One thing was missing. Paul Hamm had his gold medal, and U.S. men's gymnastics, for the first time in its history, had the Olympic all-around champion--the best male gymnast in the world.
He had done the requisite interviews, the press conferences and a late-night taping for NBC. Every time volunteers at the Games had asked him to pose for a snapshot, he had cheerfully obliged. Security guards had briefly abandoned their posts to ogle his gold medal. "We're still trying to figure out what it says on the back," Hamm said, spinning the disk to show four lines of ancient Greek etched over the eternal flame. "The Greeks can't even figure it out."
The look on his face, one of exhausted contentment, said what he later acknowledged to be true: that he could have happily skipped the competition for medals in four apparatuses on Sunday and Monday night. Having won a team silver on Aug. 16 and the all-around gold two days later, Hamm had already fulfilled his dreams.
Still, something was missing, and it was 4 a.m. before he was finally able to return to the Olympic Village to address it. He hadn't yet talked to his teammate, roommate and training partner of the past 14 years--his twin brother, Morgan. With twins, nothing is really complete for one without the other's affirmation, and the Hamms are especially close. They share not only an apartment in Columbus, Ohio, but also the same beat-up car, a 1998 Acura. And now they would share the joy of Paul's achieving their sport's ultimate prize.
The light was on in their first-floor room, but when Paul opened the door, Morgan was nowhere to be seen. Thinking he might be visiting Blaine Wilson, the old man of the U.S. team, Paul went next door. Wilson was asleep. "Where's Morgan?" he asked.
Wilson wasn't sure. Morgan had gone out, he said, maybe to get a phone card. Then Wilson assessed Hamm's performance that night: "You're scaring me, dude."
So Paul went back to the twins' room and waited. He soon heard a sound on the ledge of the balcony, which was eight feet off the ground, and suddenly, over the railing, Morgan vaulted in. Gymnasts ... they love to make an entrance. Grinning, Morgan summed up his brother's performance with an economy of words that Paul will never forget. "That," he said, "was huge."
Huge drama. Huge for Paul, whose life was about to change in ways he could not imagine. Huge for U.S. gymnastics, which finally had its enduring highlight. Said Peter Vidmar, the only other American male to have earned an Olympic all-around medal, a silver in 1984, "This is the greatest comeback in the history of gymnastics."
Though in the days that followed the gold medal would lose some of its luster with the discovery of a judges' error--a huge one--that may have cost South Korea's Yang Tae Young the victory (box, below), Hamm's comeback remained an epic feat. No one had doubted that the 21year-old from Waukesha, Wis., was the gymnast to beat going into the final. He was the defending world champion. He'd qualified first in the preliminaries. He was, according to his coach, Miles Avery, "in the zone." Through the first three rotations--floor, pommel horse and still rings (his weakest event)--Hamm held the lead by .04 of a point over China's Yang Wei.
But Hamm was tiring, especially his legs. In the team competition earlier he had done 11 of a possible 12 routines, and that was taking its toll. "I hadn't been sleeping that well," he said. "After winning the team silver, I was up till 4 a.m. We didn't even get back to the Village until 3, with the media stuff and doping control, and then I was too wired to sleep. It catches up to you. I felt almost dizzy and weak."
If Hamm needed a jolt of adrenaline, he got it on his fourth rotation, the vault. He made a crooked landing from a Kasumatsu 1 1/2, lurched sideways and fell, brushing the judges' table. "I felt fine in the air, but I couldn't stop my momentum to the side when I landed," Hamm said. "I've never before missed that vault in competition."
His score of 9.137 was 22nd out of 24 vaulters and dropped him to 12th overall with just two rotations left. "I thought, That's it. I'm done," said Hamm. "Maybe I had a small chance of winning a bronze medal."
That was the goal he and Avery set during the long delay before the parallel bars. One of the reasons he'd switched coaches last fall, leaving Stacy Maloney, who'd coached the Hamms since they were seven, was that he liked Avery's even-keeled demeanor. "Paul's a calm guy, and that's the way I coach him," Avery said later. "I don't have to get in his face. But even he needed to refocus after the vault. I just told him we needed a couple of 9.8s."
