Gymnastics is tough on the body, and the U.S. team is proving that in Beijing. On Thursday, two of the team's medal contenders in both the team and individual competitions had to step down from some of those podium dreams. Morgan Hamm is out. The U.S. men's team's only Olympic veteran and most experienced gymnast aggravated an ankle problem during training Thursday morning and had to withdraw from the Games. On the women's side, Chellsie Memmel, a former world champion who qualified for her first Games, also worsened a troublesome ankle and is scaling back her program to compete in only one of the four events that count toward the team competition.
Coming into the Games, the men's team had already lost reigning Olympic champion Paul Hamm, Morgan's twin, because of a broken hand and a rotator cuff injury. Without Paul Hamm the team lacks a strong, experienced all-around gymnast who can post high scores on all six events. Without Morgan Hamm, the men's team lacks anyone with Olympic experience. The Chinese men, competing on home turf, are favored. Alexander Artemev , an experienced world competitor, will take Morgan Hamm's place.
With his decision, Morgan also ends his gymnastics career, one that he has shared with his brother since they were boys growing up in Waukesha, Wis. "This has been an extremely hard decision for me to make," Morgan said in a press conference in Beijing, where he appeared with the entire men's gymnastics team in a show of support. "I have given everything I can to compete in this Olympic Games. To get here and not be able to perform because of an injury is extremely disappointing, but at the same time, I'm a team player and I'm here to do everything I can to help this team succeed at the highest level."
Ultimately, says Hamm, his sketchy ankle would have prevented him from competing in the floor exercise, one of his stronger events. On Wednesday, during his first run-through at the Olympic venue, Hamm had a rough practice on the floor routine, but shrugged it off to the bounciness of the mat. Today, he acknowledged that "When I came to Beijing, my ankle was not 100%." The ankle injury is the result of bone spurs that dig into Hamm's tibia, or lower leg bone, and causes extreme pain. And while he did not address why he hadn't taken care of the painful spurs earlier, Hamm had already weathered a severe pectoral tear earlier this year, and underwent a lengthy recovery and rehabilitation process to restore himself into Olympic shape.
On the women's side, Memmel had to confront her own difficult choice after landing awkwardly on her right ankle during a tumbling pass on Saturday. "I did know immediately that something wasn't right," Memmel said Thursday. "I was just like, 'Really? This isn't happening.'" After helping the U.S. women to a team gold at the 2003 World Championships when she stepped in as an alternate for injured teammates, Memmel hurt her foot and missed the 2004 Olympic squad. The following year, she claimed the world championship title and then tore her shoulder, which required more than a year of rehab. Coming into Beijing, Memmel was finally healthy, and a contender for the all-around title currently held by American Carly Patterson. She was also a critical part of the U.S. women's effort to battle China for the team gold.
The injury means Memmel will only be able to compete on uneven bars, and although that event is one of her strongest, Memmel could barely hold back tears as she talked about her scaled-back program. "It was very difficult," she said. "It's the Olympics, so it's the hardest thing to say I can only do bars. But bars is better than nothing. Bars is better than going home."