Former Illini Spring among gymnasts headed to Olympics

By Nancy Armour

The U.S. men are heading to the Beijing Olympics, their eyes still on the medals podium.

Without reigning Olympic champion Paul Hamm, though, getting there is going to be a lot tougher.

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“We all know we have work left to do,” Olympic coach Kevin Mazeika said.

The Americans were fourth at last fall’s world championships, three missed routines from the bronze medal. Though only two members of that squad are back for Beijing, the U.S. men were confident they were better, sure to be medal contenders. Maybe not the gold, for which China is the heavy favorite, but certainly the silver or bronze.

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    That, though, was before Hamm withdrew from the U.S. team Monday, saying he wouldn’t be healthy enough to compete in Beijing. Hamm still is feeling pain in the right hand he broke on May 22, but the bigger problem could be a strained rotator cuff in his left shoulder.

    “It’s hard to give up your spot and choose to step down when you know that you’re not ready,” said Hamm’s twin, Morgan. “He’s doing it for the team to make sure that our team goes out there and does the best that it possibly can. It’s a disappointment and he’s obviously sad, but at the same time, he knows his body better than anyone else and he made the right decision.”

    Raj Bhavsar, picked to replace Hamm, is one of the Americans’ best on rings, parallel bars and vault, and consistency won’t be an issue on any event. But because of gymnastics’ complicated scoring format and Hamm’s all-around superiority, every one of the U.S. men is going to have to step up.

    Even then, it might not be enough.

    “Obviously an athlete of Paul Hamm’s level is irreplaceable,” Mazeika said. “We move on to the next step and look at how to field the very best team on the floor to optimize our team score.”

    In qualifying, teams compete five gymnasts on each event and count the best four scores. That means they need four guys on every event who will be consistent and contribute high scores – not as easy as it sounds when you consider some gymnasts only do three or four events.

    Morgan Hamm, for example, doesn’t do still rings or parallel bars, while Kevin Tan stays off floor and vault. Former Illinois gymnast Justin Spring doesn’t do pommel horse. Joseph Hagerty’s weakest event is rings, but he’ll have to go in qualifying.

    Once a team gets to the finals, only three gymnasts compete on each event and all three scores count. With so little room for error – fall or botch a routine, and someone else is leaving with your medal – teams need gymnasts who can put up a blockbuster score and not screw it up.

    Had Hamm been healthy, the Americans would have used him on all six events in qualifying and, likely, team finals. Bhavsar is an easy replacement on rings, vault and parallel bars, where his scores are close to Hamm’s.

    Floor exercise is manageable, too. If Hagerty, Spring, Morgan Hamm and Jonathan Horton hit their routines, the Americans have the scores they need for both qualifying and team finals. Ditto for high bar.