Just a couple of 9.8s! In 15 rotations Hamm hadn't earned one. Only one, in fact, had been awarded by the judges all night, a 9.85 to Romania's Marian Dragulescu on the vault. And of the 144 routines in the men's team final, only five had earned a 9.8 or higher. "They'll give you a 9.7 or 9.75," Avery said, "but the judges just hate giving out 9.8s. That is very rare air."
Still, those scores, Avery figured, might yield a medal. So Hamm gathered himself and performed the parallel bars routine of his life. He stuck the landing--everything had to be perfect for this to work--and the judges rewarded him with a 9.837, the highest mark on that apparatus all week.
As the tension mounted, so did the mistakes. China's Yang Wei lost his grip during his high bar routine. Dragulescu struggled on the bars. The standings dramatically changed. Entering the final rotation, Hamm was tied for fourth, behind leader Yang, fellow South Korean Kim Dae Eun and Brett McClure of the U.S. "It started snowballing," Avery said. "Everyone was thinking, I hope I'm not the next one to miss."
One event remained for Hamm. Since he'd begun working with Avery, they'd anticipated that it might come down to the high bar--the top gymnasts always finish on that apparatus. They'd rebuilt Hamm's world-championship-winning routine for this moment. "In 2003 Paul's high bar was high-risk and probably the most exciting routine in the world," Avery said. "But high risk is dangerous when you're nervous and there's a medal on the line. So we changed it into something that was still exciting but with less risk, something he could do no matter how great the pressure was."
They took out two release moves but kept a sequence of three heart-stopping moments when Hamm flings himself high over the bar and grabs it while descending on the other side. He also was the only gymnast in the field to do two revolutions of one-armed giants that involved a change of grip. The first time Hamm competed with the revamped routine was in April, at the Pacific Alliance championships in Hawaii, and judges scored it a 9.75. Not enough. Avery asked afterward what they could change to gain a higher mark. "Paul needed to be taller on the one-armed sequences," he said. "He needed to stretch all the way out."
So they refined the routine. In the gym, near the end of workouts, it was always, This one is to win the gold medal. But when Hamm grabbed the high bar on this night in Athens, the notion of gold never entered his mind. He thought a 9.8 would, at best, give him a chance to stand on the podium at the end of the meet.
And then it happened, just as they'd pictured it. Fully stretched out on his one-arm sequences. Flipping high and free above the bar. The crowd noise building, all eyes riveted, and the final tumbling release that ended with him sticking his landing as firmly as a plug into a socket. Another flawless routine.
"You're Olympic champion!" Avery cried out.
Hamm didn't believe him. Silver, maybe. Because of all the times he'd daydreamed about winning the gold medal--and there'd been thousands of them--not once had he pictured winning it after having fallen on an apparatus. Then the judges' score came up on the board: 9.837. He'd beaten Kim by .012 of a point, the thinnest margin of victory ever in Olympic men's gymnastics, with the slighted Yang in third, .049 of a point back.
That's when the normally reserved Hamm burst into a shocked grin, his eyes flying wildly into the crowd, searching out his parents, Sandy and Cecily, his older sister, Betsy, and, of course, Morgan.
By Monday night Hamm had won one more medal, a silver in (what else?) the high bar to cap his historic week. And who knows? There may be more to come in Beijing in 2008. Though the Hamms are ineligible for college competition, they intend to transfer from Wisconsin-Milwaukee to Ohio State, where Avery coaches, in January (they'll be sophomores) and compete internationally for at least four more years. "I see no reason to stop gymnastics," Paul says, "until I get a degree and can get a decent job."
Maybe when he gets back to school, he should sign up for a course in ancient Greek poetry. He might run across a translation of the lines on the back of his medal, written by Pindar in 460 B.C. They are the opening lines of his eighth Olympian Ode: Mother of golden-crowned contests, Olympia, queen of truth!
Issue date: August 30, 2004.