February 02, 2012

LAS VEGAS (AP) The former Olympic champion is one and done.

Paul Hamm struggled big-time Thursday in his first gymnastics meet in four years -- a day that started poorly and got even worse after he left the gym.

Hours after his below-par performance at the Winter Cup Challenge, a second round of gymnasts took to the floor and knocked Hamm to a tie for 48th place in the standings, denying him one of the 42 spots for Saturday's finals.

An unfathomable result for the man who used to be known as the world's best gymnast, but is now simply another guy with a dream of making the London Olympics - and a lot of work in front of him to get there.

"This has been one of my weaker performances of my career," Hamm said. "It's disappointing for sure. I'm not happy. I just have to be constructive here. It's all I can really do."

The 2004 all-around Olympic champion fell off the pommel horse early, landed hard on the floor exercise late and mixed in more wobbles and bobbles than he usually throws out there in a year.

Performing in four of six events, the 29-year-old from Wisconsin scored higher than 13.9 on only one of them - a frustrating day for an athlete not used to giving performances like this in public.

"He came up to me and said, `Man, I don't feel like myself today,"' said Jonathan Horton, another past national champion, who has been training with Hamm for the last three weeks.

Granted, this event is viewed by almost everyone in gymnastics as a warm-up for the more important stuff to come on the road to London. And Hamm has only been training for eight months since tearing up his right shoulder - injuries that have ended many a career in this sport.

Still, after a day that fell well below his own lowered expectations, the man who used to define excellence found himself in spots that were once unthinkable.

Not only did he miss the final 42, he now must wait to see if he'll earn one of three wildcard spots on the 15-man national team to be named at the end of the weekend. Not making that team won't eliminate him from contention for the Olympics, but it would deprive him of some funding opportunities and chances to compete for the U.S. in international events.

Hamm said he would continue to train either way.

"Paul, whether he makes the national team or doesn't make the national team, he's a big-picture guy," said four-time national champion John Roethlisberger, who is on the men's program committee. "I'm not going to say it doesn't matter. But this is a step on the road. Tomorrow, for him, he's going to go back in the gym. Maybe there will be a little more fire in his belly, but there's fire in his belly already."

Save his high-flying vault -- where he scored a 15.4 for his roundoff into a front flip with a full twist - this was not a pretty day.

He opened the meet on the pommel horse and was the last competitor in the gym to go during the first rotation. The judges, slow on the draw, held him up for more than a minute, and when Hamm finally did get the green light, he grabbed onto the pommels for five, six, seven seconds, then jumped onto the horse and back into the world of competitive gymnastics.

Less than 10 seconds later, though, he slipped and was back on the ground.

"Pommel horse and parallel bars, I goofed up a skill early in the routines and that just kind of set me off on a bad path for the rest of it," Hamm said.

Leading after the first day was Chris Brooks, an alternate from the team that finished third at last year's world championships. Next were John Orozco and reigning national champion Danell Leyva, both members of the bronze-medal team that has potential, Hamm says, to do even better this year in London.

Horton worked on only one event, the pommel horse, and struggled to a score of 12.25. He's overcoming a broken left foot and is scheduled to get the pins out next Tuesday.

"It wasn't a great routine today, but people saw my upgrades," Horton said. "People with a trained eye see I'm swinging better pommel horse. The national coordinator and the national coaches see what I'm doing in training and I'm not behind at all."

Of course, training and competition are two different animals, and Hamm was the first to admit that.

"Today, I just felt more fatigued than I usually would in competition," he said. "Then on top of it, there's the nervousness and all the other elements that might throw you off. It was enough to get you off track."

Hamm scored 13.9 on floor (good for ninth on the event), 13.05 on pommel horse (12th) and 13.4 on bars (17th).

Through all the struggles, however, he did show glimmers of the kind of gymnast he can be - the kind of gymnast he has been inside the training gym for the last few months, if reports from his camp, along with his video Facebook posts, are to be believed.

His flairs on the floor were as big and exciting as anyone's, legs kicking high above his shoulders and bringing audible gasps from every corner of the small arena. And there are still the precise lines of his handstands, the explosiveness of his leaps, the businesslike attitude of everything he does, that bring back memories of the champion he once was - and hopes to be again.

On this day, though, it was hard not to think back to four years ago.

Back then, Hamm was returning from a lengthy break, hoping to defend his Olympic title. The quest began at the same meet, in the same city, in the same gym. He won that meet by a whopping 7.25 points. After the first day - a day in which he looked every bit the champion - Hamm was asked to grade himself. He gave himself an `A-minus.'

Same question, four years later: "Definitely in the 'D' range today," he said. "I'm not happy. I'm frustrated. Today's been very frustrating to me."

You May Like

Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)