ATHENS, Aug. 16 -- For the U.S. men's gymnastics team, it's been a long four years. For the entire men's program, it's been a long two decades. On Monday night, a frustrating era came to a close as six unshakable men seized the silver medal with the same authority they grabbed the high bar in the nerve-wracking finale of the Olympic team final.
A team chronically overshadowed and generally outperformed by its female counterparts finally found a way to spin the cameras in its direction, winning its first Olympic men's team medal since the Summer Games in 1984 in a breathtaking competition that wasn't decided until the last Japanese gymnast landed in the last event.
Jason Gatson competes on the parallel bars. Japan won the gold medal and Romania took the bronze.
(Kevork Djansezian -- AP)
"It took us 20 years to get this," said Brett McClure, whose fiancée is Jaycie Phelps, a member of the gold-medal winning 1996 Olympic women's team. "We've been working extremely hard the last four years just to have the opportunity. . . . Today was just an emotional roller coaster."
The U.S. team, barely in third place entering the last rotation, passed Romania after two of its gymnasts made major mistakes on the high bar. It couldn't, however, topple the Japanese, who finished on their feet and with flair to earn a surprising gold. Japan, fourth at the 2000 Olympics, tallied 173.821 points. The United States earned 172.933 and Romania, 172.384.
The medal was the first for the American men at a non-boycotted Olympics since 1932, when the United States also won the silver. The 1984 gold came without Russia -- a gymnastics power -- in the field. And both earlier medals came at Games on home turf: Los Angeles.
"You can never downplay the achievement of the 1984 team, but in a fully contested Olympics, the last time we won a medal was 1932," USA Gymnastics President Bob Colarossi said. "That stands by itself."
McClure and brothers Paul and Morgan Hamm sealed the silver medal with gutsy -- if not flawless -- high bar routines that elicited a few rather rousing chants of "USA! USA!" in the sparsely filled arena in the main Olympic complex. Guard Young, Blaine Wilson and Jason Gatson rounded out the U.S. roster.
"It's a lifelong dream," said Wilson, a three-time Olympian and member of the fifth-place U.S. team at the 2000 Sydney Games. "It's something you want so bad it makes you sick. Honestly, when those guys were up on that high bar, I thought I was going to get sick."
The team had climbed back from the disappointment of four years ago with a change in approach that emphasized teamwork. Soon after Sydney, USA Gymnastics, the sport's national governing body, began bringing athletes spread throughout the country together through monthly training camps, out of which developed a camaraderie and closeness that hadn't existed before.
"After Sydney, we kind of got upset with ourselves," Paul Hamm said. "We said we were going to make an improvement."
The U.S. men put their progress on display at the last two world championships, claiming silver medals, but they still couldn't get the nation's -- or NBC's -- full attention. Despite stocking an arena in Anaheim with cameras to capture every minute of the women's Olympic trials, the network did not televise the men's event, which occurred in the same venue. Unlike the Magnificent Seven (the 1996 women's team) or the Dream Team (men's basketball), this team inspired no clever nicknames, perhaps because few noticed it.
"We don't strive for attention," Wilson said. "We do this for us."
Wilson, who tore a biceps muscle in February, was considered an unlikely team member as recently as two months ago. But though he is considered the team's vocal and emotional leader, the rise of the U.S. squad coincided with the rise of the Hamms, identical twins who attended the 2000 Summer Games as curiosities and wonder-filled 17-year-olds. Paul Hamm won the world all-around title last year, and both they have emerged to become quiet, steady team leaders.
It was fitting that Paul Hamm finished the night for the U.S. team, holding on to the high bar despite hitting his wrist awkwardly on a release move. Had he fallen, the team's medal would have likely been bronze. As it was, he eliminated a planned release move from his routine, which cost a few points but preserved the second place.
Monday night, the team surged into first place after the Hamms and Young hit their floor routines, but things changed quickly. A seventh-place result on the still rings -- thanks to a poor routine from Gatson -- and so-so fourth-place rankings on the pommel horse and vault, left the United States solidly in third place.
"We had a rough bit in the middle of the meet, but we got everyone together and said, 'Let's get this done,' " Wilson said.
Going into the fifth event, the parallel bars, the United States had fallen behind Romania by nearly a point and Japan by three-tenths. But excellent routines by Wilson, Hamm and Gatson all but ensured the United States would end up with a medal, going into the final event, the high bar.
Romania then helped the United States when two of its gymnasts made major mistakes, one falling off the apparatus. After that, about all McClure and the Hamms had to do was hold on.
And they did.
"We came into Greece, and we wanted to show the rest of the world we were ready," Wilson said. "We've been climbing steadily up the ladder the last four years."