Well I guess we have our answer.
Paul Hamm, the 2003 world all-around champion and 2004 Olympic all-around champion, has decided to abort his second attempt at an Olympic comeback, citing lack of cooperation from his nearly 30-year-old body.
It probably shouldn’t come as a surprise to most of us, but it doesn’t make it any less disappointing. Say what you will about Paul Hamm…from his history of abandoned comebacks, his questionable chances for his third Olympic team at nearly 30 years of age, or his controversial drunken cab fiasco this past fall, there’s no denying we all were eagerly looking forward to seeing the American legend on the same gymnastics floor as today’s current stars. It’s the same reason we’re all so intrigued with anticipation to see past Olympic champions Shawn Johnson and Nastia Liukin back in competition uniforms, performing alongside their less seasoned counterparts in a spectacular Olympic selection process. It’s like seeing your favorite childhood band reunite and launch a worldwide tour after being disbanded for years. There’s just something so captivating about a clash of generations…and something so inspiring about bringing back to life the memories that we ourselves cherish so dearly. For many of us, Paul Hamm represents these types of magical moments, which we all experienced together back in 2003 and 2004.
But just four months before the London Olympics, the greatest male gymnast in American history has once again hung up his grips. I think we all began to question whether his more mature body would be able to handle the unimaginable rigors of Olympic level training when he reinjured his shoulder and underwent another surgery last year, forcing him out of his highly anticipated comeback performance at the 2011 Winter Cup. If that wasn’t enough to cast doubt on the champion’s ambitious repeat-comeback, his shocking alleged assault of a cab driver this past September and the embarrassing videos that accompanied it signaled to many fans and skeptics alike that this comeback was likely not meant to be.
But in typical Paul Hamm fashion, the resilient hero who achieved the impossible at the Athens Olympics again bounced back from adversity, announcing he would in fact be continuing his quest for London, beginning at this year’s Winter Cup. Although he didn’t shine in the competition, talk began to surface that the former world and Olympic pommel horse finalist did have the potential to at least serve as a specialist on this absolutely critical event for Team USA. Although he had a ways to go in terms of fine-tuning the details and regaining that Olympic champion confidence, if we looked closely, we could still detect glimpses of the old Paul Hamm. Challenging fellow pommel horse contenders Alex Naddour and Glen Ishino for a spot on this summer’s Olympic team was not out of the question.
So now that Paul is officially out of the race, what does that do to the remainder of the field of Olympic contenders? Well for starters, it gives a little more breathing room to pommel horse studs Naddour and Ishino. Each of these guys can now gain even more confidence that they are both truly in the hunt for spots in London – without having to curiously look over their shoulders to see what the former gold medalist is up to. It forces current stars Danell Leyva, John Orozco, and Jonathan Horton to accept the reality that the greatest male gymnast in U.S. history will not be joining them on the floor in this summer’s Olympic Games. They’ll now need to take responsibility – and draw inspiration – from the fact that they’ll be leading this American team against the Chinese and Japanese without the man they all three undoubtedly idolized back in 2000 and 2004.
And it allows at least one gymnast to sneak into the top 12 on my “London StockWatch” list in place of Paul Hamm, whom I tentatively had ranked in 11th place among the field of Olympic contenders. For me, the gymnast who now steps into the top 12 is Sam Mikulak, who just competed brilliantly at the Pacific Rim Championships. I’ll be highlighting Sam in my next post.
Goodbye, Paul, and thanks for the memories. You’ve been a true inspiration to countless athletes all over the world – not to mention those of us who still simply follow the sport – with your tenacity, your ambition, and your champion heart. I expect you’ll take these qualities with you and put them into all that you do, and I look forward to seeing what else you accomplish. This sport will miss you dearly, but remember that there’s a whole life out there you haven’t even begun to live.