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U.S. women first so far in world gymnastics qualifying

October 7, 2011 | 11:44 pm

Mckayla-maroney_325 Despite last-minute injuries to 2008 Olympian Alicia Sacramone and uneven bars specialist Anni Li leaving the U.S. short-handed going into qualifying competition at the 2011 world gymnastics championships in Tokyo, the U.S. is in first place with more than three-quarters of the first round of qualifications finished.

Only the Russians and, possibly, the Japanese are among the teams remaining to finish qualifying with a legitimate chance to overtake the U.S. This portion of the championships is when each nation puts up six gymnasts on the five apparatus and counts the four best scores, although the U.S. only put up five because of the two injuries.

In the team finals, each team will use three gymnasts on each apparatus and all three scores will count.

So far the U.S. has 234.253 points, nearly four points ahead of reigning Olympic champion China. Romania is third. Despite the team's youth -- the U.S. has three members who are first-year senior-level gymnasts on the team and in their first world competition -- they didn't have any major bobbles or falls.

Sacramone, who was also defending world champion on vault, was flown back to the United States to have surgery on her Achilles' tendon, which she tore during a tumbling pass when training earlier in the week.

Before she left, Sacramone, 23, the only 2008 Olympian on the U.S. team, pulled 15-year-old McKayla Maroney from Laguna Hills aside to give her a pep talk.

"She told me to win the vault gold medal for the U.S. now," Maroney said from Tokyo. "She told me I could do it."

Indeed, Maroney so far stands first in the vault and seems likely to be one of the eight competitors on the vault when event finals take place next week.

Americans led three of the four event finals so far, including defending U.S. all-around champion Jordyn Wieber, who is first in the all-around.

Li, a former star at UCLA, said from Tokyo that the abdominal injury she suffered was healing well and that she felt she could be available for team finals. Li's start value on uneven bars is nearly a point better than anyone else on the U.S. squad and could be a boost for the U.S. in the team finals.

The top eight teams qualify for the 2012 London Olympics. Teams that don't qualify for London from the world championships will get a second chance to earn a spot at a test event in London next year.

-- Diane Pucin

Photo: McKayla Maroney performs a flip on the uneven bars during qualifying at the world championships in Tokyo on Saturday. Credit: Koji Sasahara / Associated Press