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American men score 364 points; finish fourth and qualify for team finals

9/4/2007

STUTTGART, Germany -- Take that.

After hearing for a year how bad they are, how they might not
even make it to next summer's Beijing Olympics, the U.S. men
silenced everyone with a solid performance at the world gymnastics
championships Tuesday.

Not only were they good enough to secure a spot in Beijing, they
earned themselves a repeat performance in Thursday night's team
finals.

"It's hugely satisfying," team captain David Durante said.
"When this is your passion, this is your life's work, and you hear
people say you're not very good at what you do, it's frustrating.

"It really fueled us," he added. "It is a sense of relief to
be able to say, 'Look at us. We can compete with anyone in the
world.' And we're going to do that."

With 364 points, the Americans were fourth behind China, Japan
and Germany. They had only three notable errors in 30 routines --
that's fewer than they had on some single events last year. All of
their scores were safely in the 14s and 15s, and Jonathan Horton
stood ninth overall.

The top 12 teams qualify for Beijing, and the top eight get to
come back Thursday for a try at a team medal. Of course, after the
show China put on Monday, it sure looks like everyone else is
tumbling for second.

The defending world champions weren't at their best -- some of
their high bar routines were so sloppy, they should have been
wearing another country's uniform -- but they closed with a show on
still rings so spectacular it immediately should be packaged as an
instructional DVD. At 374.275 points, the Chinese are a whopping 3.550 points ahead
of the closest thing it has to competition, Olympic champion Japan.

Germany passed the Americans in the final rotation of the day
thanks to star Fabian Hambuechen, the reigning world bronze
medalist in the all-around. Hambuechen was magnificent, posting the
fourth-highest individual score.

The 16.025 he scored on high bar was more than a half-point
ahead of anyone else, a ridiculous margin on a single event.

Romania and Canada both advanced to Beijing despite missing
their best gymnasts. Romania, minus reigning world floor champ
Marian Dragalescu, was sixth. Canada, which lost Olympic floor gold
medalist Kyle Shewfelt to two broken legs last week, was 11th.

Italy finished 10th, clinching a spot with Igor Cassina's
acrobatic high bar routine. The reigning Olympic gold medalist in
the event had the Italian fans shrieking with delight, and when his
score was posted, it set off another celebration.

Ukraine, the silver medalist in 2000 and winner of the bronze in
1996, finished 13th and will miss the Olympics for the first time
since declaring independence in the wake of the breakup of the
Soviet Union.

The Americans have no designs on beating China. Silver medalists
in Athens only three years ago, they would have been quite happy to
leave Germany chanting, "We're No. 12!"

With Olympic champion Paul Hamm, twin brother Morgan and the
rest of the 2004 squad off doing other things, the United States
took a young and inexperienced team to worlds last year. The result
was dismal, with the Americans sputtering and splattering to a
13th-place finish.

Had the same thing happened this year, the United States
couldn't send a full team to Beijing -- an unheard of occurrence.

"Last year was a disaster," Johnathan Horton said. "I still feel it. I
still know what it feels like to go out for the biggest competition
of my life and bomb. It still eats at me, because so many times
over the past year, we'd have people come up to us and question the
ability of the U.S. team. The comments we got from people about us
being weak just fueled every movement that I do."

The Americans insisted every chance they got that last year was
a fluke. But words mean little. Actions do, and what the Americans
did here said it all.

"When you're replacing a medal-winning team, questions are
going to be there," said Ron Brant, coordinator of the men's
national team. "The thing that never changed was everyone
believing and knowing they were good enough. No matter what was
said to us ... these guys refused to give up on it, the coaches
refused to give up on it."

They may not have been flashy like the Chinese, but they didn't
need to be. They played it safe on their roughest events,
sacrificing difficulty for consistency, all in the name of staying
in the top 12.

And, unlike last year, they had a few routines that are sure to
make the rest of the world sit up and notice.

Horton's high bar routine will have kids across the country
heading for the monkey bars. He threw himself up and over the bar
not once, not twice but three times, doing the same move in three
different positions. Each time, he grabbed hold of the bar as
easily as if he was reaching for a strap on the subway.

New national champion David Durante, who has given the team the
leader it's been sorely missing since 2004, stood on the floor,
dipping and swaying with every move Horton made.

"Finish! Finish! Finish!" he yelled.

When Horton did, Durante pumped his fist as if he himself had
just wrapped up a perfect routine.

His score of 15.075 will likely get him into the event finals on
floor.

Guillermo Alvarez led the way on floor. His tumbling passes were
solid, but what really set him apart was his positioning. He kept
his legs so tight together not a bit of light showed through, and
his toes were always perfectly pointed. He landed his dismounts --
two somersaults in a layout position -- so solidly, he looked as if
he'd landed in wet cement.

The best routine of all came in the most unusual of places: the
pommel horse. Americanshaven't
been very good on the event for many years. Alvarez went spinning off of it, and the rest
of the routines were merely mediocre.

Then Sasha Artemev got going. He's the reigning bronze medalist
on the event -- literally the only bright spot for the men last year
-- and he could pick up some more hardware with another show like
this. He has perfect form: toes pointed, legs together, lower body
swiveling as if he's two-dimensional.

He had perfect form: toes pointed, legs together, lower body
swiveling as if he's two-dimensional. At one point, he grabbed hold
of one of the pommels and swung his body around _ one-handed. It's
an incredibly difficult skill to do, let alone do it without
looking like a mess. But he did. When he did his scissor kicks, his
body was such a blinding whirl fans began oohing, aahing and
applauding.

Artemev finished with a grin, blowing kisses to the fans before
he left the podium.

"A lot of people were talking this and that," said Artemev, so
committed to the team's revival he sacrificed a spot in the
all-around final despite being sixth overall so the Americans could
get a higher score on rings, one of his worst events.

"But we proved today that the USA's men's team is still a
No. 1 team. And in team finals, who knows? Anything can happen."

There were more smiles when the final score was posted. Durante
gathered the team for one more huddle, and they broke with a loud
chant of "U-S-A!"

If they said it a little louder and with a little more pride,
well, they were allowed on this day.

"We came here today trying to prove the world wrong," Horton
said. "I think that's what we did."