ANAHEIM, Calif. The last time Paul Hamm was in this spot, he walked away bloody, beaten and crestfallen. This time, he won the world championship.
The 20-year-old kid from Wisconsin made history on the high bar Thursday night, putting together a near-perfect routine under excruciating pressure to become the first American man to win the all-around gold medal at the World Gymnastics Championships.
Needing a 9.712 or better to edge China's Yang Wei for the gold, Hamm closed the night by stringing together four straight release moves during his 60-second routine one of the toughest feats in gymnastics.
''It feels incredible,'' said Hamm, who scored a 9.775. ''It was obviously a dream of mine since I was a little kid. World champion is as high as you can get, except for maybe Olympic champion. To be that for the rest of your life is such an incredible thing.''
This was a routine Hamm has worked on for years, and it hasn't always been pretty.
At the last world championship all-around, in 2001, he went on bar last with a chance to medal, or maybe even win. He fell, though, hitting his face on the bar, and walked away with a seventh-place finish.
''Yeah, it was going through my mind,'' he said. ''Lately, I've been thinking about it and I've tried to block it out of my mind. I knew I was going to finish on high bar, and that's been one of the shakiest events for me.''
Not this time.
His winning sequence took seconds, but it seemed like hours. With the crowd going crazy after he completed the final tricky release combination, there was only one more thing to do stick the dismount, which he did.
''I kind of knew at that point I was going to win,'' he said.
The score popped up and confirmed it. The crowd went crazy and Hamm hugged his coach, Stacy Maloney, his teammate, Jason Gatson, and sat down and soaked it all in. Hamm's twin brother, Morgan, watched from a distance with the rest of the U.S. men's team.
America's only other all-around medalist at worlds was Kurt Thomas, who won silver in 1979. Peter Vidmar is the only American all-around medalist at the Olympics; he won silver in 1984.
''To be part of history in gymnastics, it's going to be great to leave your mark on the sport,'' said Hamm, who also has a silver from the team competition earlier this week.
Hamm finished with a score of 57.774. Yang finished .064 points back for the silver and Hiroyuki Tomita of Japan won the bronze.
Yang, second in the all-around at the Sydney Olympics, performed his final routine a few minutes before Hamm. He scored a 9.662 on his floor exercise, and celebrated by leaping and pumping his fist triumphantly as he walked off the floor, thinking he had secured the championship.
''After three years of training, to still get second place, I feel a little bit disappointed for myself,'' Yang said. ''The results are different than what I expected. This is a competition I will remember forever.''
Last weekend, Hamm fell on high bar during preliminaries, a mistake that didn't cost the Americans much. Then, in team finals Tuesday, he left out one release, although he knew it wouldn't make a difference because there was no way the United States could have finished any higher than second to China.
Would he have liked to have been up there with gold on the line?
''I would say yes,'' he said after the team finals. ''But I don't really know, because it's so scary.''
There was no sense of fright while he was on the bar in the all-around.
The winning routine included a total of five release moves. The first is called a Kolman, and it is followed shortly by three straight Tkatchevs that go right into one called a Gienger. In essence, during the four-catch combo, he goes over the bar backward each time and makes a blind catch. The final catch includes a twist.
Asked if there was any way Hamm would leave anything out of his make-or-break routine, Maloney said ''no way.''
''That's not the kind of gymnastics the U.S.A. does anymore,'' Maloney said. ''We go all out, and do dynamic gymnastics.''
Gatson, the other American in the competition, finished a solid eighth. His efforts for a medal were dampened early when he got high-centered on the pommel horse. Still, it was an impressive showing for a gymnast whose career was almost wrecked because of two knee injuries over a four-year span.
''I wish I wouldn't have fallen, so I could see where I would have ended up,'' Gatson said. ''But it happens. I'm going to gain a lot from it and work that much harder.''
Hamm, meanwhile, was strong on every routine.
He had a slight bobble on his vault landing, but the jump itself was so difficult, it earned him a 9.537. His floor routine was the usual higher, with bigger flare kicks and more daring jumps than most people try; plus, all the landings were dead solid. Because Hamm isn't far removed from a bad shoulder injury, his rings routine was supposed to be the hardest, but he made it through with a 9.475 that didn't harm his chances for gold.
''He was amazing, starting from floor,'' Gatson said. ''It was a perfect performance. That's a world champion performance, all six events.''
Hamm's victory furthered an already extraordinary week for American gymnastics.
On Wednesday, the American women captured the team gold despite a week in which they lost three of their six gymnasts to injuries and illness. Bela Karolyi called it the biggest American victory ever, even bigger than the gold medal the United States won at the 1996 Olympics.
That, the men's team silver, and now Hamm's championship certainly will give the United States powerhouse status at next year's Olympics in Greece.
''This was our goal. This was our plan. Finally, everything came together,'' Maloney said.
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