No Clouds, Just Silver Lining for Gymnasts

Times Staff Writer

One, two, three they soared, letting go of the high bar as if they were butterflies. First, Isao Yoneda, then Takehiro Kashima and, finally, best yet, Hiroyuki Tomita.

Punctuated by Tomita's 9.850 and celebrated by a happy group of fans who waved the country's red and white colors, Japan won its first men's team Olympic gymnastics medal since 1976 with a score of 173.821 Monday night at Olympic Indoor Hall.

Nearly as historic was the silver medal won by the U.S. men -- who earned their first team medal in 20 years and only their third in Olympic history -- and the bronze taken by Romania, its first Olympic team medal for men's gymnastics.

The U.S. was 0.888 behind Japan with a score of 172.933; Romania finished with 172.384. The favored Chinese, defending Olympic champions and winners of five of the last six world championships, finished fifth behind South Korea.

The Japanese were seventh of eight teams after the first rotation, the floor exercise, and did not take the lead until Tomita stuck his landing from the high bar.

"I felt very satisfied at that moment," Tomita said. "It was a great honor."

As for the Americans, beyond their missed connection moves on the still rings, their extra steps on vault landings and the lost swings on the high bar, they, too, emerged satisfied.

They'll remember Bart Conner, a member of the last U.S. team to win an Olympic medal -- gold at the boycotted 1984 Los Angeles Games -- yelling from the stands: "Smile, guys, you deserve it!" And Peter Vidmar, another member of that team of 20 years ago, dancing a little jig and yelping, "What a moment! What a moment!"

No one was more emotional that Blaine Wilson, a 30-year-old father and three-time Olympian whose body is covered in inspirational tattoos and a hard-to-miss surgical scar.

In February, Wilson tore his left biceps at the Visa America Cup in New York. It seemed unlikely then that a man already old by the standards of his sport could recover and make what was expected to be a strong team.

But Wilson had been on the 1996 and 2000 squads, which both finished fifth. "I just knew this team had a medal in it," Wilson said. "I wanted one, bad."

Having fought through an exhausting and painful rehabilitation, Wilson nearly cried when he was named to the team a month ago, and the tears fell Monday night when he cradled his Olympic medal.

"For me this means so much," Wilson said. "It's why I stuck with it. I believed in these guys. I believe in what we've done. I believe what we've done will make a difference."

Conner, who sat with his wife, Nadia Comaneci, said he almost couldn't watch. "It was just like competing," he said. "I'm so happy for these guys. My stomach is still doing flip-flops."

After beginning the night in style, cavorting on the floor exercise mat as if they were back home in the practice gym one-upping each other, the U.S. gymnasts were in first place after one rotation.

A solid set of three routines from Brett McClure and twins Morgan and Paul Hamm kept the Americans on top after two rotations. But the tension of the occasion seemed to overwhelm them in the middle of the meet.

Up first on the rings, Guard Young, whose father was a 1976 gymnastics Olympian, took a big step on his dismount and had an unsteady handstand to score a mediocre 9.475, more than two-hundredths lower than he'd managed in team qualifying.

Next was Upland's Jason Gatson. Running through his tricks as if he had angry dogs nipping at his feet, Gatson had trouble holding his strength moves and went so quickly that he lost points for not doing the proper connections. His score of 9.125 was the lowest the Americans received out of their 18 rotations.

On their next set, the vault, while the Romanian and Japanese men were making steadier landings, the U.S. lost more ground and dropped to third after four events.

That's when Wilson pulled his teammates together. "We got everyone in the same place and I just told them to focus on doing the last two routines well, as well as we knew we could do them," he said. "I wanted us to come out and do a great parallel bar routine and go from there."

Wilson's pep talk worked. First for himself. Wilson had a stutter on his landing but posted a 9.712. Paul Hamm, the defending world all-around champion, followed with a 9.737. Gatson, his arms and face turning bright red with effort, worked through his swings and handstands, including his own signature move, to earn the highest score of the night on the apparatus, a 9.825.

He was greeted with a bear hug from Coach Kevin Mazeika and high-fives from his teammates.

"That was huge," Paul Hamm said.

"I was proud," Gatson said.

Meanwhile, the Romanians led most of the meet, until two poor performances on the high bar dropped them all the way to third.

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World