Paul Hamm

Paul Hamm's legacy

A couple days ago, Paul Hamm announced his retirement. Is he the most accomplished male American gymnast ever?

Or is he the greatest difference-maker of all time in the U.S. men's gymnastics program?

Or -- both?

There are those who would say that Kurt Thomas still holds the most profound legacy. In 1978, Thomas was the first American to win a gold medal in the floor exercise at a world championship. In 1979, he became the first gymnast to receive the James E. Sullivan Award, given to the best amateur athlete in the United States.

Thomas was expected to dominate at the 1980 Moscow Olympics. Though the United States boycotted, Thomas nonetheless set the stage for "a lot of success, including ours," said Bart Conner, who himself won gold on the parallel bars at the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics and was part of the gold medal-winning U.S. team at those 1984 Games.

Even so, Conner said, "In terms of hard-core credentials -- you can't deny Paul's."

Is that where the debate starts? Or ends?

Simply put, you truly can't deny Hamm's credentials.

He is the 2003 all-around world champion. He is the 2004 all-around Olympic champion.

In Athens in 2004, he led the United States to a silver medal, the Americans' first medal at an Olympics in 20 years. He was the rock of silver-medal teams at the 2001 and 2003 worlds.

He earned five medals at the worlds. He has three Olympic medals.

It can be difficult now for many to remember the furor that enveloped Hamm amid those  2004 Olympic Games. A fall on the vault left him in 12th, with only two events left. Incredibly, he rallied to win gold.

"He had ice water in his veins," said Peter Vidmar, another of the 1984 team gold medalists who also won individual gold at those Los Angeles Games on the pommel horse, now chairman of the board at USA Gymnastics. "He was great under pressure."

Best, Hamm always had an elegant style to his routines: "He was able to make it look effortless," Conner said.

A couple days after Hamm's triumph, meanwhile, the international gymnastics federation, which goes by the acronym FIG, said that South Korea's Yang Tae-young had not been given the right start value on his next-to-last event. Add in the right value, an extra tenth of a point, and Yang would have scored higher than Hamm.

If, and this is a huge if, everything had played out exactly the same on the final rotation -- which, of course, no one can ever say.

Moreover, the Korean team did not protest in time. And FIG said it couldn't change results after the competition was over.

It took a full two months for all the legal wrangling to play out.

The crazy thing is that the process left Hamm in the position of having to defend his gold medal. And why? He did nothing wrong. All he did was perform under pressure, which is what anyone asks of a champion.

Another unfortunate aspect: Women's gymnastics typically gets way more favorable publicity, especially in the United States. In the ordinary circumstance, men's gymnastics in general, and Hamm in particular, stood to cash in -- literally and figuratively -- on that gold medal. Not in 2004. Not really.

To underscore how hard it is to do what Hamm did in 2003 and 2004:

In London this summer, perhaps the gymnast widely considered the best in the world, Japan's Kohei Uchimura, will come through, and win the all-around gold. Uchimura is the 2009, 2010 and 2011 world all-around champ.

But unless and until he wins in London -- Hamm is a member of a club, world and Olympic all-around champ, that Uchimura is not.

As Uchimura would know. He is the Beijing 2008 all-around silver medalist.

"Paul is the catalyst of the current era of success in men's gymnastics we are enjoying now," Vidmar said.

"He made everybody else better," added Kevin Mazeika, the U.S. team's national coordinator who in 2008 was the U.S. team coach. "When everybody is trying to beat not just the best guy in your country but the best guy in the world -- that just makes you better."

In Beijing, the U.S. men won bronze. That gave the Americans back-to-back team Olympic medals for the first time in history.

At last year's worlds, the U.S. men won bronze again. Danell Leyva won gold on parallel bars. At the 2010 worlds, Jonathan Horton was the all-around bronze medalist.

The thing about gymnastics is that the sport is so physically demanding -- you wonder what could have been.

In the lead-up to Beijing, Hamm was rocking his routines, "clicking on all cylinders and definitely positioned to make a very solid run at the all-around gold," as Mazeika put it.

Then, though, just 11 weeks before the Beijing opening ceremony, he broke a hand at the U.S. championships. The hand and an injured shoulder ultimately forced him to withdraw a few weeks before those Olympics.

In July, 2010, Hamm announced another comeback.

In early 2011, he tore his right labrum and rotator cuff.

Last September, in an episode that still seems entirely out of character, Hamm was arrested in Columbus, Ohio, accused of hitting and kicking a taxi driver, damaging the cab's window and refusing to pay a $23 fine. Last month, he pleaded no contest to two reduced charges, both misdemeanors.

