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Japan, U.S. men lead way in qualifying

8/14/2004

ATHENS, Greece -- Another showing like this, and the U.S.
men's gymnastics team is going to have some bright, shiny souvenirs
to take home from the Olympics.

And no, we're not talking pins.

The Americans began their quest for their first Olympic medal
since 1984 with a solid showing Saturday, winning their qualifying
session and finishing second behind fellow favorite Japan. The
United States scored 230.419 points, leaving it 1.715 points behind
the Japanese team's 232.134.

"We're right on track for what we had to do to get a medal,"
Morgan Hamm said.

Reigning world and Olympic champion China, meanwhile, took it
easy and wound up fourth behind Romania. Apparently preferring to
preserve their bodies for Monday night's grueling final, the
Chinese did enough to make it through qualifying and not much else.
They didn't break out their big tricks on floor, and scratched
their final gymnast on rings even though it meant counting a score
of 8.925. China finished with 229.507 points, almost three points
behind the Japanese.

But no matter. The top eight teams advance to the finals, and
scores are wiped out. Ukraine, Russia, Korea and Germany also
qualified for the final.

Besides, being first in qualifying wasn't necessarily a good
thing. The draw has the top team going first on the first and fifth
events, but last on the sixth event. That's the gymnastics
equivalent of icing the kicker, a 40-minute wait that's going to be
excruciatingly long when there's an Olympic medal on the line.

And there's already going to be enough pressure because of the
scoring format. Instead of competing five gymnasts on each event
and dropping the lowest score, teams only use three gymnasts per
event in the finals, with all three scores counting. That means
there's no room for error.

But if the United States puts on another performance like this,
it could have its first medal since the 1984 squad won gold at the
boycotted Los Angeles Games.

"We try not to talk about medals because we have no control
over that," said Bob Colarossi, president of USA Gymnastics. "We
only have control over what we do on the floor."

While scores seemed high all day, the Americans appeared to be
better than they were last summer, when they finished a close
second to China at the world championships.

From the time they walked into the Olympic Indoor Hall to loud
cheers and family and friends waving U.S. flags, the Americans were
rocking and rolling.

They didn't count a score lower than a 9.212, and botched just
two of 30 routines. Defending world champion Paul Hamm finished
with 58.061 points, the best individual score in qualifying. Mogan
Hamm, Paul's twin, was almost as good, scoring 9.7 or better on
high bar, pommel horse and floor. But he isn't eligible for the
all-around because he only did four events.

Five-time national champion Blaine Wilson won't make the
all-around, either, after falling off the high bar. But Wilson
responded with one of the guttier performances of the day. Though
the crash left him so foggy he needed smelling salts to clear his
head, he still competed on floor exercise, the Americans' next
event, because he knew the team needed his score. He earned a 9.7,
then closed with a 9.625 on rings and a 9.512 on vault.

And this is the guy who wasn't even expected to be in Athens
after tearing his left biceps completely off the bone less than six
months ago.

"Put it this way, when you want to puke, it's not good,"
Wilson said when asked how he felt. "I still have a giant headache
right now, but I'm fine. I'm starving."

The fall might never have happened if Wilson hadn't been forced
to do some last-minute tweaking of his high bar routine. Judges
told U.S. officials Wednesday that a move Wilson, Jason Gatson and
Brett McClure all were doing wasn't worth as much as it had been at
last year's worlds.

Gatson and Wilson decided to replace it, but that only gave them
two days to polish their routines. Wilson fell on the new move.

"I don't think this will be the thing that will make or break
our ability to be successful," said Ron Galimore, men's program
director for USA Gymnastics. "It's frustrating."

The Americans have made a steady climb since their fifth-place
finish at the Sydney Olympics, winning silver medals at the last
two world championships. But they'd like to climb one step higher
here.

Their determination was evident from their first routine of
their first event, the parallel bars. Guard Young was so still as
he did a one-handed handstand he could have played one of those
statues that was in Friday night's opening ceremony. When he saw
his score of 9.637, a grin spread across his face and he told his
teammates, "I'll take that."

Paul Hamm did him one better. Starting in a handstand, he
flipped around into another handstand without swaying at all to
stop his momentum. The crowd oohed and aahed, and the judges
obviously liked it, too, giving him a 9.762, his best score of the
night.

He also impressed on the high bar. He does three straight
release moves, tossing himself up and over the bar with such ease
and certainty he should be in a circus, not a gym.

But the Americans do have areas they can clean up. Pommel horse
was a struggle, as always, and they could have been more secure on
some of their landings.

"If you're going to have struggles, it's better to have them
the first day," Young said. "If you go out perfect the first day,
you might not look sharp in the finals."