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Hand injury throws off Hamm’s Olympics plan

Times Staff Writer

HOUSTON -- Jonathan Horton, an Olympic medal contender himself, says he is eagerly awaiting one matchup more than any other at the 2008 Beijing Games.

“If they’re both at their best it will be really cool to see Yang Wei and Paul Hamm go against each other,” Horton said at the Visa National Championships men’s gymnastics competition, which continues today.

But there will be no Paul Hamm here today. And whether the defending Olympic all-around gold medalist will be at his best this summer is in question.

After a dominating performance through the first five of six events in Thursday’s first round, Hamm suffered what was diagnosed Friday as a broken bone in his right hand.

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He withdrew from both the national finals tonight and the two-round Olympic trials June 19-22 in Philadelphia and, according to his coach Miles Avery, will petition for a spot on the six-man Olympic team.

Avery also said that Hamm would select a hand specialist next week and that the best course of action is to have a pin or screw inserted into the break. The best-case scenario is that the 25-year-old gymnast would be back in full training in four weeks, just ahead of the Beijing Olympics gymnastics competition, which begins Aug. 9.

“It’s very disappointing,” Avery said. “We truly work so hard and lay a plan in motion, and this isn’t the plan. This is a setback because he was doing so amazingly well.”

Hamm had led the nationals by almost four points. The next seven competitors were separated by no more than a point. After taking nearly three years off from gymnastics after winning the 2004 all-around gold, Hamm’s high-level comeback surprised people.

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“I’m just blown away by how good he is,” former Olympian Bart Conner said. “At the level where he wants to compete, the Olympic medal level, it’s hard to sit on the sidelines for a couple of years and still be a contender in the all-around. He’s absolutely a contender. From what I’ve seen from him, he’s gotten stronger in every sense. He’s very comfortable doing this level of gymnastics.”

Steve McCain, a former UCLA gymnast who qualified for the Olympic all-around finals in 2000, said the same thing.

“Unanimously, everyone is surprised by Paul,” he said. “He was doing so well. On Thursday a lot of us were watching him and having the feeling, ‘Just don’t get hurt.’ He’s so ready, it’s amazing considering all the time he’s had off.”

Yang is the defending all-around world champion who dominated the field in Stuttgart, Germany, last year to such an extent that he was able to win gold even after having a fall off the high bar.

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The basis of Yang’s routines is that he attempts the highest degree of difficulty on almost every apparatus. He takes big risks, and when he makes a mistake it is usually a big mistake. Hamm has chosen a more conservative approach, opting for less difficulty on some tricks and understanding he must perform with precision.

“Paul is a gymnastics genius,” McCain said. “He’s very wise in his routine construction in terms of building something he can hit consistently but squeezing out the most difficulty as possible.

“Yang Wei is a ridiculously awesome gymnast, big vaults, big swings on the high bar, big release moves and sometimes big mistakes. The two of them are almost playing on a different level right now, and a lot of people are looking forward to seeing them against each other in the Olympics. I hope this whole hand thing is not that big a deal.”

Conner said Hamm’s injury could turn into a positive. He recalled how Shannon Miller had a sore wrist and didn’t compete in the 1996 Olympic trials but ended up making the team by petition and helping the U.S. win team gold.

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“That intense selection procedure can be pretty demanding physically and mentally,” Conner said. “Shannon thought missing trials helped her. That could happen for Paul.”

The U.S. must submit a six-man roster to the United States Olympic Committee by July 1. That six-man team plus as many as three alternates will participate in a training camp from July 13 to 22 in Colorado Springs, Colo., and the U.S. can make a change in its starting six-man lineup until noon Beijing time on Aug. 8. Dennis McIntyre, director of the USA men’s program, watched Hamm on Thursday.

“He looks awfully ready,” McIntyre said. “He’s come in and shown he’s prepared, and even with the injury he was ahead by four points.”

Still, McIntyre said, Hamm will have to show his readiness during the July training camp.

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“Obviously Paul is a prime candidate for the Olympic team,” McIntyre said. “It just comes down to being able to have a realistic expectation that he can perform at his highest level.”

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iane.pucin@latimes.com

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Gymnastics

What: Final round of U.S. national championships. National all-around champion and six event champions will be crowned.

Where: Reliant Arena, Houston.

What to watch for: The all-around field is wide open because first-round leader Paul Hamm withdrew after breaking a bone in his hand. Less than a point separates second place (Joseph Hagerty) and a tie for seventh place (defending champion David Durante and Guillermo Alvarez); 2006 national champion Alexander Artemev is in ninth. Jonathan Horton, who finished fourth in the all-around at the 2007 world championships, is in fifth. Paul Hamm’s twin brother, Morgan, who didn’t compete on rings or parallel bars because he is still recovering from a chest muscle injury, won the vault and tied Paul for best score on floor exercise Thursday and would love to take home a national title in at least one of those events.

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-- Diane Pucin


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