With the court action out of the way, Hamm seemed poised for London.

But -- that right shoulder especially, he said, was "clicking and popping and creaking," making sounds "like when a squeaky door opens."

He added with a laugh, "It's tough to train through that."

Paul Hamm will turn 30 in September. Asked how he thinks he ought to be remembered in the history books, he said, "For being a tremendous athlete who was dedicated and focused and an amazing competitor. And remembered for my biggest accomplishments. And also remembered as a nice person."

Typical Paul Hamm -- no mention of medals won.

"What I saw him do was elevate our program more than anybody in the history of our sport," said Steve Penny, who has been with USA Gymnastics since 1999, its president since 2005.

"He became the Michael Jordan of men's gymnastics in the United States. He became Tiger Woods. He forced people to raise their game in order to compete with him, not just in our country but around the world.

"He showed that an American gymnast could rise to the level of any gymnast around the world. He is the only guy who has been able to do that."

Joey Hagerty, and the Olympic journey

In baseball, when a really good guy retires, they have a ceremony on the field for him, and sometimes they go the extra mile and give him a brand new car. Maybe even a convertible. In Greco-Roman wrestling, they have a neat tradition when a guy retires. He takes his wrestling boots and puts them at the center of the mat.

In gymnastics, there's no such ceremonial farewell.

It's too bad. A class act like Joey Hagerty deserves better.



We in the press are all too ready to pay attention to our Olympic athletes while they are in the white-hot glare of the Games themselves. But when the spotlight fades, what then?

The truth is that in many ways large and small Joey Hagerty embodies what the Olympic dream -- more, the Olympic journey -- is all about.

He didn't get into gymnastics to make a ton of money, and didn't. He didn't get into it to become the star of stage and screen; he's not.

He got into gymnastics because he loved it.

He chased the Olympics because he had a dream.

He got to live that dream -- against, frankly, crazy odds.

Joey Hagerty, who turns 29 next month, leaves competitive gymnastics an Olympic medalist -- even though he never once made a team that represented the United States at a world championships.

If you know gymnastics, you know that's just implausible.

But it's so.

Joey said, "I was never on a worlds team. Never on a big, huge team. I always had surgeries. My name was never out there -- well, it was out there in a small way. I never had huge accomplishments. I never won the [national all-around] championship. I was the Trojan horse -- that's what Ed Burch called me," a reference to his coach at Gold Cup Gymnastics in Albuquerque, where he grew up.

New Mexico is obviously not densely populated. But Gold Cup has sent a remarkable number of talented gymnasts to the U.S. team, including 1992 gold medalist Trent Dimas.

So that's one reason for his success. He had role models.

Joey has three older sisters. He got into gymnastics in the first instance by tagging along after them.

Then, it turned out he was pretty good.

It turned out, too, that he had the one thing you have to have to be an Olympic athlete -- the killer passion for whatever sport it is.

That's what kept Joey going through the surgeries and all the ups and the downs.

Joey's time came in the spring and summer of 2008.

First, at the national championships in Houston, he won the high bar and took third in the all-around.

Then, at the all-important U.S. Olympic Trials in Philadelphia, he won both the floor exercise and the high bar, and took second in the all-around.

Nine guys make up a U.S. Olympic gymnastics team. Six are in the starting line-up; three more, at the outset, are designated as alternates. There are all kinds of permutations involved in who makes the list of nine. Who, for instance, could help get points on the still rings? Who on the pommel horse? And so on.

Suffice it to say that a guy who wins two disciplines at Trials, who comes in second in the all-around -- that guy, even if he had never before been on a worlds team, that guy was going to be on the Olympic team and, moreover, in the starting-six line-up.

"It didn't even sink in until we got off the airplane in Beijing -- holy cow," Joey said. "We're here. We did this -- there were 'Beijing' signs everywhere. It was really surreal.

"Then we got to the Olympic village and the place was huge. The cafeteria was the size of football fields. It kept getting more and more overwhelming, and exciting, and fun. It didn't stop. Stuff happened every day. Like, look, there was Kobe Bryant. Oh, my god. There was Roger Federer. Every moment was -- precious."

Practice -- even that was a big deal at the Games. "We only got to see the arena once before we competed and seeing 14,000 people -- I don't know if you've ever been to a normal gymnastics meet, with a couple thousand people, maybe, but this was a sell-out.

"I wouldn't say it was intimidating," Joey recalled. No way. "It was that much more exciting."

