The U.S. is in top form at the world championships
Posted: Tuesday September 4, 2007 1:11PM; Updated: Tuesday September 4, 2007 7:02PM
STUTTGART, Germany -- On Tuesday the U.S. men's gymnastics team sent a spirited message during the qualifying round of the world championships in Stuttgart: Last year's 13th-place finish at these championships was the fluke, not the 2004 Olympic silver medal. And yes, there will be life for this team after Paul and Morgan Hamm, neither of whom are in Stuttgart.
Much can change on Thursday, when the scores revert to zero as the slate is wiped clean for the eight teams that qualify for the finals. But the U.S. men can sleep secure in the knowledge that they are one of those teams, and that they accomplished the most important mission of these worlds: Qualify for the Beijing Olympics. (The top 12 finishers from these championships are guaranteed a berth.)
Nailing one routine after another, the young U.S. squad finished third in the qualifying round behind powerhouses China and Japan, with six of the eight subdivisions completed. They were comfortably ahead of Russia, Romania, France, Canada, Belarus, and Switzerland, all of whom finished ahead of the U.S. in 2006. "It was a true team effort," said an exuberant U.S. men's team coordinator Ron Brant. "We've been waiting for them to come together for the past year, and today they stepped forward. This group was very motivated. They knew they were better than they showed last year."
The top U.S. performer was 21-year-old Jonathan Horton, the 2006 NCAA all-around champion from the University of Oklahoma, who stood seventh in the all-around standings and scored a team-best in both the high bar and the parallel bars. "The motivation made the difference today," said Horton. "Last year was a disaster and we had a whole year to train and think about it everyday. People's skepticism, the comments about this team, that stuff really pushes a gymnast.
"When people tell the team they can't get it done without the Hamms, that eats at you. There was a little anger in everyone's heart today."
The momentum started to build when the U.S. team moved over to the high bar, their third apparatus of the competition. Guillermo Alvarez and Alexander Artemev were the first two men up, and both performed clean routines. Then Horton took the bar, and the shouts of encouragement from his teammates before each release move echoed loudly through the arena. He, too, was clean.
When U.S. all-around champ David Durante also did a mistake-free high bar routine, his teammates erupted as if he'd just landed in the end zone. "You saw a lot of emotion from us out there tonight," said the 27-year-old Durante, who was competing in his first world championships, having been an alternate in 2006. "We felt like we really deserved to be here, and not like we were just competing with the big boys. It was more: 'We're going to beat you guys this year.'"
"The high bar was the roughest event we had in podium training," said Sean Golden, the top U.S. vaulter. "Once we got past that, we knew we had it. There's really seven events in a gymnastics competition, and the seventh one is the mental game.
"We stepped that up to another level. Look, the Hamms can help us, but if they're not here, we've got to do it on our own. This team has been living together for the last year, so it's more than a team now. It's a brotherhood. We're very confident that we have a top-three finish on our horizon."
Whether that top-three finish comes on Thursday may depend on how the U.S. men manage to balance the anger they've felt at being written off by the media the past year with the pressure of the spotlight and the suddenly lofty expectations.
But the stars seem to be lining up for them. Russia, a traditional powerhouse, suffered two significant injuries during qualifying. Mikolai Kryukov blew out his knee landing on a vault and wasn't even able to attempt his floor exercise, and Anton Golotsutskov is believed to have suffered a broken right foot. In the finals only three men per country are entered per apparatus, which favors the U.S., with its relative lack of depth. But all three scores count, adding to the pressure the young Americans will feel.
Still, until today, no one expected them to be in the hunt for a team medal at these championships, and in that sense they have nothing to lose. Certainly they appeared that way after Tuesday's qualifying round. "We were calm out there, not nervous," said Kevin Tan, whose 16.05 score on the rings was the top mark for the U.S. on the night. "This team's confident and secure. We proved we're back."