Flat Out the Best
Blaine Wilson lifted himself to new peaks at the U.S. gymnastics trials
Strip away all the gewgaws that made last week's U.S. gymnastics trials in Boston such great television fare—happy tears, sad tears, strutting pixies, winning twins, gritty vets, Bela Karolyi hovering, Bela bear-hugging, Bela bellowing Belanese, plus a much debated selection process that wound up choosing what nearly everyone agreed were the most deserving men's and women's teams—and you were left with one simple truth: Blaine Wilson is the best damn gymnast in America.
He's the real deal, a five-time U.S. champion who proved at Boston's FleetCenter that he's as good as any Russian or Chinese, a bona fide threat to become the first U.S. man to win an all-around medal in a non-boycotted Olympics. At the 1999 world championships Wilson came within .001 of the all-around bronze, and since that time he has improved his dismounts so that he now lands as if fired from a bow.
"He could win it, no question," says U.S. Olympic coach Peter Kormann, who also coached Wilson at Ohio State. "I've never seen him better than he was here in Boston."
Such praise slides off Wilson like water off James Dean's hair. The guy is old-school cool. Chuck Yeager cool. Clint Eastwood spaghetti-western cool. He is the antipixie. At the completion of one of his extraordinary routines, Wilson, 26, doesn't bounce up and down, or pump his fist, or beam to Aunt Hilda in the 24th row. Tight-lipped, he taps his fingertips against his hips in a muted gesture of satisfaction, then simply moves on to the next event.
Wilson, who grew up in Columbus, Ohio, has cultivated his rebel-with-a-cause reputation. He's a free spirit with a maniacal work ethic, a contradiction he once acknowledged by describing himself as a cross between Dennis Rodman and Michael Jordan. Wilson has four tattoos, and a barbell-shaped stud pierces his tongue. He has spruced up his act too, having sold his motorcycle, removed an eyebrow ring and ceased bleaching his hair. "Still, I don't know if I can be the poster boy for USA Gymnastics," he says.
Yet Kormann calls Wilson the hardest-working gymnast he's ever coached. He's the ultimate team player, a guy who, when asked how he felt last month after becoming the first man since George Wheeler (1937 to '41) to win five straight U.S. all-around titles, fairly curled his lip. "I'm so past the titles," he said. "My priorities lie with the team."
In fact, Wilson would rather win team bronze than individual gold. Other gymnasts would like to be actors when they stop competing. Wilson wants to be a stuntman. Do the dirty work, let someone else ride off with the glory. Problem is, capable as the other men on the 2000 U.S. Olympic team appear to be (and two of them, freckle-faced 17-year-olds Paul and Morgan Hamm, made headlines in Boston by becoming the first identical twins to qualify for the same team), not one is on the same level as Wilson. Not one is even close. "He's like the Tiger Woods of U.S. gymnastics," says Kormann.
"Every year he gets meaner and nastier," says John Roethlisberger, who on Saturday qualified for his third Olympic berth. "I'm just glad he's on my team."
Just what the Mexican peasants used to say about Clint.