The U.S. team's journey to and through its week of competition in Beijing was marked by ongoing dramas involving injuries to both Paul and Morgan Hamm. Raj Bhavsar replaced Paul. Sasha Artemev replaced Morgan, in an announcement made Aug. 7, 2008, literally the day before the Games would begin.

Artemev in particular was a gamble. For the U.S. men to have a shot at a medal, he had to produce on the pommel horse.

The U.S. gymnastics team -- unfazed.

"Never count us out," Joey recalled. "We were pretty determined to do our jobs.

"It didn't even matter who stepped in. It was going to get done. If they had chosen [David] Durante," at that point the sole remaining alternate, "instead of Sasha, we had the confidence it was going to get done.

"We were a group of nine. We were a clan. A family. All nine of us. They are my brothers for life."

The competition, predictably, came down to Sasha, and the pommel horse. The gamble paid off. He got it done. The American men took third -- a result they calculated on the sidelines as the German team was finishing their final turns.

"We had to calm ourselves down," Joey said. "We didn't want to be jerks. We had to contain our excitement. That was really hard. But once the meet was done and we knew we had won the medal, you could see the smiles on our faces."

And as for stepping onto the podium?

"How do you describe the best moment in your life, other than having a child and getting married? There's nothing else like it. There's no way to describe what you trained for your whole life and what you've dreamed of. You can't put words to that."

Life goes on after an Olympics, of course, and doctors said Joey had to clean out his right shoulder, which he did in December of 2009.

He came back from that, enough at least to do what needs to be done in the gym -- you're always sore if you're a gymnast. And now the London Games are only about a year away.

But, you know, that passion -- it's just not there anymore.

To be clear: There is no shame in that. None.

They say it takes courage to acknowledge that, and maybe that's the case, but it takes something much more.

It takes fulfillment, and peace of mind, and serenity.

That's what Joey Hagerty has.

He earned all of that.

"You have to enjoy what you do," he said. "I was getting to the point where I didn't want to go to the gym every day. My body was hurting and still hasn't fully recovered from the shoulder surgery. I was just ready to move on with my life."

Joey and his girlfriend, Ashley Van Orren, who is 23, have been together for two years. They're going to move back to New Mexico and consider their options. Maybe do a little traveling, figure stuff out.

"I was happy being an Olympian," he said. "The medal on top of that -- it's the frosting on top of the cake. I couldn't be happier with my career."

You lived the dream, Joey. Maybe you and Ashley can send us all a photo of the two of you together in Paris, or wherever, okay? Have fun out there.

New face in U.S. Olympic Training Center cafeteria line: Paul Hamm

It was just a couple days before the start of last month's gymnastics world championships that Paul Hamm, the 2004 Athens Games all-around gold medalist,  moved into the U.S. Olympic Training Center. His sky-blue Acura TSX, the one with Wisconsin plates, pulled up to the center, in Colorado Springs, Colo., and thus launched the most anticipated comeback in U.S. men's gymnastics history.

Bring on London and 2012, because with a healthy Paul Hamm on board, the U.S. men -- who finished fourth in the team competition at the 2010 worlds -- immediately become contenders, and not just to place but to win.

Paul turned 28 in September. He will be closing in on 30 in the summer of 2012. If he can stay healthy, he will -- appropriately -- be seen as a medal favorite in the all-around and in a number of individual events as well.

Understand: If he were to never make another appearance in red, white and blue, Paul Hamm has already secured his place in gymnastics history. He is the first American male to win the Olympic all-around (2004); he is also the first American male to win the all-around at the world championships (2003).

This comeback, though, could secure his legacy as not just one of the greatest American gymnasts ever; he could be the greatest. Indisputably, unequivocally -- the greatest.

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Jon Horton and the quest for stone cold

Jon Horton looks at Paul Hamm and what he sees goes well beyond the men's gymnastics all-around gold medal that Hamm won at the 2004 Athens Summer Games. He sees a mental toughness that's best described simply: stone cold.

After four of the six rotations at those Games, the fourth producing what seemed like a disastrous fall in the vault, Hamm stood 12th in the all-around standings. After five he moved up to fourth. With his sixth, the high bar, he moved into first.

After that fourth rotation, it would have been easy to give up. No way. Not Paul Hamm.

The world gymnastics championships get underway Saturday in Rotterdam, the Netherlands. Paul Hamm is coming back to competitive gymnastics but -- not yet. It's Jon Horton's time now. He's the leader of this 2010 U.S. team.

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