Aug. 17, 2004
By NANCY ARMOUR
AP Sports Writer
ATHENS, Greece (AP) - Jason Gatson cradled his Olympic medal in the palm of his hand, unable to take his eyes off of it. Paul Hamm paraded his around with the giddy enthusiasm of a schoolkid who just knows he's got a winner for show-and-tell.
"Here, take a look," Hamm said, thrusting it forward. "It's pretty cool."
It hardly mattered that the medals were silver, not gold. After two decades of being an obscurity at home and an afterthought to competitors, the U.S. men's gymnastics team climbed the podium Monday night as proud as any champions.
Japan won the gold medal with 173.821 points, while Romania was third.
The medal was only the third ever by a U.S. men's team, and the first since the 1984 squad won gold at the boycotted Los Angeles Games. The comparisons have been endless between this team and that one, but on this night comparisons didn't seem appropriate.
"What they've done is significant in and of its own right," said Peter Vidmar, a double gold medalist on that 1984 team. "Tonight, we should just forget there ever was a team in 1984 and just let their success stand on its own. Because it was a tremendous, tremendous night for them."
It felt special from the start. While the rest of the top teams skidded and stumbled across the floor, Hamm, his twin brother Morgan and Guard Young put on three of the best routines this side of the circus.
Paul Hamm soared so high on his tumbling passes he could have dusted off the lights, while Morgan Hamm twirled his entire body around on his hands so effortlessly he put those '80s breakdancers to shame.
The Americans kept the momentum going on pommel horse, normally one of their weaker events, and emerged with a slight lead.
But like the rebuilding project the team has had, this wasn't going to be easy. Gatson botched his routine on rings, and Young and both the Hamms took big steps on their vault landings. Just like that, the Americans went from first to a precarious third.
As they waited for their next event in a warmup gym, Blaine Wilson gathered his teammates around him. Wilson knows better than anyone the story of the Americans' struggles after 11 long, often-frustrating years on the national team and fifth-place finishes at the last two Olympics.
Knowing his team had won silver at the last two world championships, the 30-year-old had delayed retirement. He'd endured long separations from his wife and toddler, and rushed back from a gruesome biceps injury, all for a chance at the Olympic medal that had eluded him and that he was certain was within the Americans' grasp.
"We knew at that point we had some ground to make up," Paul Hamm said. "Blaine told us, `Don't worry about anything. Just worry about ourselves."'
Wilson got the rally started with a solid parallel bars routine, and Paul Hamm kept it going. Gatson then kicked it into high gear.
Balancing precariously upside down, he grasped one of the delicate bars with his left hand. Then he swung his body upside down while turning himself completely around, a move that defies physiology. He finished the routine perfectly, hitting the mat with a solid thud and setting off chants in the stands of "U-S-A, U-S-A."
His score of 9.825 was the highest of the night, and all but assured the Americans of that coveted medal.
When Paul Hamm began his high bar set, the Americans' final routine of the night, his teammates watched nervously from a few feet away. Wilson buried his face in his jacket and paced. Young did calculations on a piece of scratch paper.
The routine was less than perfect. He could do only two straight blind-release moves instead of his customary three after nearly falling off on the second turn. But it was good enough. When his score, a 9.462, flashed, the Americans embraced each other with glee.
"It doesn't get harder than that. It doesn't get more dramatic than that," USA Gymnastics president Bob Colarossi said. "To come back out and hit the last six routines like that is unbelievable."
Japan did the Americans one better, with some great clutch performances.
Needing 28.574 points on the high bar, Isao Yoneda, Takehiro Kashima and Hiroyuki Tomita were nearly perfect. The first two did somersaults backward over the bar and caught it to highlight their routines. Yoneda scored a 9.787 and Kashima a 9.825.
By the time Tomita closed, he needed only an 8.9 to clinch. He could have gone conservative, but didn't, opting for a release move backward over the bar with two somersaults and a full twist. It was a beauty, good for a 9.85.
When he stuck the landing, the Japanese and their big fan contingent went crazy, celebrating the country's first Olympic gymnastics medal since 1992 and first gold since 1976.
"I was slightly worried about our other rivals' points, but I tried not to think about it," Tomita said. "When I finished the high bar, I didn't think about the points. But then I realized we won."
The Americans applauded the clutch effort, but it didn't take anything away from their own.
"I don't understand whoever said it stinks to get silver, or we lost the gold," Wilson said. "Hey, we won the silver medal. I wouldn't change anything."