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You're never too young

August 6, 2008 | 11:42 pm

China's gymnastics team coach Lu Shanzhen, right, works with Chinese gymnast He Kexin during a podium training.

BEIJING -- The Chinese women's gymnastics team didn't look like world beaters Thursday at podium training.

They took three bad falls on balance beam, their floor routines were done with nervous glances toward coaches and slips and slides out of bounds. They had two splats on uneven bars and their team leader, 20-year-old Cheng Fei, who is the reigning vault world champion, fell on three landings before finally standing upright but still with an extra wobble and two steps.

But on uneven bars He Kexin, whose age eligibility has been questioned over the past two weeks, did a rousing set on her specialty, doing her release moves with strength and ease and a smile.

Chinese newspapers have printed stories over the past year that indicate He is 14 and several newspapers, including the Los Angeles Times, received documents from city and provincial registration lists that showed He and teammate Jiang Yuyuan as being born in 1994. According to FIG, the international gymnastics federation, gymnasts must turn 16 during the year of the Olympics to be eligible.

He and Jiang ran through the mixed zone after practice giggling and telling interpreters that they would let their coach speak about their ages.

The coach, Lu Shanzhen, also replied to age questions through an interpreter. "The national team did everything according to the rules and interpretations of the federation," he said. "The ages came from the province and the city and we provided those ages to the passport agency and to the federation and they have been accepted. The gymnasts don't want to answer any questions about their ages."

Shanzhen also dismissed the series of falls and mistakes Wednesday. "They were trying their best," he said. "Everything is going according to their plans and we have no plans to make any changes."

Before the practice there had been chatter among some coaches and commentators from four different countries that China was going to substitute alternates for He and Jiang, the two gymnasts with the age issues but both worked out Thursday. Teams can make substitutions until Saturday, 24 hours before the team qualification begins.

The United States is next to work out here and has its own question to answer about injured Chellsie Memmel. Memmel has an injured right ankle that, according to Bela Karolyi, has kept the 20-year-old from training anything except uneven bars.

    -- Diane Pucin

Photo: China's gymnastics team coach Lu Shanzhen, right, works with Chinese gymnast He Kexin during a podium training. Credit: Odd Andersen / Associated Press