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U.S. Men Pick Up Quickly

Overcoming early difficulties, they lead after the second day of qualifying. Hamm ranks second in all-around.

August 18, 2003|Lauren Peterson | Times Staff Writer

Blaine Wilson crash-landed near the end of his floor exercise?

Forget it.

What's that? Morgan Hamm landed on his head while attempting a dismount from the pommel horse?

Never mind.

He's fine, and the United States men's gymnastics team is too.

The U.S. landed on its feet the rest of the way to finish first in preliminary standings after the second day of qualifying competition at the World Gymnastics Championships on Sunday at the Arrowhead Pond.

"We're in first? Wow. I wasn't expecting that because we didn't have our best day," said U.S. gymnast Paul Hamm, Morgan's twin brother. "I think everyone had a rough start, and to see that we are in first is a good sign."

All signs pointed to the finals for the U.S. after a rousing, crowd-pleasing finish over the last four of six rotations in front of 5,132 spectators. The top eight finishers advance to finals Tuesday night, when the U.S. is expected to contend with four-time world champion China, Japan, Romania, South Korea and Russia for a medal.

"It sends a big message," said Stacy Maloney, the Hamm brothers' coach and an assistant to U.S. Coach Kevin Mazeika at the world championships. "We showed there's another dominant force in the world, and it's us."

The U.S., which won the silver medal in team competition at the 2001 world championships, scored 227.743 points, nearly seven-tenths of a point more than Japan (227.046). China (225.119) qualified third, followed by Romania (224.770) and South Korea (224.047). The other finalists are Russia, France and Ukraine.

Conspicuous by its absence from the finals will be Belarus, which was 13th after winning the gold medal in the 2001 world championships and not only failed to make the meet finals, but also did not earn a berth in the 2004 Olympics in Greece. The top 12 finishers qualified for Olympic berths.

Paul Hamm, the two-time national champion for the U.S., wound up second in individual all-around qualifying behind Naoya Tsukahara of Japan even though Hamm lost his grip on a release move and fell off the horizontal bar in the Americans' last rotation.

"I was mad about the high bar. I was trying to be really aggressive. I'm not sure if that was good or bad," Hamm said with a rueful grin.

The most gratifying aspect of a satisfying competition for the U.S. was the fourth-place finish of Jason Gatson in all-around qualifying. Gatson's showing continues a successful comeback from multiple surgeries on both knees that began in earnest when he placed second in all-around competition in the U.S. championships in June.

"This is worth a lot," Gatson said. "It's been a tough thing to go through, but it's been coming the past four years."

The top 24 gymnasts from qualifying will vie for the all-around title Thursday, and the top eight individuals on each apparatus compete in event finals Saturday.

U.S. gymnasts weren't the only ones to shine on the last day of qualifying.

China's Xiao Qin posted an impressive pommel horse score of 9.812, the second-highest in any event so far. Marian Dragulescu of Romania had a 9.825 on a vault.

Xiao's effort led China, the 2000 Olympic gold medalist and a fifth-place finisher with a backup team at the 2001 world championships, in a commanding performance that dazzled the crowd, if not themselves, especially on the vault, parallel bars and pommel horse.

"The preliminary competition does not mean as much," Xiao said. "Our goal is first place for the team."

China, which won team titles at world championships in 1994, '95, '97 and '99, qualified third despite a conservative strategy prompted in part by injuries.

Teng Haibin, who has a sore knee, contributed a 9.662 on the pommel horse in his team's last rotation and also had a 9.637 on the horizontal bar. He sat out the floor exercise, rings and vault, however, and the Chinese used only four athletes in three of the six events, counting all of those scores instead of giving themselves an opportunity for a better one by a fifth gymnast.

As with the U.S. team's early difficulties, it didn't matter.

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