Paul Hamm takes stage again

Times Staff Writer

HOUSTON -- It is time for Paul Hamm to begin showing off.

The U.S. men's gymnastics national championships begin today and on the line besides a nice trophy and a spot in a record book is a chance to make a good first impression.

Hamm, the defending Olympic all-around gold medalist, has mostly taken the last four years off. He last won a national title four years ago. But about 10 months ago, he and his twin brother, Morgan, announced they were returning to training in the hopes of making a second Olympics team. Morgan's comeback was stalled a bit by a chest injury, but Paul has made steady progress, so much so that 2006 U.S. champion Sasha Artemev calls Paul Hamm "the best gymnast in the world."

He is one of five national champions in the field, which includes defending champion David Durante. It was six until 2001 winner Sean Townsend withdrew because of a shoulder injury.

This meet will provide 40% of the scores that will be considered when the Olympic team is chosen in July. The other 60% will be accounted for at the Olympic trials in Philadelphia on June 19-22.

But for Hamm, this is a chance to test himself on the biggest stage he has worked since his controversial gold medal in Athens in 2004. That gold made men's gymnastics talk show fodder when Hamm edged into the top spot even though he had a major fall.

After Athens, the Hamms stayed away from competition and completed their college degrees at Ohio State.

It wasn't a slam-dunk decision that the Hamms would come back.

"It took a while for the desire to return," Paul said. "But it's back now and I have a real feeling of excitement. My nerves are back and that's a good sign. I'm not coming back just to compete. I want to win and now it's a different challenge. Guys are aiming at me and that's good."

The Hamms are not the only men in comeback mode. Five-time national champion and three-time Olympian Blaine Wilson, 33, has been training with the Hamms and their coach Miles Avery at Ohio State.

Jonathon Horton, who finished fourth in the all-around at the 2007 world championships while leading the U.S. team to a surprising fourth-place finish, said Wednesday that he wouldn't be disappointed to finish behind Paul Hamm. "He's so good right now. No competitor wants to finish second. But finishing second to Paul? That wouldn't be so upsetting. He looks incredible right now."


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