LONDON (AP) — The Americans just might be able to back up their big talk.
While perennial gymnastics powerhouses China and Japan bobbled and wobbled their way through men's qualifying Saturday, the Americans proved they really do have the goods to contend for the gold medal. They didn't count a single fall, and their final score of 275.342 is almost three points ahead of surprising Britain.
"It's not (a pipe dream), and that's what we've been telling the world for the longest time," Danell Leyva said. "Now is when everyone is finally, completely realizing how much we believe in it and today was definite huge proof of that."
The O2 Arena — where American flags, T-shirts and signs seemed to be everywhere — erupted in applause when the final scores were posted. The U.S. men looked up from their huddle and noted the marks with a few fist pumps.
Japan, the heavy favorite coming into the meet, is third (270.503) after several uncharacteristic errors by three-time world champion Kohei Uchimura. Defending Olympic champion China, which also has won the last five world titles, is fourth (269.985) after its splat-filled day. Germany and Russia compete later Saturday.
"We studied a lot about the American team already," said Japanese coach Yasunori Tachibana, who sent a scouting party to last month's Olympic trials. "So we knew it was going to be pretty tough."
Team finals are Monday, and the scoring format changes to the three-up, three-count, where three gymnasts compete on each event and all three scores count. But the Americans believe they're actually better built for that high-risk, high-reward formula, and this performance will only fuel their confidence.
The United States hasn't been atop the podium since Bart Conner and the Golden Gang in 1984. It hasn't even been in the same league as China and Japan, really. But after a surprise bronze medal in Beijing and another bronze at last year's world championships, this group has insisted it has the goods to get it done.
They sure looked it Saturday, performing with the kind of swagger usually reserved for the Chinese. Danell Leyva and John Orozco posted the highest individual scores, and the team had the highest total on floor exercise and high bar. They had only three falls the entire day, and counted only four scores below 15.
After captain Jon Horton finished an electrifying high bar routine, he stood on the edge of the podium and popped his uniform so the entire arena could see the "U-S-A" on the front.
"This is the first time I've felt the same mood amongst the team," said USA Gymnastics chairman Peter Vidmar, a member of the 1984 team.
The day didn't look so promising at the start, when Horton went spinning off pommel horse, his — and the team's — worst event. But teams can drop their lowest score in qualifying, and the rest of the Americans were quick to erase Horton's. Leyva and Orozco would be welcome on China's or Japan's team after their stylish sets, making their way around the horse with smooth, controlled swings and circles.
Horton redeemed himself with a still rings routine that left spectators crying "Uncle!" He looked as if he was on a spit as he rotated from one skill right into another, and his back was so straight on one plank you could have used it as an ironing board — provided there was 15-foot ladder handy to reach him.
After slowly closing the gap on each event, the Americans finally took the lead with their dazzling sets on high bar.
Orozco set the tone, getting such great air on his release moves he could almost make eye contact with the folks hanging out on the first concourse. Horton was up next. He's been struggling on high bar the last few months, but there was no cover-your-eyes-and-hide-the-children scariness this time. Once, twice, three times he tossed himself up and over the bar, flipping and twisting before coming down and easily grabbing it.
When his feet hit the mat with a solid thud, he pumped his fists and smiled.
"I jumped up there, man on a mission-type thing," Horton said. "I was really aggressive. I caught all my releases really well — my last one was just kind of finger-tipped. It was a good set, I was really happy with it."
Leyva closed the show, drawing oohs and aahs from the crowd with his big release moves. When he did a little hop while in a handstand, the audience actually laughed. He let out a roar when he landed his dismount, and his energetic stepfather and coach, Yin Alvarez, let loose with a round of his trademark rhythmic clapping.
With more than a point lead, the Americans breezed through their floor routines. When Leyva finished, Alvarez — in the stands because only U.S. coach Kevin Mazeika and assistant Tom Meadows can be on the floor during team competition — rushed down to the railings and yelled, "That was super good!"
"We definitely can carry on the confidence," said rookie Sam Mikulak, the most consistent of the Americans until a fall on high bar. "We just want to stay humbled to make sure we go out and perform to the best of our ability."
The Japanese, meanwhile, need to figure out how they got so far off track.
Normally so stylish and precise that coaches use DVDs of their routines as teaching tools, the Japanese looked disoriented. Kazuhito Tanaka made four big errors in his first three events, including a botch on high bar that left him wildly swinging one-handed, like a child on the monkey bars.
Uchimura's performance was downright baffling. The three-time world champion has been so sublime since winning the silver medal in Beijing that Germany's Philipp Boy, runner-up at worlds the last two years, has joked he was born in the "wrong age." That Uchimura would cement his status as the greatest gymnast ever with the all-around title was all but a given.
But he fell on high bar, not even getting close to the bar on a release move. He then spun off pommel horse, getting up with a baffled look. He rallied from there, however, and wound up fourth in the individual scoring.
"I think more or less we all were thinking about how China was doing today, so it might have affected our performance," Uchimura said through a translator.
The Chinese have run roughshod over the gymnastics world for much of the last decade. They were so much better than the competition, and everyone knew it.
But Chen Yibing and Zou Kai are the only holdovers from the Beijing gold rush, and China is no longer in a class by itself.
China's air of invincibility took its first hit at last year's world championships, where the Chinese finished behind Japan and the United States in qualifying. Yes, it was only qualifying, and they still left the event as they always do — with index fingers held high in the air and gold medals around their neck. But it was the first time since Athens that they failed to finish first in every phase of a major competition.
A reduction in team size, from six gymnasts in Beijing to five in London, hurt the Chinese even more. After building their team around one- or two-event specialists for so many years, they've been left with gaping holes in their lineups.
What hurt the Chinese most Saturday was simple sloppiness — shocking for a team once known for its impeccable execution. Chen's parallel bars routine wouldn't cut it for a high school gymnast. Zou Kai, the reigning gold medalist on high bar, probably won't even make the final after a routine that was almost indifferent. Guo Weiyang, pressed into service Wednesday after 2004 pommel horse gold medalist Teng Haibin dropped out with an arm injury, fell on his face on his dismount on floor exercise.
The Chinese had to count not one but two scores below 14 on pommel horse after falls by both Guo and Zhang Chenglong.
"We're not really disappointed because it's been four years and the competitors are improving, there's less discrepancy in their level," Chen said through a translator. "We are still confident in the