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Together: Johnson, Liukin lead US women's gymnasts

Aug. 11, 2008, 6:54 a.m. (ET)

BEIJING (AP) They talk and text about boys and clothes and music - typical teenager stuff.

Now it's time to talk about beating China.

The head-to-head competition between Shawn Johnson and Nastia Liukin can wait. First, they must team up in an attempt to lead the U.S. women's gymnastics squad to gold.

It's part of a Tuesday night TV schedule in which team effort will be paramount. NBC's prime-time lineup at the Beijing Olympics includes the women's gymnastics team final and the 800-meter freestyle relay, when Michael Phelps will lean on three other swimmers to continue his quest for a record eight gold medals.

"Michael's quest is completely in the hands of Michael," teammate Cullen Jones said.

Or is it?

Phelps sure needed help once already this games: Jason Lezak swam a dramatic final leg Monday to give the U.S. a come-from-behind victory over France and move Phelps 2-for-2 in his chase of Mark Spitz's gold medal mark.

Phelps also is expected to go after an individual gold Tuesday night in the 200-meter butterfly. And the image of Phelps roaring with excitement is one he hopes to replicate again and again at the Water Cube.

Johnson and Liukin likely won't show that same exuberance, but they certainly were excited for their showdown with the hosts at the sold-out National Indoor Stadium.

"We showed the world what we are here for," Johnson said after qualifications. "I can only hope and pray USA will come out on top."

It won't be easy for the pixie gymnasts, who weren't at their best in qualifying.

The U.S. squad struggled after Samantha Peszek sprained her left ankle in warm-ups, leaving the team with only four competitors on floor, vault and balance beam - and no margin for error. It didn't help that Chellsie Memmel and Liukin both fell on uneven bars, their speciality.

"We made a few mistakes, but it's the prelims. It's the place to make mistakes," shrugged Johnson.

China enters the finals with the top preliminary score after posting the highest individual score on all four events, and the highest team score on uneven bars and floor exercise in a workmanlike effort. Not even teary-eyed He Kexin's fall from the uneven bars derailed them in front of a partisan crowd.

Liukin, daughter of double Olympic gold medalist Valeri and world rhythmic champion Anna, received a pep talk from her father after botching her uneven bars landing, and trusted the U.S. will rebound in the finals.

"We have four in our team for the finals, and you only have to find three strong girls for each event," Liukin said. "We're confident we can come away with a good score."

That's the focus for the finals, the last team effort before Johnson and Liukin go head-to-head in the all-around later in the games.

It's setting up a showdown both athletes have dreamed of.

"I have predicted the outcome - either me first, her second, or her first, me second," Johnson said. "Both of us hoped and prayed that when this day came, we were one and two. We wanted to see USA on top."

That includes the team finals.

NBC's nighttime show also will include live beach volleyball with the U.S. duo Phil Dalhausser and Todd Rogers, and the women's final in platform synchronized diving.

Katie Hoff, still searching for her first gold medal of the games, has two chances to redeem herself in the 200 free and 200 IM. Hoff again was denied a gold medal Monday when Rebecca Adlington of Britain rallied over the final 50 meters to beat the favored 19-year-old in the women's 400-meter freestyle.

Hoff took the silver to go with the bronze she won a day earlier in the 400 individual medley.

Other TV highlights include the semifinal's of the men's 100-meter freestyle and the water polo match between USA and Italy.