Olympic gymnastic trials begin

June 19, 2008 8:14:27 PM PDT
Paul Hamm isn't the only American gymnast with skills. With the reigning Olympic champion recovering from a broken hand, Sasha Artemev and Jonathan Horton made their cases for trips to the Beijing Games on Thursday night. Artemev and Horton finished 1-2 Thursday night, the first of two competitions at the Olympic trials, and Horton has the lead when scores - including those from last month's national championships - are weighted and combined.

The finals are Saturday night, after which two gymnasts will get spots on the team. A selection committee will choose the rest of the six-man team and/or a training squad within 24 hours.

"I can't even begin to tell you what it would mean to be one of those two guys and be a lock, that'd be awesome," Horton said.

"If I can put myself into one of those locks, I believe in what the committee's doing, but if I can avoid that, why not?"

One of the six spots on the Beijing team is almost sure to go to Hamm, who broke his hand at nationals last month. Hamm is the only American man to win a world or Olympic all-around title, and said Thursday he expects to be fully recovered in time for Beijing.

"I don't think I'll be at Olympic shape when I have to raise my hand and show the (selection) committee my readiness," he said of the July training camp where athletes have to prove their readiness. "... By the time the Olympic Games roll around, I'll definitely be able to do all six events again. No question."

David Sender, who won the national title after Hamm got hurt, couldn't compete Thursday after spraining his ankle during training Wednesday. He also petitioned for a spot on the team, though he still hopes to compete Saturday.

Horton finished fourth at the world championships last fall, but he's been overshadowed this season with the return of Hamm, the only American man to win the world (2003) and Olympic (2004) titles. Horton, though, reminded everyone he can be a factor, posting high scores on still rings, vault and high bar.

And he saved his best for last.

High bar gave Horton trouble at last month's national championships - he fell both nights - and he had to finish on it Thursday. But he looked like a winner this time, moving smoothly from skill to skill. He soared high above the bar on his three release moves, catching air that would be the envy of the X-Games set. He finished his routine with triple-twisting double somersault, one of the most difficult dismounts done by anyone in the world, and he hit the mat with a solid thud.

As his coach threw his arms into the air, Horton slapped his hands, looking almost defiant that he'd finally mastered the routine.

"I was defiant at the bar," Horton said. "I felt like turning around and ripping the bar out of the ground like, `We are not going to have this issue anymore."' Artemev has perhaps the most pure talent of the Americans, and he showed it with a gorgeous pommel horse routine. His legs were a blur as he worked between the pommels, yet he didn't sacrifice a bit of form with perfectly pointed toes and ramrod straight legs.

He, too, finished up on high bar, an event that's given him trouble, including in warm-ups, when he fell twice. But he had no problems when it counted and he smiled as he climbed off the podium.

"I had a pretty good meet, rough in a few areas," Artemev said. "To be in the top two would definitely help out. It would take some pressure off of me."

Justin Spring, who less than two weeks ago couldn't walk because his back pain was so bad, made quite a statement. He led the competition after five events; he didn't do pommel horse. Morgan Hamm showed he's making more progress from the chest muscle he tore last fall.