That was the goal he and Avery set during the long delay before the parallel bars. One of the reasons he'd switched coaches last fall, leaving Stacy Maloney, who'd coached the Hamms since they were seven, was that he liked Avery's even-keeled demeanor. "Paul's a calm guy, and that's the way I coach him," Avery said later. "I don't have to get in his face. But even he needed to refocus after the vault. I just told him we needed a couple of 9.8s."
Just a couple of 9.8s! In 15 rotations Hamm hadn't earned one. Only one, in fact, had been awarded by the judges all night, a 9.85 to Romania's Marian Dragulescu on the vault. And of the 144 routines in the men's team final, only five had earned a 9.8 or higher. "They'll give you a 9.7 or 9.75," Avery said, "but the judges just hate giving out 9.8s. That is very rare air."
Still, those scores, Avery figured, might yield a medal. So Hamm gathered himself and performed the parallel bars routine of his life. He stuck the landing--everything had to be perfect for this to work--and the judges rewarded him with a 9.837, the highest mark on that apparatus all week.
As the tension mounted, so did the mistakes. China's Yang Wei lost his grip during his high bar routine. Dragulescu struggled on the bars. The standings dramatically changed. Entering the final rotation, Hamm was tied for fourth, behind leader Yang, fellow South Korean Kim Dae Eun and Brett McClure of the U.S. "It started snowballing," Avery said. "Everyone was thinking, I hope I'm not the next one to miss."
One event remained for Hamm. Since he'd begun working with Avery, they'd anticipated that it might come down to the high bar--the top gymnasts always finish on that apparatus. They'd rebuilt Hamm's world-championship-winning routine for this moment. "In 2003 Paul's high bar was high-risk and probably the most exciting routine in the world," Avery said. "But high risk is dangerous when you're nervous and there's a medal on the line. So we changed it into something that was still exciting but with less risk, something he could do no matter how great the pressure was."
They took out two release moves but kept a sequence of three heart-stopping moments when Hamm flings himself high over the bar and grabs it while descending on the other side. He also was the only gymnast in the field to do two revolutions of one-armed giants that involved a change of grip. The first time Hamm competed with the revamped routine was in April, at the Pacific Alliance championships in Hawaii, and judges scored it a 9.75. Not enough. Avery asked afterward what they could change to gain a higher mark. "Paul needed to be taller on the one-armed sequences," he said. "He needed to stretch all the way out."
So they refined the routine. In the gym, near the end of workouts, it was always, This one is to win the gold medal. But when Hamm grabbed the high bar on this night in Athens, the notion of gold never entered his mind. He thought a 9.8 would, at best, give him a chance to stand on the podium at the end of the meet.
And then it happened, just as they'd pictured it. Fully stretched out on his one-arm sequences. Flipping high and free above the bar. The crowd noise building, all eyes riveted, and the final tumbling release that ended with him sticking his landing as firmly as a plug into a socket. Another flawless routine.
"You're Olympic champion!" Avery cried out.
Hamm didn't believe him. Silver, maybe. Because of all the times he'd daydreamed about winning the gold medal--and there'd been thousands of them--not once had he pictured winning it after having fallen on an apparatus. Then the judges' score came up on the board: 9.837. He'd beaten Kim by .012 of a point, the thinnest margin of victory ever in Olympic men's gymnastics, with the slighted Yang in third, .049 of a point back.