For Artemev, Risk and Reward

Post reporter Liz Clarke reports from the Olympic men's gymnastics team final, in which China won and an injury-plagued U.S. team took a surprising bronze medal.
By Sally Jenkins
Wednesday, August 13, 2008


As Sasha Artemev's hands walked over the pommel horse and his ruler-straight legs swung circles in the air, forming a dramatic body-geometry over that dreaded horizontal plane called the floor, you waited for the awful moment. It was the moment Artemev has experienced often before, and one that his U.S. gymnastics teammates knew could come as they watched from the sideline, their medal in the balance. It was the moment when Artemev would fly off the apparatus like a propeller spinning crazily loose from its axis.

Artemev balanced on one hand and then on the other, moving quickly but quietly and without pause, legs flaring and scissoring until he looked like a human spirograph. With every maneuver, he courted calamity. He was one of America's most talented yet erratic gymnasts, a guy who was alternately fabulous or fell, with a record of high-flown mishaps. And no one, including him, knew what he might do.

There are lots of superb athletes to watch at these Olympics, but it's the battle against imperfection that's sometimes the most gripping. Example: a doll-faced 23-year-old with a record of high-risk failures, trying to cure a weakness within himself in front of the whole world and, in the attempt, save a bronze medal for his country.

For pure awe, no one could equal the gold medal-winning Chinese. National heroes Yang Wei, Xiao Qin and Li Xiaopeng and their teammates turned in performances that were full of soaring eye tricks and brought cheers that sounded like great exhalations from the crowd at National Indoor Stadium. There were flying twists, spinning and miraculous catches, followed by a perfect stillness that bespoke their strength and meticulous execution. The starting value of their routines -- the measure of difficulty -- was so high that no one ever really had a chance to beat them.

But the Americans were locked in their own private competition, against the doubters who said they were incapable of winning a medal at all. Their six-man roster was a makeshift thing, pieced together out of rookies and retreads, not one of whom ever had been in an Olympics. It was a team physically decimated by injuries and emotionally buffeted by upheavals -- what could a squad with two last-minute alternates hope to do? -- and Artemev was the embodiment of their sketchy, desperate makeup of the team.

On May 22, defending Olympic all-around gold medalist Paul Hamm broke his right hand. He was replaced by Raj Bhavsar, a 27-year-old Olympic neophyte. Meanwhile, Hamm's brother, Morgan, was an on-again, off-again presence over the last few months, with hand and shoulder injuries. When he was forced to withdraw just days ago, the team turned to Artemev, known for his transcendent potential, but also as much for his unevenness as his accomplishments. His career has been composed of a series of unpredictable highs, such as a bronze medal in the pommel horse at the 2006 world championships, but also lows such as elbow and shoulder injuries and competitive disappointments.

This summer, Artemev suffered devastating collapses in his attempt to make the Olympic team, first at the U.S. championships and then the Olympic trials. He fell from the horse repeatedly -- three times out of four routines. "You've been working your whole life for one competition, and you mess it up," he said. After the U.S. trials, he was so discouraged that he even for a "brief second" thought of quitting. "I was angry, and tired mentally," he said.

Artemev's behavior as a gymnast, capable of great flights over the apparatus, yet also of flying off of it, was perhaps a result of wanting it too much. He is the son of Vladimir Artemev, the former Soviet all-around world champion in 1984 whose own Olympic ambitions were dashed by his country's boycott of the Los Angeles Games, followed by a career-ending knee injury. The Artemevs moved to the United States in 1994 when Sasha was 9, and father and son became citizens in 2002. Vladimir is so notoriously tense when his son performs that he can't bear to watch him in person. He remained home in Morrison, Colo., watching on television and "probably yelling and going crazy," Sasha said.

But at this Olympics, pressure suddenly seemed an opportunity. As Artemev moved to the pommel horse, both he and the United States were in precarious position. A valiant effort through the first four events had put them in medal position, but they lost chunks of points with a series of slip-ups on the final two events, the floor exercise and the pommel horse. Japan had overtaken them for second place, and Germany was lurking in fourth place.

A fall by Artemev would cost them the medal. It was that simple. His teammates murmured encouragement to him. "Let go and swing big," they told him.

Of all the extreme forms of Olympic gymnastics pressure -- "Every flick of your wrist scored and judged," as Justin Spring, the U.S. gymnast from Burke, put it -- the pommel horse is among the most trying. It's the only event in which the gymnast is not permitted even a momentary pause, and flow must be continuous. The hands are the only part of the body that are allowed the touch the horse. Now add in the fact that Artemev was the last American performer of the day.

Artemev was jittery. He could feel the nervous current surging through him, and struggled to get command of it. "I'm not going to fall off that horse no matter what," he told himself.

"I wanted to show my team and everyone else how ready I was," he said afterward.

As he moved over the horse, the jitters turned to a more sure form of energy. "I felt that I could lift anything," he said.

His legs butterflied and his body turned severely. He spindled and flared. On one maneuver, his legs swung so high and his weight shifted so dramatically that it seemed impossible his hand could remain attached to the apparatus. Watching on the sideline, Spring said to himself, "Oh my God." Somehow, Artemev's hand stayed in touch with the horse. "I don't know how he pulled it back," Spring said. "But that could have been my nerves."

And then came the dismount. He elevated one last time and then neatly touched down, feet and body trimmed. He stood upright, fists in the air. In the space of a single brief performance, Artemev had remade himself. From now on, he wouldn't be known as the guy who fell, but as the closer, the man who stood up and won the medal.

"When you think of clutch," Bhavsar said, "that's it right there."

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