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Monday, August 16, 2004
Updated: August 17, 6:19 AM ET
Silver is just the beginning

By Seth Wickersham
ESPN The Magazine

ATHENS, Greece -- There was no stopping. They bounded right off the bus that schlepped them from the Olympic Village, right off the ride where every member of the team sat quietly with their headphones cranked, and didn't stop until they were on the floor the Olympic Indoor Arena, with thousands of fans chanting "U-S-A!"

There was no stopping, not when history was waiting.

Blaine Wilson
Blaine Wilson hugs teammate Paul Hamm as the U.S. men won the silver medal.

The U.S. men's gymnastics team pulled off its greatest performance ever, under pressure to do so. It won a medal for the first time since 1984. It trashed the myth that U.S. men's gymnasts are short pretty boys who always pull a Scott Norwood come the Games. The U.S. men are no longer a group that can twist and flip but can't stick the landing.

This one they stuck.

Yeah, yeah, it could have been better. The team ran out onto the floor hopping and bobbing like prize fighters, and followed it with inspired efforts on the floor and pommel horse. Then things started sliding.

On the rings, Jason Gatson, bothered by a bad back, scored a 9.125, right after Guard Young had a 9.350. Blaine Wilson, in the same event in which he ripped his shoulder apart this winter, helped bail the United States out with a 9.637. Then the vault came, and the Americans flopped. Young almost fell on his face. Morgan and Paul Hamm helped out with 9.637 and 9.612 scores, respectively, but something wasn't right. "At that point," said Brett McClure, "we were going to slip out of the medals."

What was at stake? The medal that this men's team seemed so ready to capture, the medal that this men's team talked openly about owning, the medal that only two men's U.S. teams ever had achieved.

The boys gathered, arm in arm, in a tight circle. All of them seemed to be talking at the same time, but somehow they heard each other. They told each other to quit being sloppy on the landings. To give the final four events everything. To take the pressure off themselves and put it on someone else's back. "We needed that lift," assistant coach Miles Avery said.

They unfolded from the huddle, with "U-S-A!" chanting, and as McClure later said, "We rocked the parallel bars." Wilson got a 9.712, Paul Hamm a 9.737, and Gatson, twirling on one arm, as if doing a handstand on a turntable, got a 9.825.

Life was back. The United States was in third place, with one event left. Romania was in first, and on the high bar everything fell apart. Ioan Suciu stumbled on his landing and got a 9.275. Razven Selariu fell off altogether and had to start over. Marius Urzica's stunning 9.775 saved the team from falling out of medal contention.

The Americans knew at that point they'd medal as long as they didn't blow it. The crowd -- every country's fans -- was beside itself. McClure went first, playing it safe, getting a 9.412. Morgan Hamm drilled a 9.762. Then came Paul Hamm, USA's best, whose high bar routine includes three blind release moves, called a Pike Tukacha. He hit the first one, but his hand slipped on the second, and so to keep from falling off he nixed the third, getting a 9.462.

Japan grabbed the gold next. Three routines, none lower than a 9.787, highlighted by Hiroyuki Tomita's McTwist-looking rotations. When it was over, the United States didn't look down. They hugged. They high-fived. They had 172.933 points. They'd done it. "Now," said Paul, "other countries should always worry about the U.S."

It's been a weird few days in Athens for Americans. Two-thirds of the women's gymnastics team looked shaky in the qualifiers. Michael Phelps' headlined dream of seven golds is over. The U.S. men's hoops team hasn't looked so confused since they were each in college classes.

But the men's gymnastics team not only did their best, but did their best ever. The 1984 games, in which the U.S. silvered, were at home in Los Angeles, and the Russians boycotted. Winning a medal back then was like being the NBA champs when Jordan was playing baseball. It came with an asterisk. When the team won in 1932, the world was depressed. The best talent was absent. The 2004 team has surpassed those feats, even if the silver medal looks the same.

But don't stop tuning in. Paul Hamm is a favorite to win a gold in the all-around. Wilson, ancient at age 30, isn't fading easily. There will be more medals for the boys.

That's the best part. The glory isn't stopping. It just keeps on running.

Seth Wickersham covers the Olympics for ESPN The Magazine.