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U.S. looks to Hamms for a lift in gymnastics

The stars of a group that won a team silver medal at the 2004 Olympics are back for a team that has struggled in the last year.

August 15, 2007|Diane Pucin | Times Staff Writer

SAN JOSE -- While the U.S. women seem knee-deep in potential Olympic medalists, the U.S. male gymnasts have taken a whack in the knees in international competition over the last year.

The group that won a team silver medal at the 2004 Athens Olympics and produced all-around gold medalist Paul Hamm finished a dismal 13th at last year's world championships, and behind Puerto Rico and Brazil at last month's Pan American Games.

So it isn't a surprise that Paul and Morgan Hamm, the Wisconsin twins who were stars of the 2004 U.S. Olympic team, are being welcomed back to gymnastics as saviors this week at the Visa Championships.

The men's competition begins tonight at 7 p.m. at the HP Pavilion and the women begin Thursday night.

The Hamms left gymnastics after the Athens Olympics. They wanted to concentrate on college and they completed their degrees at Ohio State.

The 24-year-olds are only competing in two events at these national championships -- floor exercise and pommel horse -- as part of a slow re-entry that they hope takes them to Beijing in 2008.

They say they are not interested in making the U.S. world championship team that will travel to Stuttgart, Germany, next month even though the U.S. must finish in the top 12 to qualify as a team for the Olympics.

"We both are very confident the U.S. team can go out there and place top 12," Morgan Hamm said. "I think the guys have improved in the last year. If they just go out and have a good day, I could see them being top eight, no problem."

Paul Hamm said that if he and his brother were asked to compete in only the pommel horse and floor exercise, "Yeah, we would be prepared to compete on those events," he said. "But if they said, 'We need floor and pommel horse, but maybe could you do rings? Or maybe could you do vault?' that might not be a good idea because we're not prepared on those events."

Alexander Artemev, the defending all-around national champion, said the Hamms have not taken on an easy task.

Since they left international gymnastics, the sport replaced the 10.0 scoring system with one that rewards routines heavy on physical, athletic skills instead of more artistic moves.

"Things are much different than they remembered," Artemev said. "I think they are working hard, but it is taking a lot of work."

Paul Hamm said the sport is more difficult than when he left. Morgan said, "We always want to look really good and some of the routines we're training on aren't at the level we feel we could raise our hands in front of a big crowd and go out and compete."

Said Paul: "Just putting together these two routines takes months and months to get the stamina to do them. Having spent time off it is tough to come back. You think you can come back any day, get in the gym, do the routines again. It's not like that. You have to go through some serious stress."

The two haven't competed since Athens.

"Typically you don't start off at the U.S. championships with your competition," Paul said. "It's a pretty big leap just to jump right into competition here."

"You always feel pressure," Morgan said. "But other competitors see us getting better quickly. We feel like we're putting pressure on them."

diane.pucin@latimes.com

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