Nationals the next stop for Morgan Hamm

From the Associated Press

After one big setback and another smaller one, Morgan Hamm is eager to remind everyone of exactly what he can do on a gymnastics floor.

The Olympic silver medalist will compete in his first true competition since the Athens Games at next week's U.S. men's gymnastics championships, the first step in what he hopes will be a trip to his third Olympics. The two-day competition begins Thursday in Houston, followed by the Olympic trials June 19-22 in Philadelphia.

"I really want to go to my third Olympics," Hamm said recently. "You think about how there are not many athletes who get to more than one Olympics, and this would be our third. If you have the chance, you should go for it.

"I believe there's still a lot left in us competitively. We're not exactly old guys."


Morgan and twin brother Paul, the reigning Olympic champion, are just 25, the age when most male gymnasts begin to peak. But they've already stockpiled a lot of precious metal, and were the driving force behind the American men's resurgence in international gymnastics.

They are gifted technically, able to make the hardest tricks look simple. But they've got a grace and polish rarely seen outside of Europe, so much so that eyes are naturally drawn to them when they're on the floor.

They helped the United States to a silver medal at the 2003 world championships. They contributed half the scores in the team finals at the Athens Games, where the Americans won the silver, their first Olympic medal in 20 years.

Morgan made the floor exercise final at the last two Olympics.

Paul has four individual medals from the world championships, including the 2003 all-around gold, and two more from Athens.

"Morgan was our only athlete in '04 to hit 100 percent of his routines," said Miles Avery, the twins' coach. "With that quality of competition behind him and that experience, you just can't put that in any young guy because he doesn't have that. He's also a great competitor."

The Hamms took time off after Athens, putting gymnastics on hold while they discovered what life was like as "normal" college students. Oh sure, they stopped in at the Ohio State gym every few days, but it was to stay in shape, not spend hours perfecting world-class gymnastics skills.

They announced their comeback in February 2007, and did two events at last year's nationals. But in October, Morgan tore a muscle in his chest. Though the injury normally requires nine months -- or longer -- to recover from, Hamm was ready to compete again in April at a qualifying meet in Colorado Springs, Colo., for the national championships.

After only two events, though, he had to drop out when he had an allergic reaction. His throat swelled up, and he found himself gasping for breath.

"We were ready for the qualifier," Avery said. "It was disappointing we didn't compete more than anything else."

They still don't know what caused the reaction -- "We'll just stay out of Colorado," Avery joked -- but Hamm is confident it's no longer a problem.

"I'm not worried about it coming up again or affecting me," he said. "It was the right decision at that time; there was no way I could compete the way I'd want to, at the level I want to compete."

But he'll have to show what he can do at nationals and trials, because there are plenty of other guys who want one of those six spots on the Beijing team.

The Americans will likely take three all-arounders to Beijing and then select event specialists who can boost the team score in the finals. While teams get to drop the lowest of five scores on each event in qualifying, only three gymnasts compete on each apparatus in team finals and every score counts.

Morgan is traditionally one of the world's best on floor, and he's one of only four or five U.S. men who can consistently score in the 15s on pommel horse, one of the Americans' weaker events. He would also give the Americans a solid score on high bar.

"Those are three events where he can really stand out and be noticed as, 'Wow, we really need him on those events,' " Avery said. "We had a judge come in and see him and ... he said Morgan looked great."

And he will only get better over the next three months, Avery said.

"He'll be extremely ready at the Olympic trials," Avery said. "In August, he's going to be amazing."

So, too, U.S. gymnastics officials hope, will the rest of the U.S. team.

The Americans' depth is staggering, quite possibly the deepest it has been since the early 1980s, when Bart Conner, Peter Vidmar and the rest of the Golden Guys were in their heyday. Of the 15 men on the national team, all but one has been on a world or Olympic team (and this doesn't include Hamm, who missed the national ranking meet in February because of his injury). Five have world and/or Olympic medals.

Paul Hamm looks, if possible, even better than he did in 2004. He's routed the competition at every meet he's been in since he returned, and the scores he's been putting up should make for a spectacular showdown with two-time world champion Yang Wei of China in Beijing.

Oh, and as if that's not daunting enough for the other Americans who will challenge Paul Hamm for the national title next week, he's spent the last month working on his weaknesses.

"There were still little things, little details we still needed to correct, still needed to get better," Avery said, mentioning that Paul Hamm was, among other things, occasionally crossing his toes on pommel horse. "He's put those changes in his routines. He's going to be even more spectacular in terms of his execution.

"He's as good as he can be."

But defending national champion David Durante has upgraded the difficulty levels of his routines.

With the Olympics less than three months away, everyone is stepping up their games.

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