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August 30, 2004
Paul Hamm's dreams of Olympic gold didn't include a miraculous comeback--or a judging error that took some luster off his medal
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August 30, 2004

How The Fallen Was Mighty

Paul Hamm's dreams of Olympic gold didn't include a miraculous comeback--or a judging error that took some luster off his medal

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One thing was missing. Paul Hamm had his gold medal, and U.S. men's gymnastics, for the first time in its history, had the Olympic all-around champion--the best male gymnast in the world. � He had done the requisite interviews, the press conferences and a late-night taping for NBC. Every time volunteers at the Games had asked him to pose for a snapshot, he had cheerfully obliged. Security guards had briefly abandoned their posts to ogle his gold medal. "We're still trying to figure out what it says on the back," Hamm said, spinning the disk to show four lines of ancient Greek etched over the eternal flame. "The Greeks can't even figure it out." � The look on his face, one of exhausted contentment, said what he later acknowledged to be true: that he could have happily skipped the competition for medals in four apparatuses on Sunday and Monday night. Having won a team silver on Aug. 16 and the all-around gold two days later, Hamm had already fulfilled his dreams.

Still, something was missing, and it was 4 a.m. before he was finally able to return to the Olympic Village to address it. He hadn't yet talked to his teammate, roommate and training partner of the past 14 years--his twin brother, Morgan. With twins, nothing is really complete for one without the other's affirmation, and the Hamms are especially close. They share not only an apartment in Columbus, Ohio, but also the same beat-up car, a 1998 Acura. And now they would share the joy of Paul's achieving their sport's ultimate prize.

The light was on in their first-floor room, but when Paul opened the door, Morgan was nowhere to be seen. Thinking he might be visiting Blaine Wilson, the old man of the U.S. team, Paul went next door. Wilson was asleep. "Where's Morgan?" he asked.

Wilson wasn't sure. Morgan had gone out, he said, maybe to get a phone card. Then Wilson assessed Hamm's performance that night: "You're scaring me, dude."

So Paul went back to the twins' room and waited. He soon heard a sound on the ledge of the balcony, which was eight feet off the ground, and suddenly, over the railing, Morgan vaulted in. Gymnasts ... they love to make an entrance. Grinning, Morgan summed up his brother's performance with an economy of words that Paul will never forget. "That," he said, "was huge."

Huge drama. Huge for Paul, whose life was about to change in ways he could not imagine. Huge for U.S. gymnastics, which finally had its enduring highlight. Said Peter Vidmar, the only other American male to have earned an Olympic all-around medal, a silver in 1984, "This is the greatest comeback in the history of gymnastics."

Though in the days that followed the gold medal would lose some of its luster with the discovery of a judges' error--a huge one--that may have cost South Korea's Yang Tae Young the victory (box, below), Hamm's comeback remained an epic feat. No one had doubted that the 21year-old from Waukesha, Wis., was the gymnast to beat going into the final. He was the defending world champion. He'd qualified first in the preliminaries. He was, according to his coach, Miles Avery, "in the zone." Through the first three rotations--floor, pommel horse and still rings (his weakest event)-- Hamm held the lead by .04 of a point over China's Yang Wei.

But Hamm was tiring, especially his legs. In the team competition earlier he had done 11 of a possible 12 routines, and that was taking its toll. "I hadn't been sleeping that well," he said. "After winning the team silver, I was up till 4 a.m. We didn't even get back to the Village until 3, with the media stuff and doping control, and then I was too wired to sleep. It catches up to you. I felt almost dizzy and weak."

If Hamm needed a jolt of adrenaline, he got it on his fourth rotation, the vault. He made a crooked landing from a Kasumatsu 1 1/2, lurched sideways and fell, brushing the judges' table. "I felt fine in the air, but I couldn't stop my momentum to the side when I landed," Hamm said. "I've never before missed that vault in competition."

His score of 9.137 was 22nd out of 24 vaulters and dropped him to 12th overall with just two rotations left. "I thought, That's it. I'm done," said Hamm. "Maybe I had a small chance of winning a bronze medal."

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