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After Crash Landing, American Gymnast Soars to Historic Gold

August 19, 2004|Diane Pucin | Times Staff Writer

ATHENS — One turn of the ankle, a twitch of a toe, one baby step forward, one rock of the heel backward -- any of these might have prevented gymnast Paul Hamm from making history Wednesday night at Olympic Indoor Hall.

Instead, Hamm, a 21-year-old from Waukesha, Wis., overcame a dramatic fall on his vault -- almost landing in a judge's lap -- to become the first American man to win a gold medal in the individual all-around competition.

His gold medal was one of four claimed Wednesday by the United States and one of nine American medals overall, the country's highest single-day total here.

It wasn't until Hamm's final score was flashed -- 9.837 out of a possible 10 on his best event, the high bar -- and his coach, Miles Avery, yelled, "You're the Olympic champion," that he realized he had won.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Friday August 20, 2004 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 45 words Type of Material: Correction
Olympic gymnastics event -- An article in Thursday's Section A about the Olympic men's all-around gymnastics competition said South Korea's Kim Dae Eun scored 9.725 on the uneven bars. The uneven bars is an event in women's competition; Kim's score was on the high bar.

In the closest Olympic all-around competition since 1924, Hamm scored 57.823 points on his six routines, just 0.012 better than Kim Dae Eun of South Korea, who finished with 57.811. Kim's teammate Yang Tae Young took the bronze with 57.774.

The men's all-around, one of the Olympics' most glamorous events, is a frantic race by 24 competitors to turn double somersaults or complete circus moves high in the air on six different apparatuses. With chalk dust flying and scores changing by the second, Hamm had grabbed the lead halfway through the competition.

But it took him only about 10 seconds to lose it on his fourth event when he missed the landing on his vault, tumbled into the judging table, scored a 9.137 and dropped from first place to 12th.

"I've never missed this vault in competition," Hamm said. "It's one of my favorites."

Hamm and Yang Wei of China, who had finished second to Hamm at last year's world championships in Anaheim, had been tied for first after one event. Yang led after two events but Hamm took back the lead after the third rotation -- and his weakest apparatus -- the rings.

Next for Hamm came the vault and a move called a Kasamatsu with 1 1/2 twists -- requiring a total of nearly three full airborne twists -- and a blind landing.

"Really, in the air I thought I was OK," Hamm said. But he landed short and couldn't stop himself from tumbling out of bounds.

As he walked toward Avery, Hamm fought tears. "Honestly, I thought the gold medal was gone," Hamm said. "After an error like that, I just wanted to fight for any medal."

Those close to him agreed.

"I thought it was over," said his twin brother, Morgan, who is a member of the U.S. team that won the silver medal Monday.

"I didn't think he had a chance, certainly not to get first," added their mother, Cecily Hamm. "But I'm a pessimist at heart."

Even Avery, Hamm's coach, said, "I thought it was over."

But then came more of the unexpected: Hamm's opponents began dropping off equipment, stepping out of landings and wobbling on handstands, while he approached perfection.

Hamm landed his dismount from the parallel bars without even a bend in his knees, earning a score from the judges of 9.837, while Yang lost his grip on a one-handed swing on the high bar and fell to the ground. He received only 8.987.

Yang and Romanians Ioan Suciu and Marian Dragulescu, who were ahead of Hamm and competing in his group, all scored substantially lower than Hamm on the parallel bars. At the same time, Kim was scoring a respectable 9.725 on the uneven bars but Hamm had still gained on him.

By the time everyone was marching in straight lines to their final apparatus, Hamm had pulled up to fourth from 12th.

Hamm was scheduled to be the last competitor on his last apparatus, the high bar.

He is noted for a breathtaking move in which he flings himself high in the air, releases his hands from the bar, then catches it again three times in a row. During Monday's team competition, Hamm almost lost his grip on the second release, never completed the third and scored only 9.462.

After Kim ended a tentative floor routine and was awarded a 9.650; Yang finished a cautious high bar routine that earned only a 9.475; and fellow American Brett McClure exited his worst event, the rings, with a score of 9.162, Hamm had a thought.

"I think I knew I had given myself a small chance at the gold," he said, "but honestly I still thought I could only get the bronze."

Hamm needed a score of 9.825 to tie Kim. The crowd was nearly silent as Hamm reached those release moves -- one, two, three -- each time grasping his hands firmly on the bar so he could swing and let go again.

Then came the dismount. He twisted high toward the lights, toes pointed perfectly, arms stiff at his side -- and when he landed lightly without even a muscle rippling, the crowd exhaled and Hamm pumped his fists.

"I thought I got the bronze," Hamm said.

In fact, the gold was his.

"It was remarkable," said Bart Conner, a member of the 1984 U.S. Olympic team that won the gold medal. "Think of it. He won by 12/1000 of a point. If one toe had moved on either of those last two landings, he would have had a bronze."

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