- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 22, 2008

HOUSTON (AP) - Whenever Paul Hamm mentions Beijing or the Olympics, he’s quick to throw in an “if.”

As in “If I qualify.” Or “If I make the team.”

Uh, Paul, have you seen your scores since you came back? Not only are the other Americans expecting you to be with them at the Beijing Olympics, most figure you will be going as the U.S. champion.

Four years after winning his last national title, Hamm is a heavy favorite to pick up another when the U.S. gymnastics championships begin tonight. Never mind that he took 2 1/2 years off after winning the gold medal at the Athens Olympics. He has routed the competition everywhere he’s gone this year, and more of the same is expected at nationals.

“He’s like the Terminator in this sport. If he hits, it’s not going to be possible to touch him he’s so good,” Jonathan Horton said after yesterday’s workout on the competition floor. “I always say I don’t go to any competition to finish second. But if I don’t beat Paul, I won’t be upset at all. He’s incredible.”

That’s a big statement coming from any competitor. Considering that Horton was fourth at last fall’s world championships, missing a medal by two-tenths of a point, it speaks volumes as to how good Hamm is.

“Like I’ve been saying, he’s the best guy in the world right now,” said Sasha Artemev, the 2006 U.S. champion and a member of last year’s world championship team. “He’s going to be hard to beat.”

That Hamm is good is hardly a surprise. He’s the only American man to win the world all-around title (2003) or Olympic gold medal (2004). He helped the Americans to the silver in 2004, their first Olympic medal in 20 years, and has five additional medals from the world championships and Olympics.

But Hamm and twin brother Morgan decided to take a break after Athens. They were drained following the scoring controversy that forced Paul to defend his gold medal for three months after the games. And after years of juggling school and training, they wanted a chance to be normal college students.

It wasn’t as if they were strangers at the Ohio State gym where they train. But they worked on conditioning, not high-level gymnastics skills. And the sport changed a great deal in their absence, with a new scoring system forcing gymnasts to pack their routines with more and more difficult skills.

The Hamms returned to competition at last year’s nationals, doing two events each. But Paul’s comeback really began in earnest in February at Winter Cup, a national ranking meet. He won by almost four points and hasn’t slowed down since.

He beat an international field at the prestigious American Cup, then added the team, all-around, pommel horse and parallel bars titles at Pacific Rim. He scored more than 94 points at both American Cup and Pacific Rim; while scores vary from competition to competition, Yang Wei won the world title last year with 93.675 points.

“He’s sat out for two years,” said Miles Avery, the Hamms’ coach. “We’re just kind of coming back and seeing what we can do at the world level, which I think is going to be good. He’s just trying to make that Olympic team and then helping the team as best we can. And then see if we can challenge to win the all-around.”

First up, though, are nationals.

The selection process for the Beijing team is, to put it nicely, a tad convoluted. But suffice it to say anyone who wins both nationals and next month’s Olympic trials in Philadelphia is pretty much assured of a trip to China. The rest of the six-man team will be selected using weighted scores from nationals and the trials.

“I am excited just to get the whole process under way. It’s always anxiety-filled, so just getting started is a good feeling,” Hamm said. “I get nervous for any competition - these especially because my goal is to come out here and win. It’s stressful, and it’s not easy to do because there are guys coming out trying to take that away from me. I’m just trying to hold that position.”

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