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A Heavy Dose of Pressure

With one last-chance lift, American Hamman gave himself, two teammates a trip to Athens

June 04, 2004|Bill Dwyre | Times Staff Writer

Last November, at the World Championships in Vancouver, Canada, United States Olympic weightlifter Shane Hamman was in danger of becoming known as the second half of his event, the clean and jerk.

In the audience, among the 650 athletes from 85 countries competing for 187 Olympic slots, were a dozen or so members of his U.S. team. They had all competed, with varying degrees of success, and now Hamman, last to go as the heavyweight and team anchor, was the man on the spot. He was down to his third and final lift, and what he did would have a huge bearing on men's weightlifting in his country for years to come.

If that sounds dramatic, as well as pressure packed, it was.

"I didn't have anything left, nothing," Hamman, a 32-year-old from Mustang, Okla., said recently at an Olympic press gathering in New York City.

But he knew he had to have something because, if he didn't clean and jerk the 509 pounds waiting for him on the mat -- the same 509 pounds that had beaten him on his first two tries -- his team, his country, could be heading to Athens without a men's weightlifting entry.

That was the worst-case scenario. The best-case was that all sorts of trials schedules and travel schedules would have to be rearranged, and the only way the U.S. would get in then would be through a back door.

Hamman was fully aware of the rules. The world championships the year before the Olympics establish how many spots each country gets for the Games. A team finish of first through sixth gets six spots; seventh through 13th five, and so on, down to 21st through 27th, three. And after that, none.

By the time he got to the bar for his third try, he was gunning for a team overall spot of 21st through 27th, because that was all that was reasonably left.

On his first try, he had cleaned the 509 pounds -- got the bar to shoulder level -- but failed to jerk it over his head.

"There is a certain artery near your neck and the weight hits it and you kind of pass out," Hamman said. "That's what happened. I got dizzy and almost passed out."

Two minutes later, second try. Same thing.

"This doesn't happen that often but the blood got cut off for the second time in a row," he said.

The bar came crashing to the mat, and with it all but a sliver of hope for U.S. weightlifting. On a day when everything had gone wrong for Hamman, including a bad warmup, during which the crotch on his uniform exploded into shreds, Hamman had two minutes to recoup. Then he took too long to do that backstage and wound up literally sprinting 50 yards to the mat for his final try. By that time, he was seeking any help he could get, including divine intervention.

"I walked up and said, 'God, the only way I'm going to make this is if you lift it for me.' "

Hamman got the bar to his shoulders again. And again, the artery in his neck reacted to the weight and he started to black out. But he knew that, if he moved fast enough, before dizziness took over, he might be able to get the bar over his shoulders long enough for the lift to count.

And in that split second, the U.S. had 27th place and three spots in men's weightlifting at Athens.

"Maybe all this is an omen or something for the Olympics," Hamman said. "I think He came through for me."

On May 8, at St. Joseph, Mo., in the U.S. Olympic trials, Hamman, 5 feet 9 and 270 pounds, qualified for one of the Olympic spots he had provided that day in Vancouver. Landing the two others were Chad Vaughn of Rowlett, Texas, at 175 pounds and Oscar Champlin III of Savannah, Ga., at 180.

Had Hamman not made his final lift in Vancouver, those U.S. trials would not have even been held, or at least not until after U.S. lifters had climbed on a plane for a last-resort trial in the Continental Qualifier at Periera, Colombia. Had the team not qualified there -- and some lifters probably would not have made that long a trip to even try -- there would have been no U.S. trials, because there would have been no U.S. spots to try out for.

Now, Hamman and his Olympic lifting teammates, male and female, will be competing in the Titan Games June 20 in Atlanta, in a major tuneup before heading to Athens.

Through this all, Hamman feels much less a hero than he feels relief and gratitude.

"Let's face it," he said. "It was a miracle lift."

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