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Hamm becomes first American male champ

8/23/2004

ATHENS, Greece -- He had to be perfect and hope no one else
was.

Even Paul Hamm's coach figured it was over: "I thought he had
no odds."

A fall on his vault landing sent Hamm stumbling into the judges'
table and all the way down to 12th place in the all-around
gymnastics final.

"I thought, 'That's it. I'm done,"' he said.

Far from it. In one of the most amazing comebacks in Olympic
history, Hamm performed the two most spectacular routines of his
career Wednesday to win the gold medal by the closest margin ever
in the event.

"I'm happy right now. Shocked, actually," said Hamm, the first
American man to win the Olympic all-around. "To be in first place
after that kind of mistake, I thought there was no chance to win."

The final competitor of the night, Hamm needed a 9.825 on the
high bar, his best event, to tie Kim Dae-eun of South Korea for
gold -- and he was dazzling. The highlight of his routine are three
straight release moves, and he did them perfectly.

Hamm threw himself up and over the bar, catching it on the way
down once, twice and then a third time, soaring higher with each
toss. His dismount was perfect, and he hit the mat with a solid
thud before thrusting his fists into the air and throwing his head
back in jubilation. He waved at the roaring crowd and then sprinted
off the podium clapping his hands while his coach, Miles Avery,
jumped up and down on the sideline.

Avery grabbed Hamm in a bearhug when he came off the podium.
Hamm then dropped into a chair, overwhelmed by what he had done.
When his score of 9.837 flashed on the scoreboard, the arena went
into a frenzy.

"I thought I could win silver, maybe bronze," said the
21-year-old from Waukesha, Wis. "I didn't think I could win gold
until Miles said, 'You're the Olympic champion,' and all I could
think to say was, 'No way!"'

Hamm finished with 57.823 points, beating Kim by .012. The
previous closest margin in the event was .017 by Leon Stukelj of
Yugoslavia over Robert Prazak of Czechoslovakia in the 1924 Games.
The women also had .012, in 1992, when Ukraine's Tatyana Gutsu
edged American Shannon Miller.

"I thought maybe I could get first," Kim said. "I'm rather
disappointed and angry, in a way."

Ioan Suciu of Romania wasn't happy, either, after finishing
0.126 points behind bronze medalist Yang Tae Young of South Korea.

"The only thing I can say is that the USA got something more
than it deserved," Suciu said.

But as defending world champion, Hamm is going to get the
benefit of the doubt. And really, anyone who watched his last two
routines could hardly argue with the final results.

"It was one of the most amazing comebacks in gymnastics
history," said U.S. teammate Brett McClure, who finished ninth.
"He's so determined not to fail."

He usually doesn't, which is what made his debacle on vault so
stunning.

Hamm appeared to have the gold medal firmly within his grasp
with a .038 point lead over China's Yang Wei, his biggest rival,
halfway through the meet. He moved to the vault, normally one of
his most solid events, and looked good when he hit the springboard
and leapt forward, turning his body sideways before his hands hit
the horse.

Springing backward, he did 1½ somersaults, but he didn't get
enough height on the twists and hit the mat in a crouch. There was
no time to stabilize himself, his left leg crossing over the right
and sending him on a sickening stumble.

"I don't know how that happened," he said. "It felt good in
the air."

The crowd gasped as he fell sideways and back off the mat,
hitting the edge of the judges' table before he plopped down, a
stunned look on his face. He got up and walked off the podium,
shaking his head and thinking he'd probably just cost himself the
gold.

"I was very upset and depressed," Hamm said. "I felt I let
myself down."

He looked dazed when he saw his score of 9.137, which dropped
him 12th place and more than a half-point behind Yang -- an almost
insurmountable deficit.

"I looked at the scoreboard and said it's a long, long climb,
because I know the quality of the gymnasts out there," Avery said.

Going first on his next event, the parallel bars, Hamm flipped
from one handstand right into another, still as a marble statue.
His dismount was textbook perfect.

His score, also a 9.837, was the highest on the parallel bars
and would move him up in the standings. But just how high would
depend on his competitors. And one by one, they fell away.

First went Yang, who lost the gold medal to Russian star Alexei
Nemov in Sydney four years ago and then finished second to Hamm at
last year's world championships.

Doing a one-armed pirouette on the high bar, Yang reached to
grab the bar with his free hand and came away empty. Swinging
wildly like a kid on monkey bars, Yang tried to hang on but
couldn't, dropping to the ground and taking his medal hopes with
him.

Isao Yoneda of Japan fell on a similar move. Suciu stalled on a
handstand. Marian Dragulescu couldn't keep his arms locked on a
flip on the parallel bars, sinking below the bar.

When the rotation finally ended, Hamm had jumped all the way
back to fourth place, only .313 points out of first.

"Sure, he was a little frustrated" after the fall, McClure
said. "But the great ones take that frustration and direct it
toward an event and put up a huge number. And then, BOOM!"

Kim was the first of the leaders to go, and his floor routine
was solid, but not spectacular. He looked up as he walked off the
floor, then went to the sideline to wait.

Next up was McClure. Though he was in third place, McClure had
to do rings, his worst event.

"I took a picture of the scoreboard after five events, because
I knew I was going to drop," McClure said.

Finally, it was Yang's turn. His high bar routine was
serviceable, too, but hardly golden.

That was all Hamm needed.