American men score 364 points; finish fourth and qualify for team finals
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."
Copyright 2007 by The Associated Press
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