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Newz Forum: OLYMPICS: U.S. Men Lead Gymnastics Qualifying

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posted on Aug, 14 2004 @ 11:44 AM
ATHENS, Greece (AP) -- The Americans threw down a challenge to fellow favorites China and Japan on Saturday, beginning the quest for their first Olympic medal since 1984 with a romp in qualifying. Their score of 230.419 points was four-tenths higher than Romania, the reigning European champs and winners of the first qualifying session.

China and Japan competed in the final session.

"We're right on track for what we had to do to get a medal," Morgan Hamm said.

The top eight teams advance to Monday night's finals, and being first after qualifying isn't necessarily a good thing. The draw has the top team going first on the first and fifth events, but last on the sixth event. That's the gymnastics equivalent of icing the kicker, a 40-minute wait that's going to be excruciatingly long when there's an Olympic medal on the line.

"Blaine said he'd prefer not to be the first-place team. He wants China because he wants the Chinese to finish last," reigning world champion Paul Hamm said. "But showing the world we're the best team in (qualifying) isn't a bad thing."

Now they have to do it in the finals, where the scoring format changes. Instead of competing five gymnasts on each event and dropping the lowest score, teams only use three gymnasts per event, with all three scores counting. That means there's no room for error.

Another showing like this, though, and the United States could have its first medal since the 1984 squad won gold at the boycotted Los Angeles Games.

"We try not to talk about medals because we have no control over that," said Bob Colarossi, president of USA Gymnastics. "We only have control over what we do on the floor."

While scores seemed high throughout the first two sessions, the Americans appeared to be better than they were last summer, when they finished a close second to China at the world championships.

From the time they walked into the Olympic Indoor Hall to loud cheers and family and friends waving U.S. flags, the Americans were rocking and rolling.

They didn't count a score lower than a 9.225, and botched just two of 30 routines. Hamm finished with 58.061 points, best of all the individual gymnasts through two sessions and more than a half-point ahead of Marian Dragulescu of Romania, who is in second.

Mogan Hamm, Paul's twin, was almost as good as his brother, scoring 9.7 or better on high bar, pommel horse and floor. But he isn't eligible for the all-around because he only did four events. Five-time national champion Blaine Wilson won't make the all-around, either, after falling off the high bar.

But Wilson responded with one of the guttier performances. Though the crash left him so foggy he needed smelling salts to clear his head, he still competed on floor exercise, the Americans' next event, because he knew the team needed his score. He earned a 9.7, then closed with a 9.625 on rings and a 9.512 on vault.

And this is the guy who wasn't even expected to be in Athens after tearing his left biceps completely off the bone less than six months ago.

"Put it this way, when you want to puke, it's not good," Wilson said when asked how he felt. "I still have a giant headache right now, but I'm fine. I'm starving."

The fall might never have happened if Wilson hadn't been forced to do some last-minute tweaking of his high bar routine. Judges told U.S. officials on Thursday that a move Wilson, Jason Gatson and Brett McClure all were doing wasn't worth as much as it had been at last year's worlds.

McClure and Wilson decided to replace it, but that only gave them two days to polish their routines. Wilson fell on the new move.

"I don't think this will be the thing that will make or break our ability to be successful," said Ron Galimore, men's program director for USA Gymnastics. "It's frustrating."

The Americans have made a steady climb since their fifth-place finish at the Sydney Olympics, winning silver medals at the last two world championships. But they'd like to climb one step higher here.

Their determination was evident from their first routine of their first event, the parallel bars. Guard Young was so still as he did a one-handed handstand he could have played one of those statues that was in Friday night's opening ceremony. When he saw his score of 9.637, a grin spread across his face and he told his teammates, "I'll take that."

Paul Hamm did him one better. Starting in a handstand, he flipped around into another handstand without swaying at all to stop his momentum. The crowd oohed and aahed, and the judges obviously liked it, too, giving him a 9.762, his best score of the night.

He also impressed on the high bar. He does three straight release moves, tossing himself up and over the bar with such ease and certainty he should be in a circus, not a gym.

But the Americans do have areas they can clean up. Pommel horse was a struggle, as always, and they could have been more secure on some of their landings.

"If you're going to have struggles, it's better to have them the first day," Young said. "If you go out perfect the first day, you might not look sharp in the finals."

Former powerhouse Russia is third after a shaky showing. Alexei Bondarenko fell off the pommel horse, and Anton Golotsutskov dislocated a finger on his left hand when he crashed on the parallel bars. Reigning Olympic champion Alexei Nemov was impressive, but he only competed on three events because of lingering back pain.

© 2004 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.

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