Hamm makes men's gymnastics America's game for a night

Posted: Thursday, August 19, 2004

The rest of the floor was empty. His twin brother was in the stands, his coach off to one side.

And at the moment he wrapped both hands around the high bar, Paul Hamm knew that if he was going to write a new chapter in the long and not-always-distinguished history of U.S. men's gymnastics, he was going to have to do it all by himself.

''I dug down deep and fought for everything,'' Hamm said. ''I thought I could win silver, maybe bronze. I didn't think I could win gold until Miles said, 'You're the Olympic champion.'

''And all I could think to say,'' he added, ''was 'No way.'''

The featured move in the routine that produced the sport's equivalent of a walk-off home run in Game 7 of a World Series is called a ''Tkatchev,'' named for the Russian great who performed it the first time. It's a swing that required Hamm to release his grip and fly blind back over the bar before grabbing it again. He did it to perfection not once, but three times, each time to a growing roar from the crowd.

There are 15 moves named after U.S. gymnasts, but only two performed on the high bar have merited that kind of recognition. And until Wednesday night until Hamm landed ramrod straight with both feet stuck into the mat like a dart, and his coach, Miles Avery, kicked off the celebration by leaping high into the air not even one American man had ever been good enough to win the gold medal in the all-around competition.

''The last guy, the last event, a perfect routine, and then he sticks the landing. It's fairy-tale stuff,'' USA Gymnastics president Bob Colarossi said.

Left out of that brief narrative was a fall at the end of Hamm's vaulting routine that practically landed him in the laps of the judges and appeared to end any chance he had of winning a medal, let alone the gold.

But Colarossi can be forgiven for looking past that now. The ending was that good.

''If there was ever anybody who was going to be able to do something like that,'' Colarossi added, ''it was Paul.''

There were 102,000 participants in USA Gymnastics' various development programs last year a healthy number, to be sure but a very troubling trend exists at the top. Up to age 6, almost half the kids in the gyms are boys. But by the time you reach the age groups from which U.S. officials cull Olympic prospects, six out of every seven are girls in large part because most of them stick around with designs on becoming the next Mary Lou Retton.

The picture is even gloomier when you look at the Division I programs that used to be the bedrock of the men's teams. There still were almost 80 around when former UCLA gymnast Peter Vidmar won the last U.S. medal in the all-around, a silver at the 1984 Games boycotted by the Soviet Union, then one of the sport's superpowers.

Today, there are 20 schools competing in Division I, with nearly all the rest of them victims of the economic realities brought on by Title IX, the groundbreaking federal legislation enacted in 1972 to create equal opportunities for women in college sports.

Nowadays, the ratio of scholarships for women gymnasts to men is nearly 2-to-1. While most men's teams scramble for recruits, some women's teams have their managers on scholarships.

''We've become like pond scum,'' Vidmar said, grimacing, ''and this is a guy with two daughters talking.

''Look, I understand gender equity and I love the opportunities Title IX opened up for them. But now the pendulum has swung pretty far, maybe too far the other way. We're getting rid of gymnastics and wrestling programs everywhere you look.''

Into that void charged Hamm and his twin brother, Morgan, determined to bring the buzz back to their half of the sport. Raised in Waukesha, Wis., and nurtured by the club system that replaced college programs as the feeder systems for U.S. men's gymnastics, both made People magazine's list of ''50 Hottest Bachelors'' and were primed to become cover boys for a program that desperately needed front men.

But then a career-threatening shoulder injury limited Morgan to just a few events, forcing Paul to step forward by himself. He responded by winning three straight national titles and the first all-around world championship by an American man last year. And if anything, Paul appeared to be getting even better while leading the U.S. men to a silver in the team competition Monday night.

After three rotations on three different pieces of equipment in the all-around, he was first; after the fourth, and his fall, Hamm slid all the way down to 12th. With only the high bar remaining, he'd scrapped his way back into a three-way tie for fourth.

Then came a routine tantalizingly close to perfection.

And after that, the man who runs USA Gymnastics can't wait to see all the little boys who will stick around long enough trying to follow in Hamm's footsteps.

''The struggle hasn't been getting them into the gym it's been keeping them there,'' Colarossi said. ''They always wanted to know, 'What was at the end of the rainbow?'

''I think,'' he said finally, ''they got a glimpse of that tonight.''

Jim Litke is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at jlitke@ap.org.

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