Hamm brothers can shoulder the load

NEW YORK -- The lives of Morgan and Paul Hamm are as identical as their faces. They're twins (Morgan gets mentioned first because he's older by an hour) who have spent large chunks of their years together on gymnastics mats and pommel horses, in the air twisting and turning. They have hung together on high bars and parallel bars, and -- since they turned 21 on Sept. 24 -- at downtown Milwaukee bars.

Not everything in their life is a 9.9 -- they each had shoulder injuries that could have ended their career -- but aside from fighting over whose turn it is to take out the trash at their apartment near UW-Milwaukee, they've done pretty well. Morgan has placed in the top three six times in international competition, while Paul has done it eight times.

Four years ago, they became the first twins in Olympic history to compete in gymnastics. While they were stoked, they would have been cool with not making the team, being so young, and giving it a full run in 2004.

Well, now it's 2004. Morgan and Paul are at the ripe age to medal in Athens. And after what happened Saturday afternoon at the American Cup held at Madison Square Garden, they might have to.

Blaine Wilson, a two-time Olympian who, at age 29, is the elder leader of the USA men's team (think Mark Messier in Spandex), injured his left arm on the still rings. He fell, clutching his left wrist. He took a few steps, started crying, and fell to the ground, where a host of Team USA officials circled him.

While it was originally feared Wilson had suffered a career-ending biceps tear, he was moving his arm well Sunday and had minimal swelling. On Monday, he flew to Birmingham, Ala., for an MRI. If surgery is necessary, he'll have it Tuesday.

"I immediately started thinking about how [Wilson's injury] would affect the team at the Olympics," Paul Hamm said.

That means him and his brother. Both Hamm (rhymes with "mom") brothers had a so-so American Cup. Morgan took his first-place pommel finish of 9.725 and pummeled it away, finishing fifth overall. Paul, the defending world all-around champion, was leading going into the final event and fell from the high bar, giving Jason Gatson, who has had four knee surgeries, an easy track to first place.

With Wilson, the Americans had a good, possibly great team heading into Athens. If surgery forces him out, the pressure falls on the oft-injured shoulders of the Hamm brothers.

Gymnastics brought Morgan and Paul as close as they are -- both started at age 7 -- but shoulder problems forced them to be closer. When Morgan was 18, he landed funny on the parallel bars and blew out his left shoulder. Nerve damage left the joint paralyzed for almost six months. The boys had just started college, with the Olympics in their crosshairs, and suddenly Morgan couldn't do much of anything.

"It was terrible," Paul said. "You could see his bone. The muscle in his shoulder was deteriorating."

Morgan dove into his studies -- both were 4.0 students coming out of high school in Waukesha, Wis. -- but walked around empty. Slaving through rehab didn't up his spirits. At one point, he went to Paul and said, "I wanna stop. I can't do it anymore. I can't go through this anymore."

Paul gave him a heads-up answer: "Don't give up just yet." Morgan listened. Although there's still nerve damage to his shoulder, he has built its strength up enough that at 140 pounds he's a Xerox of his brother's build.

"It's always going to bother me," he says. "But it's worth it."

Paul's wasn't as bad. A year ago, he was doing a cross on the rings when his left shoulder separated, leaving him with a sprained AC joint. At 20, with the World Championships around the corner, Paul looked at his brother's recovery for inspiration during rehab. By the time the World Championships in Anaheim rolled around, he was ready and won the men's all-around, nailing one of the best performances of his life.

"They've had to go through a lot together with those shoulder injuries," said USA gymnastics men's director Ron Galimore. "It's hard to come back from either of them."

The Hamm brothers are all about the team -- considering they've always cheered for each other, how else could they be? -- and they realize the team needs them.

"They have had great coaching through the years," Galimore said. "They're prepping themselves to peak at the perfect time."

They hope so. They usually spend the moments before competing with each other, not talking, but tuned into their iPods in the same room. Until they were in Vegas and Morgan's was stolen. So he spent the minutes before entering Madison Square Garden listening to the noises Paul's made through his headphones.

"I need to get another one," Morgan jokes. "It's important for my routine. I need one!"

Well, if anyone wants to see the American male gymnasts bring back the gold, they should start a collection now for the $299 iPod.

After all, Athens is only six months away.

Seth Wickersham covers the NFL and Olympics for ESPN The Magazine. E-mail him at seth.wickersham@espn3.com.