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COMPETING ON the parallel bars at the U.S. gymnastics championships in Houston last Thursday, Paul Hamm was a few swings and a dismount away from another dominant performance in his rousing return to the sport. But as he executed a routine handstand pirouette, he leaned forward a few degrees more than usual and jammed his right hand on the bar to keep his balance. The mistake looked innocuous, but an audible pop signified something more grave for the reigning Olympic all-around champ. "You could hear it on the floor," says national program director Dennis McIntyre. "Your heart sank."
Hamm knew there was a problem. "I could feel a little torque on my finger and pressure into my hand. That's when I knew something was wrong." He'd broken his fourth metacarpal, the bone connecting the ring finger to the wrist.
This week Hamm, 25, will have stabilizers surgically inserted into the hand, and they'll remain in place through the Beijing Games in August. He'll miss the Olympic trials in Philadelphia in mid-June—but that won't end his dream of competing in China. He could still be picked for the U.S. squad of six regulars and as many as three alternates when a selection committee confirms the Olympic team on July 1. If he is chosen and makes it through a 10-day training camp in Colorado in July, U.S. coach Ron Brant will have until Aug. 8 to name him to the final six-man lineup. "I've pushed through a lot of tough times in my career," says Hamm. "This is another chance to see what I'm made of."
In Athens in 2004 he and twin brother Morgan paced the U.S. to a team silver. Two days later in the all-around Paul won the gold, only to have the South Korean team protest that the judges had erroneously docked Yang Tae-young by .10, less than the margin of Hamm's victory. In a cowardly attempt to shift responsibility for the mistake, International Gymnastics Federation president Bruno Grandi asked that Hamm return his gold medal as a sporting gesture, a request the USOC categorically refused. The Court of Arbitration for Sport ultimately upheld Hamm's gold. The controversy "didn't sour me on the sport," says Paul, "but I needed a break."
Paul and Morgan left gymnastics to enroll at Ohio State, Paul's gold medal tucked in an old sock he'd shoved into a drawer. Without the Hamms the U.S. men slumped to 13th at the 2006 worlds. Though the U.S. moved up to fourth last year, no Americans won an individual medal. In the Hamms' absence, a U.S. team with competent gymnasts such as Jonathan Horton, David Durante and Alexander Artemev would be hard-pressed to medal in Beijing. So when Paul and Morgan dipped their toes back in the water, competing on two apparatuses apiece at the '07 nationals in August, even Bela Karolyi was fired up. "Who in the world would not want to see Paul Hamm compete again?" Karolyi said. "I'm dying to see that sucker."
Paul won the floor at the '07 nationals and soon ramped up his level of difficulty on all six apparatuses. Returning to all-around competition this year, he bested international fields at events in New York and San Jose. After the first night in Houston, he had a lead of 3.7 points over Joseph Hagerty—a margin greater than that between second and 14th.
Morgan competed in four events in Houston, winning the floor and finishing third on vault and high bar. He could make the Olympic team as an event specialist; whether his brother would join him depends on how quickly that right hand heals.
If only it were a matter of desire. "It's funny," says Morgan, "but obstacles seem to help us endure. They inspire us."