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 disappointing."
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 tumbling strength.
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 14th.