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Gatson Gets Nice Surprise After Trials

June 27, 2004|Robyn Norwood | Times Staff Writer

Technically, Jason Gatson finished last in the U.S. Olympic gymnastics trials.

It didn't matter: He was named to the team anyway Saturday, swaying the Olympic team selection committee despite competing in only four events because of a back injury.

"I was shocked," Gatson said.

Like just about everyone else, Gatson knew the easiest thing for the committee to do was simply to name the two automatic qualifiers -- Paul Hamm and Brett McClure -- to the team and let the other finalists battle it out at the team's training camp later this month.

Instead, Gaston, Hamm, McClure and Morgan Hamm were chosen as four of the six gymnasts who will compete in Athens.

"It was a big relief," said Gatson, who is from Upland but trains at the U.S. Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs, Colo.

"It was pretty nerve-wracking for everybody, twiddling their thumbs in that room waiting for them to decide. We didn't know what would happen."

Though it seemed likely Gatson would eventually be chosen for the team, it was certainly a surprise he was picked Saturday.

The oft-injured gymnast didn't compete in the floor exercise or vault because of a back injury that has required six cortisone shots and two epidurals just to get ready to perform.

But he was so good on the other four events, there was no question the committee wanted him on the team.

In Saturday's finals at the Arrowhead Pond, he had the second-highest scores of the day on parallel bars (9.75), rings (9.725) and high bar (9.725) and was fourth on vault with a 9.625. Throw in the 9.85 he scored on parallel bars in Thursday's preliminaries, and you get the idea.

"He's got a tremendous parallel bar routine, and rings," U.S. Olympic Coach Kevin Mazeika said. "Those are the types of routines that are going to score 9.7 or better. And Jason also has the possibility of winning an individual medal on parallel bars."

So at long last, Gatson -- who turned 24 Friday -- will be an Olympian.

In 1997, he became the youngest male ever to make a U.S. team for the World Championships, at 17.

But a knee injury in a fall from the high bar while leading the all-around competition at the 1999 U.S. championships was a devastating setback.

Competing without fully recovering in the 2000 national championships, he failed to qualify for the Olympic trials.

He battled back, only to suffer another knee injury in 2001, and then tested positive for marijuana in 2002.

Frustrated and upset, he considered quitting gymnastics and drove home to Upland. In the end, he came back and battled through yet another injury.

"Personally, I think no one deserves this more than Jason," McClure said.

In a different year, Gatson might not have been able to make the Olympics.

The selection process for the U.S. team didn't used to be so subjective -- or forgiving -- with the top six competitors at trials automatically making the team.

If that had been the case, he couldn't have gotten away with competing in four of six events.

"I would probably have had to make myself do it somehow," he said. "Luckily for me, the format changed.... I didn't have to force it."

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