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Artemev takes Olympic experience in stride

Aug. 09, 2008, 12:11 p.m. (ET)

BEIJING (AP) The Colorado gymnastics championships are a far cry from the Beijing Olympics. For Sasha Artemev, though, they were one in the same.

Thrown into the Olympic fray on Thursday night after an ankle injury sidelined Morgan Hamm, Artemev put on a superb performance in Saturday's qualifying round. He put up the second-highest score in the first rotation on pommel horse, the spot where the Americans needed him most, and was third overall.

That was good enough to qualify for the all-around final in 19th place.

"I tried not to think of it as the Olympic Games because my heart would start pounding. I tried to think of it as the Colorado state championships," the Colorado Springs, Colo., resident said. "Just have that mentality and swing big."

The Americans easily led their qualifying group and advanced to Tuesday's team final in sixth place. The top eight teams make the finals.

"I know he was saying, 'I'm an Olympian now and I will get the job done.' And he did," teammate Jonathan Horton said. "As I like to say, 'He tore it up.' And he did it on every routine. Sasha showed he is a fighter."

Artemev has perhaps the most pure talent of any of the Americans, with gorgeous lines and perfect positioning that can't be taught. When he's on, his pommel horse routine is a sight to behold, whirling like a propeller above and between the pommels. He won a bronze medal on horse at the 2006 world championships, the first for an American since Kurt Thomas' silver back in 1979.

But Artemev has had a tendency to falter when it matters most, and it cost him a spot on the original Olympic team. Knowing he'd be counted on for pommel horse, he fell on three of his four routines at the national championships and Olympic trials, and was made an alternate.

Stunned initially, Artemev bounced back and kept working. He and fellow alternate David Durante trained together at the U.S. Olympic Committee's facility at Beijing Normal, pushing each other to stay in shape in case they were called.

When Hamm withdrew, Artemev was ready to step right in.

"He was great," Olympic coach Kevin Mazeika said. "Coming in the day before the competition and not being in the arena, training at Beijing Normal, it was not easy what he did."

Not easy at all.

Gymnastics equipment is finicky, with each piece just a little bit different. It takes time for gymnasts to get a feel and adjust, and Artemev never got that chance. Sure, he practiced with the team in the training gym after replacing Hamm on Thursday night. But he was added to the team too late for podium training, the one opportunity gymnasts have to work out on the competition floor before the meet begins.

Imagine being the kicker for the Green Bay Packers, going to the Super Bowl and finding out the ball has a slightly different surface than the one you've used all year. That's what going onto the floor Saturday was like for Artemev.

"It is kind of different, the lights, the arena, the crowd," he said. "Not to feel the equipment ... the first event was a little tough. But I'm pretty confident in what I can do."

The Americans were up first on still rings, and Artemev was the very first to go. It's his weakest event, and he had a big form break when he swung into a handstand. His 13.675 was the Americans' lowest score on the event, but it didn't matter because teams get to drop one of their five scores.

Once that first event was out of the way, though, Artemev got more and more confident as the day went on.

"After rings, Joey (Hagerty) was saying, 'You're an Olympian. You're an Olympian,'" Artemev said, a wide grin on his face.

Artemev closed the day with perhaps the best show of the first rotation. Going last on pommel horse, he had the crowd - and his teammates - oohing and aahing as he scissor-kicked his legs high above his head, his body almost appearing three-dimensional. He did a one-handed swing around one pommel at one point, yet his legs never separated and they stayed perfectly straight.

The rest of the Americans were cheering even before his feet hit the mat with a solid thud, and Mazeika and assistant coach Miles Avery threw up their hands. Artemev blew out his breath and, after saluting the judges, turned to blow kisses to his teammates. When he climbed down off the podium, the team mobbed him, slapping him on the back and rubbing his head.

His score of 15.25 was more than a point higher than any other American, and was second only to the 15.325 earned by Louis Smith of Britain, the bronze medalist at last year's worlds.

"I just did my job," Artemev said. "I know we needed my score. Everyone's counting on me for pommel horse. They just told me, 'Swing big.' I didn't feel any pressure."

The only thing missing from Artemev's big day was his father and coach, Vladimir.

Vladimir Artemev didn't accompany his son to China, and there was no time for him to get here because Artemev was added to the team so late. When Artemev left the floor, the first thing he did was send his dad a text message.

"He's pretty excited," Artemev said. "He said he's jumping around. He says there's a party at his house at midnight."