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U.S. Team Ready for Its Close-Up

August 13, 2004|Diane Pucin | Times Staff Writer

ATHENS — Everybody watches the Chinese male gymnasts perform. Why?

"They make very hard gymnastics look easy," said Blaine Wilson, a three-time U.S. Olympian.

Now the Chinese are watching the Americans.

At an early-morning practice here this week, the American gymnasts -- Olympic newcomers such as 26-year-old Guard Young and veterans such as twins Paul and Morgan Hamm -- had to fight the urge to stand up and cheer when they saw, sitting in the stands with a video camera, one of the coaches of the Chinese national team.

"For the first time, I couldn't believe it, the Chinese came to watch us," Morgan Hamm said. "The Russians too. It used to be we weren't considered worth being watched. I had to fight the excitement, you know? You don't want to act like an idiot."

Based on two consecutive silver-medal finishes at the world championships, including last year's performance at Anaheim when the U.S. finished only eight-tenths of a point behind the Chinese, the U.S. men have earned their status as worthy of being filmed.

"I remember when we used to get real excited to go out and watch the Chinese," said Miles Avery, who coaches Wilson and the Hamms. "Now, they want to come out and see us. It's a new level of respect and we've earned it."

The Olympic gymnastics competition begins Saturday at Olympic Hall with men's qualifying.

The Chinese men, world champions five out of the last six times and 2000 Sydney gold medalists, are the favorites. The U.S., Russia, Japan and Romania are considered medal contenders. An American men's team hasn't stood on an Olympic medals podium since winning gold in the 1984 boycotted games in Los Angeles.

Brett McClure, 23 and a first-time Olympian, said he felt world opinion about U.S. gymnastics began to change at the 2001 world championships in Ghent, Belgium.

It was the first major team sporting competition after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks and the U.S. team almost didn't attend.

"But we came and finished second," said McClure, who is engaged to 1996 U.S. women's team gold medalist Jaycie Phelps. "It was the first time I could remember that we hit a large number of our routines and that we had the start values to stay near the top."

The start value of a routine is the number from which the performance is scored. A 10 is the highest start value possible, but until last year's world championships, the U.S. men often had many routines with lower start values, something the Chinese and Russian teams didn't face.

This U.S. team is led by defending world all-around champion Paul Hamm, who edged Chinese star Yang Wei for the title. Hamm said he has improved his rings routine and his glitzy high-bar skills.

The veteran guidance comes from Wilson, 30, who barely made the team after injuring a biceps last winter. He had to do intense rehabilitation and then sweat out the selection process for one of the final two spots on the six-man team.

Young, 27, is from an Olympic family. His father, Wayne, was on the 1976 U.S. gymnastics team. But the former Brigham Young star has never wowed an international team selection committee and hoped, at best, to be an alternate. That was until the final selection camp in Columbus, Ohio. Coach Kevin Mazeika said, "Guard was as good as anyone and consistent on everything. He put himself on the team."

Another first-time Olympian is Upland's Jason Gatson, 24, who has overcome two major knee injuries since 1999 and a suspension for marijuana use three years ago.

The 6-3-3 scoring formula will be used for the first time in Olympic gymnastics. In the past, five members of a six-man team would compete on each of the six apparatus, and only four of those scores would count. Therefore someone could have a bad fall and the consequences weren't disastrous for the team.

Now only three men per team can compete on an apparatus and all three scores will count toward the team total.

"It's more nerve-racking for sure," McClure said. "You get up there and think, 'No matter what, if I wobble or my legs split, whatever, I can't fall off.' It's a different mind-set, but I think we're all adapted to it now."

Although a team as deep and experienced as the U.S. might not benefit from this new scoring system, the Russians could capitalize. They have four steady competitors, led by 2000 Olympic all-around champion Alexei Nemov and Alexei Bondarenko, but do not have as much depth as when they won the 1996 Olympic team title.

China's Yang was the silver medalist in the Sydney all-around.

"You have to always mention Yang's name as a favorite," said Bob Colarossi, president of USA Gymnastics. The Chinese team is much deeper than Wang, though. Li Xiaopeng won individual gold medals in both the vault and parallel bars at last year's world championships.

"For the last five or six years, the Chinese have gotten used to being so far ahead by the last few rotations, they never had to worry," McClure said.

"I wonder how they'll respond if we push them to the end. I expect it to come down to the last two rotations this time. Let's see how they respond to pressure."


Men's Gymnastics

* When: Competition begins with qualifying Saturday.

* Where: Olympic Hall.

* 2000 Olympic team champion: China.

* This year's top medal contenders: China, U.S., Russia, Japan, Romania.

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