Young U.S. men's gymnasts no match for Yang, China
BEIJING -- Yang Wei flexed his bulging muscles for the video boards, pounded his chest and dared the joint to get louder. It was a ham act, Hormel-sized, but nobody seemed to care. It came before the judges even flashed their scores and confirmed that yes, Yang had, finally, won all-around gold.
Jonathan Horton's arms dropped to his sides. His hair was spiked, and so were his medal hopes. But the American walked into the mixed zone on Thursday, quietly smiled and said he was content. Two days after helping the U.S. take home bronze in the team final, Horton finished ninth in the men's all-around final at National Indoor Stadium, four-tenths out of a silver. And that, after a whirlwind week, seemed to be good enough for the United States gymnastics team.
"It's been an unbelievable experience for me. I'm just trying to soak it all in."
The gaping differences between China and the United States were clear on Thursday. Yang strutted around confident, driven and galvanized by veterans who grew up together with one goal: gold medals on their home soil. The Americans -- 48 hours removed from a gutsy and unexpected bronze medal in team competition -- looked baby-faced and hopeful.
By the fourth routine, it seemed obvious the Americans were out of feel-good stories. Sasha Artemev, who was added to the team a week ago when Morgan Hamm dropped out, finished 12th on a day fraught with angst for nearly everybody except Yang.
Neither Artemev nor Horton had competed in an Olympics before arriving in Beijing, and Horton quickly opened the day by struggling on the pommel horse. He was in last place after that first rotation and spent the rest of the afternoon trying to catch up.
"It wasn't a very good routine," said Horton, who calls the pommel horse his Achilles' heel. "I can definitely do that routine way better. I feel like I'm saying that every time. I was happy when I got through it. It was like, 'OK, let's work my way up from last place now.'"
Horton did, and nailed the vault and floor exercise. But two things were noticeably different from Tuesday. Horton's perfect landings weren't so perfect and the energy that carried his team seemed to disappear after that first routine.
"I don't know that he was dialed into that part of it as much as he was for the team," coach Mark Williams said. "Because in the team [competition], they knew every tenth could matter.
"With the team, he felt so pumped up. He felt like he couldn't miss at all."
As Yang basked in the chants and stared lovingly at his gold, Artemev wondered if things could've been different.
A month ago, the Americans had hoped to be celebrating gold with Paul and Morgan Hamm. But the twins had to back out of the Olympics because of injuries, opening the door for the next wave of young American gymnasts.
In between dissecting his performance, Artemev said he was confident that if Paul Hamm was in Beijing, he would've made things much tougher for China. But on Thursday, after Yang coasted through his first five rotations, Hamm was a distant memory.
Yang finished with 94.575 points, almost three points better than silver medalist Kohei Uchimura of Japan. Yang's final rotation, the high bar, was almost an afterthought. The victory ended years of disappointment for the 28-year-old, who settled for silver in Sydney and Athens.
"The ups and downs that guy has had," Horton said, "being so close so many times. Everything he's ever done in his career has just pushed him. You can see it in his eyes. There's nothing that holds him back."
The young Americans could only watch, their eyes fixed slightly lower.
"I loved getting that medal on Tuesday," Artemev said. "That's the most important thing to me right now. The other medals are just icing on the cake."
Elizabeth Merrill is a senior writer for ESPN.com. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.