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Wilson currently fifth in prelims

6/25/2004

ANAHEIM, Calif. -- Four months ago, Blaine Wilson lay
crumpled in a heap at Madison Square Garden, his dreams of an
Olympic medal seemingly as shredded as the muscle in his left arm.

On Thursday night in the Olympic trials, he was once again among
the top gymnasts in the country, an emphatic response to all those
who said he'd never make it back.

"All I ask is for the opportunity to be on this team," Wilson
said after finishing fifth in the preliminary round. "I believe I
can make this team. And I believe I can help this team win a medal
in Greece."

After what he's overcome the last four months, can anyone doubt
him?

Wilson has been the country's pre-eminent gymnast for a decade,
winning five straight national titles from 1996-2000 and competing
at the 1996 and 2000 Olympic games. But he's never won an Olympic
medal, a gaping hole that's kept the 29-year-old competing long
after his peers retired.

When he tore his left biceps muscle completely off the bone in
February, though, most thought he was finished. The normal recovery
time is at least six months; the Athens Games were less than six
months away.

But Wilson has a will even greater than his considerable talent,
and both were on display Thursday night.

"I have the heart and desire to still be on this team and get
this done," he said. "I might have started with a different group
of guys, but my goal is the same."

And he and Jason Gatson, who missed the national championships
with a back injury, are making things very difficult for the
committee that will select the six-man Olympic team.

The top two scorers after the finals Saturday will earn
automatic spots to the Olympics, and a selection committee will
choose the final four.

Reigning world champion Paul Hamm is a shoo-in for one of the
two automatic spots. Though he fell off the pommel horse, he still
finished first with 57.600, not scoring anything lower than a 9.0.
He wrapped up the night with a 9.9 on high bar, a routine that
never fails to draw oohs and aahs from the fans.

"Obviously, I want to win this competition," Hamm said. "But
just making the Olympic team and staying healthy is my main goal."

The other automatic spot is as good as gone, too. Brett McClure,
the silver medalist at nationals, was the only gymnast in the
17-man field to hit all six of his routines, and his score of
57.425 left him just 0.175 points behind Hamm.

That leaves those other four spots, and committee members came
to trials wondering if Wilson and Gatson would be back to full
health when the Olympics start in seven weeks.

Now there's no doubt.

"They've shown enough they deserve to be on the team," Hamm
said.

Neither were perfect. Wilson nearly skidded out of bounds twice
on the floor exercise, while Gatson -- who competed on only four
events -- had to gut out his pommel horse routine.

But there were more highlights than lowlights for both.
Gatson's parallel bars routine was the best of the night, a
powerful set that ended with a big dismount and a near perfect
landing. He scored a 9.85 and also had a 9.7 on still rings.

"That parallel bars routine that Jason Gatson does, that wins a
medal in Athens," said Bob Colarossi, president of USA Gymnastics.
"That's one of the best I've ever seen."

The crowd held its collective breath when Wilson climbed up on
the still rings, the event where his injury occurred. With his face
red from exertion and his jaw clenched in determination, he flipped
and twisted his way through the routine.

When he landed safely back on the floor, fans exhaled and his
mother, Joan, wept with relief.

"Somebody told me she was crying," Wilson said, a tinge of
disgust in his voice. "C'mon, Mom. I'm a lot tougher than that."

As if there was ever any question.