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Hamm Is Eager for Top Billing

After letting a medal in all-around slip away two years ago, U.S. gymnast has a strong chance for redemption at World Championships.

August 15, 2003|Helene Elliott | Times Staff Writer

With risk sometimes comes loss, a lesson Paul Hamm learned two years ago at the cost of a bloody lip and a squandered chance to make gymnastics history.

Hamm and U.S. teammate Sean Townsend were tantalizingly close to winning medals in the all-around competition at the 2001 World Championships in Ghent, Belgium, with only the high bar remaining. Shockingly, Townsend fell, losing his lead. Then Hamm got too close to the bar during a series of four consecutive "really dangerous" release moves, and between the time his face struck the bar and he dropped to the mat, stunned and bleeding, his all-around medal hopes were gone.

Typically, he emphasized the positive, insisting the men's second-place finish in the team competition outweighed his seventh-place all-around finish. But in his heart, he knew he could have achieved so much more.

"The all-around was a little bit disappointing, but one thing I do have to say is I wasn't expecting an all-around medal at that point in my life," Hamm said. "I didn't feel like I was completely prepared."

The Waukesha, Wis., native is anticipating happier landings at this year's World Championships, which begin with an opening ceremony tonight at the Arrowhead Pond of Anaheim. Competition starts with the men's team preliminaries Saturday and Sunday.

"Being a two-time U.S. champion has given me a lot more confidence," he said Thursday. "What happened in 2001 motivated me so much to come here and try for the all-around title."

The top eight men's teams and top eight women's teams will advance to the team finals. The top 12 men's and women's teams will qualify for next summer's Olympics in Athens.

Hamm's versatility was evident in June at the U.S. championships, where he won the pommel horse, high bar and all-around titles. He also learned two weeks ago he had been awarded a bronze medal in floor exercise at last year's World Championships in Hungary, moving up from fourth after runner-up Gervasio Deferr of Spain was disqualified for using an illegal drug.

Although Hamm recently had some wrist problems and had a cortisone shot before arriving in Anaheim, he has nearly recovered from the sprained left shoulder that hampered him at the U.S. meet. As a result, he revised his routines to increase their start value -- potential maximum score -- to 9.9 on rings and 10.0 on parallel bars.

"My parallel bars routine is different, and I think it will score better than it did at the U.S. championships," said the 20-year-old Hamm, who is 30 minutes younger than his twin brother and teammate, Morgan. "This is the routine I was originally planning to do but couldn't do at nationals. I had to change my routine and I wasn't used to doing that one, so it wasn't as clean."

If his performances at Anaheim are consistently clean, he might propel the U.S. men to their first team world title and become the first U.S. man to win the world all-around title. He expects to be on the medal stand.

"And that's a lot different than the feeling I had at the 2001 World Championships," he said.

Ron Galimore, the U.S. men's program director, remembers the sinking feeling after Townsend and Hamm fell off the high bar two years ago.

"I was thinking we were going to finish 1-2 in the all-around and I was thinking, 'This is beyond our dreams.' I was so excited," Galimore said. "And to go from that high to the unfortunate thing that happened and just the lows, it was just so disappointing ....

"We captured the team silver medal, and so that helped a lot, but you say, 'God, we're never going to get another opportunity like this again.' But who knows? Paul looks even better. I think he'll contend for the all-around title, without a doubt. I think he's the best all-arounder in the world."

One of Hamm's strengths, Galimore said, is his ability to recover from adversity. He said he doubts Hamm will be haunted by his 2001 high bar mishap.

"He really wants to get into that situation again so he can have a different result," Galimore said. "He's focused on this world championships, and I don't think there's anything that can distract our guys from their mission here. His shoulder's great and he's done ring routines here and looked excellent."

Every tenth of a point will help the U.S. men in a team competition that has no overwhelming favorites. In the preliminaries, each team will send out five gymnasts, but only the top four scores count; in the finals, each team will send out three athletes and all three scores will count. That helps teams that have one or two superb athletes but little depth.

"Everyone says China is the best team in the world, but they could have a few falls and that ends up knocking them out of the competition," Hamm said. "Really, right now, it's about hitting our routines. I think we are up to the level of every other country, and if we hit our routines we're going to be in the medals."

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