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Mouthwatering showdown
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Cheng Fei, the 2006 triple world title winner and three-time world champion on the vault, performs on the beam in the women's team qualification.

Cheng Fei, the 2006 triple world title winner and three-time world champion on the vault, performs on the beam in the women's team qualification on August 10, 2008.

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 on August 12 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.

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