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Paul Hamm drops out of Olympics

Gymnast says injured hand and shoulder aren't mending in time for him to compete. Bhavsar will replace him on U.S. team.

July 29, 2008|Diane Pucin | Times Staff Writer

Paul Hamm's comeback from retirement was marked first by an impressive rush to titles this year at the Winter Cup Challenge, the American Cup and the Pacific Rim Challenge, then slowed in June and, overcome by injuries, finally stopped Monday.

Hamm, the defending Olympic all-around champion, announced he was leaving the U.S. team because of hand and shoulder problems.

Hours after the announcement, USA Gymnastics said Raj Bhavsar would replace Hamm on the six-man competitive team. Bhavsar, 27, was also an alternate at the 2004 Olympics, though he didn't compete.

Men's team qualifying begins Aug. 9 in Beijing.

Hamm broke a bone in his right hand May 22 during the first round of the national championships but had been happy about his progress during an Olympic team meet in Colorado Springs on July 19.

However, Hamm said Monday that after going back to Columbus, Ohio, to continue training with Coach Miles Avery and his twin brother, Morgan, he suffered nothing but setbacks -- including an increasingly bothersome strain of his left rotator cuff.

"For my comeback to be successful," Hamm said, "I needed to make continuous progress and have no setbacks. I was pushing my body to the max leading up to the last training camp and while there I was somehow able to perform skills during competition that I had not since surgery.

"But the week after camp has been a disaster and I have not been able to do a single full routine. In addition to the hand injury, I'm also dealing with a strained rotator cuff and with only five days left before podium training [in Beijing], I see now it's impossible for me to be ready."

Hamm, 25, of Waukesha, Wis., had become an all-around gold medal contender since returning from gymnastics retirement last year.

Both Hamms left the sport after Athens -- where Paul had won the all-around gold medal and Morgan was part of the team silver -- to concentrate on college. Both graduated from Ohio State last year and in August began their comeback.

But the U.S. team has more to worry about. Morgan Hamm made the team but failed a drug test at the May nationals and FIG, the international governing body for gymnastics, has not ruled on whether he can compete in Beijing.

He had taken a cortisone shot to help a sore ankle and while that medication is not banned, a doctor must sign papers saying the shot was issued only for therapeutic reasons. Hamm failed to get the proper paperwork signed and received a warning from the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency.

USA Gymnastics President Steve Penny had expected a decision from FIG agreeing that the USADA warning was sufficient, but now Penny said the decision won't come until today at the earliest.

Paul Hamm said the decision to quit was the hardest of his life. He also said he was sticking to his original plan to retire after these Olympics.

"Given the extremely short time frame right now, I needed to make a decision," he said. "It's hard but I have too much respect for the Olympics and my team to continue on when I know the best thing for everyone is to step aside.

"I did everything I possibly could. There just wasn't enough time. I feel like if I had another month, I would have been able to get the job done."

The men's team leaves for Beijing on Wednesday. The U.S. has two alternates, David Durante, the 2007 national all-around champion, and Alexander Artemev, former world pommel horse medalist.

The withdrawal of Hamm makes the path to individual gold much smoother for Chinese favorite Yang Wei, and makes the U.S. team's pursuit of a medal much less probable. The U.S. finished fourth at last year's world championships without either Hamm.

Paul Hamm said his favorite memory was winning the 2004 gold medal -- despite the scoring controversies that caused Korea to make a formal protest and led to a change in the scoring system.

His other favorite memory, he said, was beating Yang Wei for the all-around world championship in 2003 in Anaheim. "And that one came with no controversy," he said.

If Hamm sticks to his retirement, he will leave as one of the best male U.S. gymnasts in history. He is the only American man to win world and Olympic all-around titles and he led the U.S. to the Athens team silver, the first U.S. Olympic team medal in 20 years.

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diane.pucin@latimes.com

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