The best gymnast in the United States is baby-faced, freckled and
doe-eyed, tough as jerky and with the nerves of a sniper. That
much we've seen before. What's unusual is this one isn't named
Courtney or Shannon or Dominique. For once, the best gymnast in
the United States is a man.
Not that any but the most discerning viewers could have known
that by watching NBC's pre-Olympic coverage, in which the pixies,
as ever, hogged the face time. While mild-mannered Paul Hamm was
winning his third straight all-around national title in June,
displaying a level of gymnastics that will make him a medal
favorite in Athens, the cameras followed every twirl and tumble
and hug of the U.S. women, milking the cow that has been the
network's largest ratings draw at the Summer Olympics. "NBC
showed two hours of the women's preliminaries, one hour of the
women's finals, and gave a total of nine minutes to the men,"
says Hamm, 21, who grew up in Waukesha, Wis. "It was kind of
Last August, when Hamm (rhymes with mom) became the first U.S.
man to win the all-around world title and the U.S. men's team,
which included Paul and his twin, Morgan, won silver, they were
overshadowed by the gold-medal-winning women's team. After that
title, the 5'6", 137-pound Paul wasn't even a finalist for the
Sullivan Award as the nation's top amateur athlete, nor did he
receive national endorsements. He and Morgan did make PEOPLE's
list of 50 Hottest Bachelors, which may be the only reason the
twins turn the occasional head on the streets of Columbus, where
they train under Ohio State coach Miles Avery. "Sometimes if I'm
with Morgan, someone will recognize us," says Paul, "but becoming
world champion wasn't life-altering."
The U.S. men's team has won medals in the Olympics only twice,
winning silver in 1932 and gold in 1984 (a Games the Soviet Union
boycotted). And in the latter case it was women's all-around
champion Mary Lou Retton who won the hearts of America. Male U.S.
gymnasts are the Rodney Dangerfields of the Olympic team, so
overlooked they couldn't be picked out of a police lineup if they
were hanging from the rings.
That could change in Athens. The U.S. squad is the only men's
team to win medals in the last two world championships (both
silvers) and has the skill, experience and depth to battle China
and Japan for the gold. "This is the strongest group of U.S. men
since '84," says Paul. "We have a lot of talent coming together
at the right time."
These heady times have arrived even though men's gymnastics
programs have been axed from high school and college sports
curricula in recent years, victimized by budgetary considerations
and the ramifications of Title IX. "My athletes are coming out of
private sports clubs rather than high school teams," says Avery,
who foresees a time when there are no NCAA men's gymnastics
programs left. (There are 20 today, down from 79 in 1982.) "It's
tremendously important to have someone standing at the top of the
podium. For us as a sport, it would be huge."
Such talk doesn't faze Hamm, who has the quiet confidence of a
man used to performing his best under pressure. "I like it that
there's more attention on me in this Olympics," he says. "Both
Morgan and I are pretty good about not letting things bother us."
"Paul comes across as relaxed, because he's so confident," says
Morgan. "He's really a type A personality. He's very focused. For
Paul, the increased expectations are a positive. He's treating it
as a challenge."
Paul and Morgan picked up the sport at age seven after watching
their older sister Betsy practice. (Betsy, now 24, became the
1998 NCAA co-champion on the balance beam for Florida.) The twins
trained with a club team, the Swiss Turners, quickly progressing
through the regional ranks and distinguishing themselves with
their clean-cut good looks and their power, versatility and
At 17, still in high school, the Hamms surprised the gymnastics
world by making the Olympic team, becoming the first twins to
compete in the same Olympics gymnastics meet. While Morgan
finished seventh in floor exercise, Paul established himself as
the team's No. 2 guy, the heir apparent to Blaine Wilson, then
26, who would finish sixth in the all-around. Paul, the only
other American to qualify for the all-around finals, finished
Then came the injuries. Paul broke his right ankle before the
2001 worlds, a setback that led to surgery and the insertion of a
permanent screw. He sprained his left shoulder and stretched
ligaments near his clavicle while performing on the rings,
injuries that still prevent him from doing a simple front giant,
a move he learned at 13. Morgan fared worse, suffering nerve
damage in his left shoulder from a 2001 fall onto the parallel
bars. His left arm was basically numb for four months, and he was
on the verge of having career-ending surgery when he began to get
feeling back. Still, the muscles in his arm had atrophied
irreparably. "It's maybe 70 percent of what it was," says Morgan,
who, physically unable to be an all-arounder, has become a
specialist in the floor exercise, pommel horse and vault.
Last December the twins left longtime coach Stacy Maloney and
stopped training in Wisconsin, partly because they wanted to
train at Ohio State with Wilson and national team member Raj
Bhavsar. "It's been a great change," says Morgan. "Having
teammates in the gym helps push you, and you push them, and the
whole group gets better."
The four athletes are guided by three coaches: Avery, Arnold
Kvetenadze, a former coach of the Soviet national team, and Doug
Stibel, a former member of the U.S. team. One change they've made
in Paul's program is to simplify his high bar routine, reducing
the number of his release moves from five to three. "The
difficulty is still 10.0, but he's given up some risk," says
Avery. "The old routine he'd hit maybe 75 percent of the time.
Now it's 100 percent. Paul doesn't waste energy. Efficient.
That's the word for the way he trains, so his body doesn't wear
down as much as others'. That's the consistency you need to be
the last guy up."
Cool. Consistent. Focused. Efficient. Those terms describe a
great gymnast--one who should end up on the medals podium, even
if he doesn't push the pixies out of prime time.