Hamm takes charge

Times Staff Writer

HOUSTON -- Blaine Wilson's comeback was over in the few seconds it took him to quit turning on the high bar and to stumble through a floor routine in a performance that was uninspired and hopeless. Paul Hamm's comeback was a nearly flawless display of precision gymnastics until one twisted finger and gasp of pain.

Hamm, who was best on two events and third on another, had a four-point lead Thursday after the first round of the 2008 Visa National Championships men's gymnastics competition even though he fell off the parallel bars after he injured a finger.

Hamm, the defending Olympic all-around gold medalist who came out of retirement with his twin brother, Morgan, 10 months ago, had his hand wrapped in ice and his face wrapped in an expression of frustration afterward. Paul Hamm said he felt something pop on the top of his hand near the wrist while grabbing the bars after a release. The pain made him drop off though he did get up and finish his routine, the last of the night.

His overall score of 93.450 put him in first ahead of Joseph Hagerty, who was in second place with 89.750. David Sender, who just finished his senior season at Stanford, and Raj Bhavsar were tied for third with 89.700. In fact less than a point separated second place from seventh, which demonstrated how dominant Paul Hamm had been.

Showing less fortitude was Wilson, the 33-year-old five-time national champion who was aiming to make a fourth straight Olympics team. He began his own comeback a year ago, training with the Hamm brothers in Columbus, Ohio.

But after competing on the high bar and in the floor exercise, Wilson walked out of the gym. "I just don't feel real well," Wilson said. "I was just tired."

Wilson was going to be a long shot to make this team but that was also the case four years ago when he was part of the silver-medal winning U.S. team.

As the oldest competitor Thursday, Wilson earned an enthusiastic reception from the crowd and there was another loud sound from fans after Wilson got a third of the way through his first event, the high bar. The noise was part surprise but more sympathy.

For eight years Wilson had presented a defiant face for a sport considered bland by fans that almost always prefer the women's version. Wilson rode motorcycles, had body piercings and tattoos. He bragged about bungee jumping and sky diving, pursuits that made U.S. coaches privately shudder.

After being a 21-year-old phenom on the 1996 Olympic team, Wilson was nicknamed the "wild child" before the Sydney Games and he predicted multiple medals for he and his teammates. Wilson and the team won none and his cocky attitude amplified the poor performances. Usually no one would have paid much attention.

By 2004 Wilson was not expected to even qualify for the Olympics. "Ancient warrior" Wilson was called when he did qualify for his third Games. By then he had undergone reconstructive shoulder surgery and had grieved quietly for the death of an unborn son and celebrated the birth of a daughter. He was willing to take a back seat to Paul and Morgan Hamm, twin brothers who were the new leaders.

Since retirement Wilson has been divorced and spoken publicly about having picked up a drinking habit that took him to Alcoholics Anonymous meetings and to counseling sessions with a psychologist.

"I wanted to come back because I still have that Olympic flame burning in my heart," Wilson said after his withdrawal. "My best memory forever will be walking onto the floor in Atlanta. It was my first Olympics, we were at home and the crowd went wild. That sound propelled me. I wish I could keep going, but I can't."

Paul Hamm also wants to keep going. He says he will have an X-ray on the hand today but would be cautious. "I'd rather pull out Saturday and be able to compete at the Olympic trials," he said.





U.S. gymnastics

Second round of U.S. men's national gymnastics championships:

What it means: National champions crowned in all-around and six events Saturday.

Olympic implications: Scores from Thursday night's first round and Saturday's national championship finals plus two rounds of Olympics trials June 19-22 in Philadelphia will be counted toward selecting a six-man Olympics team.

Who impressed after first round: Defending Olympic all-around champion Paul Hamm, who was easily leading the all-around competition before hurting his right hand on his final rotation, the parallel bars. And his twin brother, Morgan, who had the best vault of the night. Paul and Morgan tied for first on floor exercise.

-- Diane Pucin

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