw because we had to get used to starting on the beam and we did great."
The Chinese gymnasts qualified first in all four women's apparatus finals, but American world champion Shawn Johnson led the solo standings in the all-around, with compatriot Nastia Liukin in second place. China's Yang Yilin came in third and Jiang Yuyuan finished seventh.
"We showed the world what we are here for," said Johnson, who is coached by Chinese-born Qiao Liang and is competing in her first Olympic Games. "We made a few mistakes, but it's the prelims - that's the place to make mistakes."
Coming into tomorrow's finals, both China and the US will enter six, top-level gymnasts, while most countries struggle to field a team.
China will be relying on team captain Cheng Fei, the 2006 triple world title winner and three-time world champion on the vault. The Hubei native put on a spectacular performance in the preliminary, finishing first in two of the three events she entered.
Even after her teammate fell on her second vault, Cheng came back with a great vault and brought China back into contention.
"It was a bad time to compete, after Jiang just failed her vault," said Cheng. "I'm happy I could stand up to the pressure and help the team."
Cheng still remembers the women's painful loss to the US at the 2007 World Championships, where she failed her landing on the vault. Her younger teammates could not take up the slack, allowing the US to win by a small margin.
"I think I should do my own job first, because if I do my job well, the others will have more confidence," Cheng said.
For the US, Shawn Johnson made her Olympic debut with a solid performance, finishing in the top three in three out of four events.
"All four events for her were normal, consistent and aggressive Shawn," said US women's national team coordinator Martha Karolyi.
Peszek, who was also scheduled to compete in four events, sprained her left ankle during warm-ups and only performed on the bars. Chellsie Memmel, the 2005 world all-around champion, also has been limited to bars because of an ankle injury she suffered last week.
Both teams feature specialists on each apparatus.
On the vault, Cheng will be up against Alicia Sacramone, who is a three-time world medalist in the event.
"Cheng is an amazing vaulter," said Sacramone. "We've been going head to head for the past couple of years. It will be a great competition."
Cheng is also a force to be reckoned with in the floor exercises, impressing the judges in the preliminary with her powerful and stylized performance, to the popular Chinese song "Yellow River". Her teammate, Jiang Yuyuan, also qualified for the final.
They will face Johnson, the reigning world champion, and Liukin, who finished third and fourth in preliminary.
On the beam, China will field Cheng and top qualifier Li Shanshan. Johnson, Liukin and Sacramone - second, third and fourth in the preliminary - will represent the US.
Li's performance on the beam, which had been a weak event for China, has boosted the hosts' confidence.
"We did exceptionally well on beam, which was the event we were worried about," said coach Lu Shanzhen.
Both teams are eager to improve their performances on the uneven bars, on which their top performers made huge mistakes and almost failed to reach the final.
China's Yang Yilin, the bronze medalist at the 2007 World Championships, topped the bars with a flawless routine. But Liukin promised she will come back strong.
"The Chinese have strong gymnasts, which they proved today," she said. "We've prepared really well, so all we can do is focus on our competition. We are confident we can come away with a good score."
The Chinese women are seeking to make amends for Athens, where they failed to win a single gold despite dominating the World Championships a year earlier. The US team is also eyeing the gold, which they lost to the Romanians in Athens.
"Each team has advantages and disadvantages. You can't think about what the other teams have, though. You have to concentrate on what you've got," said Bridget Sloan of the US team.
"I know a lot of people think that with the Olympics being in China, the Chinese have an advantage, but we are such a strong team right now. I guess that's team USA's advantage."
Source: China Daily