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This Hamm Goes Great With Gold

Spectacular effort on high bar helps him become first U.S. man to win all-around.

August 22, 2003|Lauren Peterson | Times Staff Writer

Paul Hamm stood on the awards podium, listening to the cheers of thousands of spectators and a moment two years in the making.

Hundreds of flashbulbs went off around him in a darkened arena, but they were dim compared to the flair and flash Hamm exhibited after stepping up to the high bar, determined that history would be rewritten, not repeated.

Hamm, 20, became the first U.S. man to win a gold medal in the all-around competition at the World Gymnastics Championships, wiping out both a slim lead held by China's Yang Wei and a bad, two-year-old memory with one last, crowd-pleasing routine Thursday night at the Arrowhead Pond.

"It was incredible," Hamm said. "I knew I had to do the best routine of my life, and it happened."

In second place behind Yang with one event to complete, Hamm needed a score of at least a 9.712 on the high bar to wrest the gold medal away from Yang, the silver medalist in the all-around at the 2000 Olympics in Sydney.

With his Chinese rival having scored a 9.662 on the high bar just before him, Hamm, the fifth of six gymnasts up on the apparatus, went for broke and completed five well-executed release moves -- including four in a row -- during his routine, then stuck the landing to clinch victory with a score of 9.775 that sent a crowd of 6,438 into a frenzy.

"I knew I basically had to be perfect and hit the routine," Hamm said. "It was just an awesome feeling. This audience was awesome. Everyone was rooting for me at that point."

Hamm, the two-time national champion in all-around competition and the gold-medal winner on the pommel horse and high bar at the U.S. Championships in Milwaukee in June, was second behind Naoya Tsukahara of Japan in all-around preliminaries.

He wound up with a 57.774 points, to 57.710 for Yang. Hiroyuki Tomita of Japan wound up third with 57.435 points.

Jason Gatson of the U.S. finished eighth with 56.348 points, but he was happy to see Hamm take the spotlight.

"He rocked the house," Gatson said. "It's really amazing for our program, for our sport, and for our federation. That was a world championship performance, all right."

Hamm's medal was the first in the all-around at the World Championships since Kurt Thomas earned a silver in 1979.

Hamm's showing erased a less-than-storybook ending for Hamm at the last full World Championships in Ghent, Belgium in 2001. With a chance to earn a medal, and possibly win, he went last on the high bar but fell and finished seventh.

"It was going through my mind because I was a possible all-around medalist then, too," he said. "But lately, I've been trying to block it out and just focus on hitting my routine, and I did it.

"It was the best high bar routine I've ever done. I was a little nervous, but I could hear the crowd behind me. When I landed, I knew I was probably going to win."

Hamm overcame nagging problems with his right wrist and a sprained left shoulder that bothered him at the U.S. Championships.

Gatson overcame several bumps to compete in his first World Championships since 1997.

Besides several injuries, Gatson was caught with traces of marijuana in his system during random drug testing in January 2002 and was suspended from competition for three months.

He re-emerged in a big way at this year's U.S. Championships in June, when he won the gold medal in the parallel bars and finished second behind Hamm in the all-around competition.

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