HOUSTON -- When he landed, with a little buckle in his knees but with both feet planted safely on the mat, David Sender bent over and kissed the pommel horse. The routine hadn't been spectacular. But Sender's final score of 13.750 was just good enough.
Sender, 22, of Arlington Heights, Ill., was a surprise winner Saturday night of the Visa National Championships men's gymnastics all-around gold medal.
With the withdrawal of first-round leader Paul Hamm, who broke a bone in his right hand on his parallel bars routine Thursday, Sender provided two nights of steady performances, even on that contrary pommel horse.
Sender, who didn't make the 2007 U.S. world championship team, finished with 180.700 all-around points, just ahead of Jonathan Horton, who had 180.450. Horton, 22, of Houston, was a surprising fourth in the all-around at the worlds.
There was also a separate competition taking place. Using a points system with 10 awarded to a competitor who won an apparatus each night down to one for finishing 10th, the top 10 points earners received automatic bids to the Olympic trials in Philadelphia June 19-22. The selection procedure also allowed for four at-large selections to be made late Saturday night.
The points system is to help the selection committee pinpoint gymnasts who will help the team in particular events. At the Olympic team qualifications, five of the six men will compete in each event with the top four scores counting. If the U.S. moves to the eight-team finals, three men compete in each event and all three scores count.
Sender also led the points competition with 66 and Horton was second with 55. But proof of how much specific skills count was evident with Kevin Tan, who was 29th in the all-around but third in the points standings with 54. Tan, 26, of Fremont, Calif., earned 22 of those points based on his two nights of dominating still rings routines.
Also automatically qualifying for the Olympic trials were Joseph Hagerty (50); Paul Hamm (46 on his single night of competition); Morgan Hamm (45); 2007 national champion David Durante (42); 2006 national champion Alexander Artemev (38); and Raj Bhavsar and Sean Golden (36 each).
The at-large selections were Guillermo Alvarez, who finished fourth in floor exercise at last year's world championships; Justin Spring, who underwent reconstructive knee surgery last August; pommel horse winner Yewki Tomita; and Tim McNeill, who finished second overall on pommel horse.
Morgan Hamm, Paul's twin brother who is still recovering from a torn pectoral muscle he suffered last October, earned his way to the Olympic trials though he skipped two events (parallel bars and rings). Morgan, whose surgical scar is still bright red, won the floor exercise gold medal, helped by the debut of a new skill based on break dancing moves. He calls it the air flare.
Horton probably would have won the all-around title if he had not taken a spectacular fall on his high-bar routine.
Sender, who is 5 feet 3 and has usually struggled with his pommel-horse routine, called his relationship with the apparatus "interesting." He also said winning the all-around title wasn't as important as showing the Olympic selection committee that he could hit routines under pressure. "I'm a guy who is going to have to keep proving myself," Sender said.
When he was 3, Sender said, gymnastics became his sport by default. He said his father found him walking down a stairway banister. "It was like I was on a balance beam," he said.
Morgan Hamm's happiness about his floor exercise gold medal, about the way the crowd became loudly involved in his air flare move and about his automatic qualification to the Olympic trials was tempered by the disappointment of Paul's injury. Paul flew home to Columbus, Ohio, Saturday morning. He will consult with several hand specialists and probably have surgery to insert a pin or a screw to secure the fracture and help speed healing.
"It's hard because Paul was in such a good place," Morgan said. Recovery time is predicted as four weeks so Paul probably will miss the trials and petition to be named to the Olympic team.