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Gymnastics trials to show men's depth

The United States has plenty of top-flight athletes to field a strong six-man team to compete at the Beijing Olympics in August.

June 19, 2008|Diane Pucin | Times Staff Writer

PHILADELPHIA -- It might not seem so, not with all the cameras following women gymnasts Shawn Johnson, Nastia Liukin and Alicia Sacramone everywhere they went Wednesday during practice sessions at the Wachovia Center.

But the men's gymnastics team is deep into an Olympic selection process that also matters.

Same as the U.S. women, the men have the defending Olympic all-around gold medalist. He is Paul Hamm and though he has a broken hand and won't compete in the men's trials today and Saturday, Hamm is still a favorite to win another Olympic medal. He is also considered a sure thing to be selected to the team.

And it is a team with ambition. The men won a team silver medal at the 2004 Olympics and finished fourth in the world championships last year, less than a point out of third. That's just the margin of one more stuck landing or one guy with faster leg swings on the pommel horse.

"We have more depth to choose from than I can ever remember," men's team coordinator Ron Brant said Wednesday. "This isn't going to be an easy process."

David Sender, who won the national all-around title after Hamm was injured, made it a little tougher for Brant on Wednesday after suffering a fall on a high-bar release move during practice. The 22-year-old Stanford gymnast was taken to a hospital for tests, his right ankle elevated.

Despite such setbacks, the team still has Hamm, who was so dominant at the men's national championships last month that he led the field by nearly four points even with a fall on the parallel bars that caused the broken hand.

When the men's selection committee turns in its six-man team to the U.S. Olympic Committee on July 1, there are many who believe Hamm will be on it. The team would have until Aug. 8 at noon, 24 hours before Olympic gymnastics competition begins, to change the lineup and that's how long Hamm will have to get back.

Jonathan Horton, who finished fourth in the world championships last year and second at last month's national championships behind Sender, said that if Hamm is given one of the six team spots, it will be fair.

"He's better than everybody, he proved that in one night at nationals," Horton said. "It's amazing how solid he was after the layoff. What he and Morgan have done is amazing."

Morgan is Paul's twin and the two of them took nearly three years off after the 2004 Games. They got their college degrees at Ohio State. Morgan got married. And they hid a bit from the controversy that overtook Paul in Athens.

Paul won the all-around gold even though he took a major fall on his vault dismount, nearly landing in the judges' laps. He went from 12th place to first in the final two events.

Two days after Hamm received his medal, Korean Yang Tae-yung protested that his parallel bars routine had been underscored. Though a review by international gymnastics officials indicated an error had been made and that if Yang had received the correct score he would have beaten Hamm, the Court of Arbitration for Sport in Lausanne, Switzerland, ruled that the results stood. Part of the argument came from the idea that if you review one result, you should review all results.

Partly because of that controversy, the international gymnastics governing body changed the scoring system. There is no more perfect 10 in gymnastics. Instead there are two scores, one for the difficulty of a routine and one for presentation.

The months-long hubbub took away the enjoyment of celebrating the medal, Paul said.

Morgan said he and his brother felt the need to step away from gymnastics and heal physically and mentally.

"We were a little beat up," Morgan said.

While Paul works on his hand recovery -- he may be given clearance to start full training next week -- Morgan is trying to show he is all the way back after having chest surgery last winter.

"I'm not in the same position as Paul to get any benefit of the doubt," Morgan said. "I have to put my gymnastics out there."

Morgan is doing four events: floor exercise (he recently won the national gold medal), vault, pommel horse and high bar.

"Every day that I have to practice, I can feel myself getting better," Morgan said. "The routines I did at nationals had the components, but I didn't have the stamina. In two weeks, I've cleaned things up a lot."

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diane.pucin@latimes.com

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

U.S. gymnastics

What: Men's Olympic Trials.

Where: Wachovia Center, Philadelphia.

When: Thursday, 4 p.m. PDT; Saturday, noon, PDT.

TV: Channel 4, Saturday, 1:30-3 p.m. PDT.

What's at stake: At least two Olympians will be known after Saturday's final round. Team officials have until July 1 to select the six-member team and up to three alternates. USA officials said at least part of the team would be announced Sunday as well.

Whom to watch:

Jonathan Horton, all-around runner-up at nationals last month, had only to hold on to his high bar routine to have won. He fell spectacularly on each of the two nights.

Justin Spring, a charismatic performer who takes risks and has trouble staying healthy. His vaulting and high bar performances can be gasp-inducing in good ways and bad.

Morgan Hamm and his air flare, a floor exercise move based on hip-hop dancing that Hamm has invented.

Sean Golden, from nearby Camden, N.J., whose story of being raised in a downtrodden neighborhood is as inspiring as his floor exercise and vaults.

Kevin Tan works the still rings as well as anyone in the world. That one event alone may get Tan on the Olympic team.

-- Diane Pucin

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