07/28/2012 05:40 EDT | Updated 09/27/2012 05:12 EDT

Jolly good show! Emotional Louis Smith helps Britain top China in gymnastics qualifying

LONDON - The tears came suddenly and Louis Smith did little to stop them.

In an instant, all the hype, all the work, all the sacrifice, all the pressure vanished. The moment the scoreboard flashed with a 15.800 — easily the best on pommel horse during the opening session of men's gymnastics team qualifying — and the O2 Arena crowd roared, the flamboyant 23-year-old's tear ducts went into overdrive.

"I just recapped and thought about how much has gone into this," Smith said. "I knew at the end of the routine I was probably going to break down because there's been so much that's been put into this."

It was 90 minutes that were nine years in the making.

Smith's elegant set on his signature event put the exclamation point on a fabulous start to the Olympics for the home team. Britain rolled up 272.420 points to assure themselves of a spot in Monday's finals, a result made more startling by who it beat.

Yes, that really was perennial power Japan and defending Olympic champion China about two points back, undone by a series of uncharacteristic errors that made it look like they — and not the Brits — were the ones overcome by the big stage.

Not that Smith or his teammates noticed.

Kristian Thomas posted an all-around score of 90.256 and did his best to follow the orders of his coaches, who advised Thomas and company to ignore what was going on elsewhere on the podium floor.

Other than the random "oh" from the crowd when a Chinese gymnast faltered, Thomas had no idea the reigning world champions were suffering their worst day in competition in nearly a decade.

Asked if he sneaked a peek at China's scores, the hulking Thomas just shrugged his massive shoulders.

"Not once," he said. "I didn't even look at it. I don't remember seeing any of the Chinese teams to be honest."

Maybe it's because he was too busy being dazzled by his own teammates. While the majority of "Team GB" marched into the Olympic Stadium on Friday night during the elaborate opening ceremony, Thomas tried to get some sleep before the biggest day of his competitive life.

He didn't. And it had nothing to do with nerves, but fireworks.

Every time Thomas would get comfortable, another "boom" from the stadium would shake him awake.

"It wasn't the most restful night ever," he said.

It didn't need to be.

The British gymnastics program has been pointing toward these games since Beth Tweddle won bronze on the uneven bars at the world championships in 2003 and Smith grabbed bronze on pommels in Beijing four years ago, the first individual gymnastics medal for a Brit in a century.

For proof of the sport's resurgence, look no further than 19-year-old Sam Oldham. A promising soccer player as a youngster, he instead chose to focus on gymnastics at age 12 because of the investment the country made in the sport.

On Saturday, the vivid vision Oldham had while competing as a junior six years ago, the one where he suited up in front of thousands of fellow countrymen and held his own with the world's best, was a reality.

"That's how we roll," Oldham happily tweeted in the aftermath.

Not always.

The road to London was filled with potholes. They flopped at world championships last fall and didn't qualify for the games until the test event held here in January.

Undaunted, they've continued to build with no regard to sentimentality or experience. They chose Oldham and Max Whitlock over 22-year-old veteran Daniel Keatings, whose resume is littered with medals at major competitions over the last four years but who couldn't overcome the fact he'd slipped a bit this spring because of injuries.

Whitlock and Oldham made the selection committee look prescient, Oldham contributing a solid 14.6 on still rings and Whitlock having three of his scores — on floor, pommel horse and vault — go toward Britain's eye-popping total.

Still, this team belongs to Smith.

The eccentric Smith — known as much for his ever-changing hairstyles and elaborate tattoos as his gymnastics — is sublime on the pommel horse. On an apparatus most of his peers begrudgingly try to survive, he is as precise as Big Ben.

Feet seemingly magnetized together, body in constant control, Smith is a study in fluidity. He doesn't move across the horse as much as hover over it.

He's never done that, however, with the nation that tends to put its best athletes under a sometimes excruciating microscope. Smith is an engaging tweeter and wears his emotions on his sleeve. He is only too happy to do what he can to bring attention to himself, his team and the sport he's dedicated his life to.

Smith understands the only thing harder than beating China and Japan once is doing it twice. That's fine. It certainly beats the alternative.

"I don't know how expectations could get any higher for us," he said. "It's a great mixture of emotions. We're going to go for it."