Revisiting Paul Hamm's Golden Moment 10 Years Later

By Brandon Penny | Aug. 18, 2014, 9:51 a.m. (ET)
Paul Hamm stands atop the podium after winning the men’s individual all-around competition at the Athens 2004 Olympic Games on Aug. 18, 2004 in Athens, Greece.

As Paul Hamm looks back on his gold-medal moment 10 years later, it can best be described as playing out like a movie script straight out of Hollywood.

The small-town boy from Waukesha, Wisconsin, who grew up swinging from the rafters of his family’s barn and training on a pommel horse made from a maple tree, had worked hard to establish himself as the top men’s gymnast in the world. Hamm became the first American to win all-around gold at a world championships in 2003 and was looking to repeat that feat on the Olympic level in 2004. He had already competed at the Sydney 2000 Olympic Games, finished 14th in the all-around, and was out for gold in Athens, Greece.

But that gold wouldn’t come easily…

Scene I: The Comeback

Hamm started his experience in Athens off right: He finished first in qualification, setting himself up well for the individual all-around competition. He and his five U.S. compatriots also qualified Team USA in second place.

Two days later, Hamm, his twin brother Morgan, Jason Gatson, Brett McClure, Blaine Wilson and Guard Young repeated their placement in the team final and earned silver, which marked the first team medal by the U.S. men in 20 years.

“The moment that you get any kind of Olympic medal, and if you’ve never had one before, you’re thrilled,” Hamm said of his team medal, which was the first for all six mean on the team. “For us, it was a win.”

Up next was the moment Hamm had been training for his whole life: the all-around.

On Aug. 18, 2004, Hamm woke up feeling tired and sore. He managed to get through warm-up OK and, eventually, felt good enough to make it through the competition. First rotation: floor; 9.725 and first place. Second rotation: pommel horse; 9.700 and still in first. Third rotation: rings; 9.587, still in first. Fourth rotation: vault.

And that’s when the drama unfolded. Little did Hamm know his Olympic vault would become one of the most memorable vaults of all-time, but for all the wrong reasons.

“I just remember running down the vault runway, hitting the springboard, block off the table, thinking something is not right here,” Hamm said 10 years later. “I was off a little bit. It was probably from being a little bit tired.”

Hamm did everything he could to save his vault but it was just too late. He landed, stumbled and came dangerously close to crashing into the judges’ table.

“It almost seemed surreal,” he said. “Did that really just happen? That’s not how I had pictured this competition going.”

Not at all. The scoreboard flashed a 9.137 and the standings reflected the magnitude of his fall: He was in 12th place.

“Being a competitor and being a gymnast, we’re always taught not to give up during any competition,” Hamm said. “That’s the mentality I had. I thought, ‘This is the Olympic Games, I’m not going to go out having two more poor performances. I’m going to go out and fight through this and get my placement back up.’ I thought there’s still a shot of a bronze medal.”

True to any good comeback story, Hamm shook the memory of his disastrous vault off him and moved on to parallel bars, where he had “the best parallel bars routine of my life.”

Paul Hamm reacts to winning the men’s individual all-around competition at the Athens 2004 Olympic Games on Aug. 18, 2004 in Athens, Greece.

He jumped back up into fourth place with a score of 9.837. It looked like that bronze medal was within reach if he could nail his high bar routine.

“I hopped onto the bar, did my releases as good as I could do and I was thinking, ‘I’m going to go for it.’ As I was lining up for the dismount I was fairly confident I’d have a medal because I knew I wouldn’t fall on that dismount. I thought if I could stick the landing maybe I can pull a silver medal for this.”

Today he describes that dismount as feeling like a magnet. From the moment Hamm left the bar, he knew he was going to stick his landing spot-on.

“I landed, threw my arms up in the air, came off the podium and I remember waiting for the score, just being so proud of myself for not giving up and knowing I probably had some color medal,” Hamm said.

Against all odds, the color would be gold. The score of 9.837 flashed and the leaderboard showed he had won by 0.012.

“I remember when I was getting ready to go up on the podium I had this flash of moments from my entire career,” he said. “That was a really cool moment because you just think back to everything it took to get to that point and how incredible it is.”

Just like a movie.

Scene II: The Controversy

Hamm had just become the first American man to win Olympic all-around gold. But that feat would soon be tarnished.

