With the London Olympics approaching fast, Paul Hamm found there was one competitor he couldn’t beat.
His own body.
The only American man to win a world or Olympic all-around title announced his retirement Tuesday, his body unable to handle the demands of elite-level training and competition.
”It’s come to that time,” Hamm, who continues to be bothered by shoulder problems after having surgery in January 2011 to repair a torn right labrum and rotator cuff, told The Associated Press on Tuesday. ”Your mind wants an outcome a certain way, and it used to be a certain way, but you can’t get your body to perform that certain way. And I can see it.”
The announcement comes four months to the day before the London Olympics start. Hamm returned in the summer of 2010, hoping to end his career with a positive Olympic experience after a judging controversy spoiled his Olympic title in 2004 and a freak injury forced him out of Beijing.
Hamm, who turns 30 in September, said he still can do gymnastics. But he already is noticing structural issues with his shoulder — ”more shifting, more instability, more elasticity” — and worried about the damage the next few months of training could do, to say nothing of the US championships and Olympic trials in June.
”I do have to worry about my body,” he said. ”This is the body I have to carry with me the rest of my life, and hopefully it’ll be useful.”
Hamm’s retirement ends the career of possibly the best men’s gymnast the United States has ever had. In addition to his 2003 world and 2004 Olympic titles, he led the Americans to a silver medal in Athens, their first at the Olympics in 20 years, and was the cornerstone of silver medal teams at the 2001 and 2003 world championships.
He has five medals from the world championships, three from the Olympics.
”What he accomplished in our sport was extraordinary,” USA Gymnastics president Steve Penny said. ”Becoming the first world and Olympic all-around champion from the US is a huge statement about his talent. It’s also made a difference in USA gymnastics emerging from a team that struggled to make the podium to a team that’s consistently on the podium. Paul Hamm raised the bar in men’s gymnastics in this country and worldwide, and we’re continuing to benefit from the role he played.”
Following the early 1980s heyday of Bart Conner, Peter Vidmar and the rest of the Golden Guys, the Americans became largely irrelevant on the international scene. They won two Olympic medals and one at the world championships from 1984 until 2000, and top-five finishes were considered cause for celebration.
But Hamm gave the Americans credibility with the rest of the world, and his success drove the other US men to get better. When the Americans won a bronze in Beijing, it gave them back-to-back Olympic medals for the first time in history. The United States is the only country — not China, not Japan, not Russia or Romania — to medal in both the men’s and women’s competitions at the last two Olympics.
At last fall’s world championships, the US men won another bronze medal, and Danell Leyva won gold on parallel bars.
”We’re going to miss him. He’s been such great asset to USA Gymnastics, certainly one of the greats of all time,” said Vidmar, now chairman of the board at USA Gymnastics. ”He helped set the stage for the era we’re enjoying right now. He helped to build the confidence of the other American male gymnasts, to say, `You can get on the podium.’ ”
Jonathan Horton, who added a silver on high bar to his team bronze in Beijing and was the all-around bronze medalist at the 2010 worlds, agreed.
”A guy like Paul made such an impact on the sport of gymnastics on the men’s side, especially for guys like me, who look up to Olympic champions,” Horton said. ”To know we have an Olympic champion in our country, a guy we can watch, see how he trains … was tremendous.”
Hamm and twin brother Morgan, from Waukesha, Wis., were considered phenoms when they burst onto the scene in 1999, finishing 11th and 16th, respectively at the US championships, despite being just 16. In 2000, Paul had jumped to third at nationals, and he and Morgan made their first Olympic team. He gave a hint in Sydney of what was to come, posting the sixth-best qualifying score and making the all-around finals before he’d even finished high school.
With immaculate lines and body position, and a polish that commanded attention, Hamm had an elegance no other gymnast could match, and he was as fierce a competitor as any athlete in any sport. His comeback in Athens was almost inconceivable. After a fall on vault dropped him to 12th place with only two events left, he rallied with two of the best routines of his career to win the gold.
”It was amazing,” Hamm said. ”It was the highlight of my life.”
Added Vidmar: ”Winning it is one of great moments in USA gymnastics. It’s hard enough to win a world title, but to win the world title and the Olympic title back to back, that doesn’t happen very often.”
Two days later, however, the International Gymnastics Federation said bronze medalist Yang Tae-young of South Korea had been wrongly docked a tenth of a point on his second-to-last event. Add that extra tenth, and Yang would have scored higher than Hamm.
That assumes, however, that everything in the final rotation would have played out the same, something nobody can say for sure.
The Koreans also did not protest in time, and the FIG said it couldn’t change results after the competition. But the Koreans took the matter all the way to the Court of Arbitration for Sport, and many — including the president of international gymnastics’ governing body — suggested Hamm give up his medal.
Instead of celebrating the achievement of a lifetime, Hamm wound up defending it, despite having done nothing wrong.
Two months after the Olympics ended, CAS declared Hamm the rightful gold medalist. FIG president Bruno Grandi has since said the American deserved to be Olympic champion.
”I’m able to just look back at the gymnastics and the performance and remember it for a great thing,” Hamm said. ”I understand the things that happened in my life, it’s just a part of the whole story. But overall, I feel the journey I had in the sport of gymnastics was a tremendous journey and very productive for me and my life, and the person I’ve become.”
Hamm and his brother took 2 1/2 years off after Athens, enrolling at Ohio State and living as normal college students. Despite the layoff — almost unheard of in a sport where heavy doses of repetition are the key to maintaining that all-important muscle memory — Hamm returned in 2007 and quickly established himself as a contender for another gold, winning every meet he entered in 2008, often by large margins.
But he broke a bone in his right hand at the US championships, just 11 weeks before the Beijing Olympics. He earned a spot on the Olympic team, but the hand and an injured shoulder forced him to withdraw a few weeks before the games. He announced another comeback in July 2010 but tore his right labrum and rotator cuff in early 2011.
Just as his shoulder was on the mend, he was arrested in September, accused of hitting and kicking a cab driver, damaging the taxi’s window and refusing to pay a $23 fare. It was an embarrassing episode for Hamm, whose discipline and composed focus was as much his trademark as his superb skills. He pleaded no contest to two reduced charges, both misdemeanors, last month. A misdemeanor assault charge was dismissed.
With the court case resolved, Hamm was eager to turn all of his focus to London. But his body simply wouldn’t cooperate.
”You just keep pushing a little bit and realize, ‘This is getting really hard,’ ” he said. ”I slowly started to spend less time in the gym, and that’s when the decision was truly made. If I’m really training for the Olympics, I’m not taking a day off here and there.”
Hamm, who has a degree in accounting, recently was accepted into the MBA program at Marquette University for next fall. He’s already talked to USA Gymnastics about trying to help the men’s team prepare for London, and Penny said they are eager to take advantage of Hamm’s knowledge and experience.
Hamm eventually will have to file paperwork to make his retirement official but said there is no rush. Asked if that meant the door was still open to come back, Hamm laughed, then said no.
”(Retiring) is disappointing. But at the same time, I’m happy with my decision. I’m happy to move on to different things,” he said. ”There’s a lot to life besides gymnastics.”