Back in the mix
BEIJING -- An Olympic medal on the pommel horse is not out of the grasp of Alexander Artemev, who qualified for the finals in that event.
But now Artemev hopes to achieve something more than winning a single event. He’d like to help the U.S. win a men’s gymnastics team medal.
Performing without feeling pressure and with five teammates who think they are being underestimated, Artemev flew through six routines Saturday as if he were back in his gym in Colorado with his father and coach, Vladimir, telling him that things will be fine.
While the three-time defending world champion Chinese men looked invincible in qualifying first for Tuesday’s eight-team final, and the defending Olympic gold-medal Japanese men seemed to have a solid grasp on at least a silver medal after qualifying firmly second, only the bronze appears up for grabs.
And a U.S. team that seemed discouraged after losing Morgan Hamm and his brother, defending Olympic all-around gold medalist Paul Hamm, to injuries is now in that medal mix.
Four teams finished within 1.025 points of one another -- Russia, South Korea, Germany and the U.S., in that order. Even Germany’s Fabian Hambuechen, who finished second behind China’s Yang Wei in the all-around qualifying, says only one team medal will be in question Tuesday.
“China and Japan, they will fight for gold and silver, and the other teams will fight for the bronze,” Hambuechen said.
Artemev seems ready to help the Americans take it.
As a world bronze medalist on the pommel horse in 2006 -- the same year he won the U.S. national all-around championship -- it seemed Artemev, 22, would be the successor to the Hamms as a team leader and Olympic medal winner.
But Artemev struggled with several mistakes at last year’s world championships, and he was unsteady through the four-round Olympic qualifying process. When he fell three times on his pommel horse routines, Artemev was relegated to alternate. When Paul Hamm withdrew July 28 because of a hand injury, Raj Bhavsar was put on the team.
It wasn’t until Morgan Hamm pulled out Thursday because of an ankle injury that Artemev was made a team member.
That was a day after the U.S. had its only chance to train on the National Indoor Stadium podium, so when Artemev walked onto the floor Saturday it was his first time touching the rings, vault, parallel bars, high bar, floor and, last, the pommel horse.
Jonathan Horton, who led the Americans on Saturday with an overall score of 91.650 (eighth-best overall), said watching Artemev approach the competition calmly, and move through all six events without major mistakes, inspired the rest of the team.
“That was American spirit all the way,” Horton said. “I couldn’t be more proud of him. To have not even touched that equipment one time, go out, hit six for six? Wow.
“When he first came to Beijing, he said, ‘I don’t feel like I’m part of the team. I’m just a replacement athlete.’ Today he said, ‘Dude, I’m ready,’ and he didn’t hold back. He just tore it up.”
Artemev said he had an emotional six weeks after he didn’t get picked for the team. “I was disappointed, angry, a little bit down on myself. I just had to finally tell myself to keep working out because you never know what will happen.”
In perfect symmetry, Artemev became the first U.S. performer Saturday on the still rings, and he was the last to do his routine on the pommel horse, where his score of 15.250 qualified him sixth for the event final.
“It’s crazy,” said Artemev, who also qualified for the all-around final with Horton. “I didn’t expect this in any way. Like Joey [Hagerty] said after I finished the rings, ‘You’re an Olympian now.’ It’s kind of just sinking in.”
Kevin Tan, the U.S. captain from Fremont, Calif., who had scored over 16.000 on still rings during all four Olympic qualifying rounds and who was considered rings medal favorite, stumbled on his landing, scored 15.725 and missed qualifying for his favorite event final by .025.
The top eight on each apparatus Saturday (with no more than two per country) as well as the top 24 individual all-arounders (also no more than two per country) moved on. Tan finished ninth and is the top reserve.
Along with Artemev on pommel horse, Horton was the only other American to qualify for an event final, on high bar.