The South Korean gymnastics federation protested the results of the competition two days later because Yang Tae Young’s parallel bars routine was given a start value of 9.9, while the same routine had a start value of 10.0 in qualification. Yang finished third, 0.049 points behind Hamm. The rule in gymnastics is that any protests have to be filed before the next rotation begins.

The protest led to the suspension of three judges and many questions. Was Yang the rightful winner? Should both athletes be awarded gold medals? Should Hamm return his? The matter ended with a 12-hour-long sports tribunal with the Court of Arbitration for Sport in Lausanne, Switzerland, in late September. A month later, the CAS declared the results were valid and Hamm would remain the Olympic champion.

“There were a lot of things done that I thought were handled the wrong way from various committees,” Hamm said of the aftermath of the protest. “I thought they should have stuck to how the rules were stated. According to the rules, that competition was over. Nothing should have been debated, period. … And if you look at it, you find that the situation really should stay the same because there’s another error that was overlooked during his routine. All those things really made me feel I was the rightful winner of that competition. I still feel that way.

“The other aspect of it is it’s only fair for the other competitors to have an understanding of where the true placements are prior to competing that next rotation. I earned the right after the first day’s competition to compete last on high bar, which gives me the ability to see the scores and know what I need to get in order to win the competition.”

Scene III: The Booing

As if his Olympic experience was not exciting enough after his drama-filled all-around final, Hamm still had four event finals to compete Aug. 22-23.

Hamm finished fifth on floor, sixth on pommel horse and seventh on parallel bars.

And then there was high bar. Hamm was set to perform after reigning Olympic champion Alexei Nemov. Nemov’s routine, which included six release skills and was impressive to the untrained eye, was awarded 9.725 by the judges.

The fans did not agree. The crowd in the arena began booing and jeering at the score, halting the competition. The booing continued for nearly 10 minutes and Nemov’s score was increased to 9.725.

“I’m going through this controversy and it kind of looks like they’re booing at me,” Hamm remembered. “I eventually had to ask Alexei to get up on the podium and gesture to the crowd to calm down. I wanted to compete without the booing and I eventually had to begin my routine with the booing there. Once I hopped onto the bar I heard the crowd quiet down, but that was an intense way to begin my competition.”

While Nemov settled for fifth, Hamm managed to place first, tying with Igor Cassina. Due to tie breaker rules, Hamm settled for silver.

“The whole situation: you have the comeback, you have the controversy and now this booing — it’s almost overwhelming.”

Paul Hamm talks to the media about his injured hand during the 2008 U.S. Olympic Team Trials at the Wachovia Center on June 19, 2008 in Philadelphia.
Ten Years Later

Ten years after that memorable week in Athens, Paul Hamm’s life has continued to revolve around gymnastics.

After leaving the sport to finish his degree at Ohio State University, Hamm returned in 2007 with hopes of defending his Olympic title at the Beijing Games the following year. After successfully making the Olympic Team, Hamm withdrew 11 days before the Games began due to injuries to his hand and shoulder.

Fast forward to 2012 after Hamm spent a few years working a “real job” in finance in Chicago and decided to attempt a second comeback in 2012. He competed at the Winter Cup Challenge in January, but ultimately announced his retirement from the sport in March 2012.

“I would hear creaking and certain things like that in my shoulder when I was going out to compete and that really bothered me,” he said. “After that, I decided this probably wasn’t a wise decision. I didn’t want to have more serious problems to deal with later in life if I beat my shoulder up anymore, so I decided to stop and step away.”

Hamm says he’s through with comebacks and doesn’t have any intention of returning for 2016. Today he coaches at a gym 30 minutes outside of Chicago, and continues to stay involved with the sport on a broader level through hosting clinics and commentating at meets.

“I see myself being involved with gymnastics somehow until I’m no longer here,” Hamm said.

While his time as an athlete has ended, Hamm’s impact on the sport is still seen 10 years later through a strong U.S. men’s program. Before 2004, no U.S. man had medaled at an Olympic Games in 20 years. Since 2004, the U.S. has earned three more Olympic medals and seven world championship medals.

“It feels good to know we were part of that,” Hamm said of the United States’ success over the last decade. “There’s so many people and so much effort that everyone made who was involved, but it feels good to be part of that. You always want to see it continue and in a way you feel like you were involved, and I think the men’s program is going to continue to be strong for a long time.”

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