In the end, the U.S. team's medal hopes rested on the muscled shoulders of John Roethlisberger.
But he didn't realize it. Eyes shut, facing away from his teammates, Roethlisberger had been elsewhere, trying to imagine himself back in his gym, running through his routine.
Only when his feet hit the mat did he deal with reality. The four-time national champion's last-ditch effort today on the high bar had vaulted his team into the World Gymnastics Championships final.
It was the second time in two days that U.S. medal hopes rested on the last routine. Vanessa Atler clinched the women's team's place in the medal round with a 9.762 Sunday in the floor exercise. The finals for both teams are Tuesday.
Roethlisberger's 9.525 on the bar capped a remarkable comeback for the 29-year-old from Falcon Heights, Minn. He underwent reconstructive knee surgery last year, and was sidelined for months before recovering and making the team for the championships in Tianjin.
The U.S. men, whose last team medal--a bronze--came in 1979, were shaky in their first event, the floor exercise. Stephen McCain scored an 8.812, and Chris Young an 8.862 while his parents shouted encouragement from the stands.
"It wasn't the best way to start," Roethlisberger said of the Americans.
But they regrouped immediately on the pommel horse, led by a 9.650 from Roethlisberger, a 9.612 from Yewki Tomita and a 9.487 from Blaine Wilson--the reigning and four-time national champion.
The tattooed, pierced 25-year-old Wilson, who wears a silver tongue stud, was the most consistent U.S. gymnast. His 57.048 points placed him sixth among the 36 gymnasts who qualified for the individual all-around competition. Tomita, whose father is a team coach, was 35th.
The team was fifth going into the high bar, its final event. With Russia and Belarus yet to come, they needed a strong finish to clinch a place in the medal round six.
But again, they started poorly. Sean Townsend fell and Tomita lost his grip, almost coming off, for scores of 8.762 and 8.450, respectively.
Young and Wilson did better, stopping the slide with scores of 9.550 and 9.562. Wilson, whose routine included two circles of the bar hanging on with just one hand, performed despite an injured and taped shoulder.
But it wasn't enough. The team was still seventh, until Roethlisberger completed his routine. Once the scoreboard lit up with the scores, the team erupted with high-fives and shouts of "Yeah!" Roethlisberger turned to the stands and pumped his fists into the air.