-- The most glorious achievement in U.S. men's gymnastics history was nearly derailed by a disastrous landing on the vault, which sent Paul Hamm crashing into the scorer's table and plunged him from first to 12th in the standings. It ended with Hamm performing the best routine of his life, whipping around the high bar with ethereal grace and confidence, to make up what seemed an impossible deficit and become the first American man to win Olympic gold in the prestigious all-around event.
Even after the gold medal had been draped around his neck, the olive wreath placed atop his head and the U.S. national anthem played in honor of his achievement, Hamm, 21, seemed in dazed disbelief. "I didn't believe it," said Hamm, who finished with 57.823 points. "I didn't think it was possible."
The U.S. women's swim team made history of its own just across the Olympic Complex on Wednesday, breaking the oldest world record in the sport -- and one of its most tarnished -- by winning the 4x200-meter freestyle relay. The Americans shattered the mark set 17 years ago by East Germany. After the collapse of the Berlin Wall, evidence of cheating by the East Germans cast doubt on many of their athletic achievements, including the relay record.
The U.S. cycling team won three medals in the road time trial. Equestrian Kim Severson of Keene, Va., won a bronze in individual eventing, a grueling four-day competition. Kim Rhode won the women's double trap shooting gold medal, and Rebecca Giddens grabbed silver in women's kayaking.
But at Olympic Hall, all anyone could talk about was Hamm's gold and the hope that his stirring comeback with just two events remaining in the six-event competition would inspire a new generation of boys to become gymnasts, too, much as Mary Lou Retton did for girls when she became America's first female all-around champion in Los Angeles in 1984.
"Our challenge hasn't been getting young boys in the sport; it has been keeping them," said Bob Colarossi, president of USA Gymnastics. "At the entry level, probably 45 percent of the kids under 6 are boys. But what is there for them at the end of the rainbow? I think they got to see that tonight."
Former Olympian Peter Vidmar, the only other American man to win an all-around medal -- he won silver in 1984 -- hailed Hamm's victory as the greatest comeback in gymnastics history. "I've been either competing or watching this sport for the last 40 years, and I've never seen anything like this before," Vidmar said. "This is the most bizarre all-around finals I've ever seen in my life."
Not everyone was enchanted with Hamm's achievement, however. His razor-thin margin of victory left South Korea's Kim Dae Eun (57.811) and Yang Tae Young (57.774) with silver and bronze. Kim was blunt about his disappointment, saying he was angry over losing by just 0.012 of a point. Romania's Ioan Silviu Suciu, who finished fourth, questioned the scoring. "The only thing I can say is that USA got something more than it deserved," Suciu said through an interpreter.
Yet it was difficult to begrudge Hamm the moment.
With four competitions remaining, Hamm could walk away from Athens with six medals -- as many as Baltimore's swimming sensation Michael Phelps may win. But Hamm's approach to his second Olympics (he finished 14th in the all-around in 2000) has been as low-key as Phelps's has been brash.
A native of Waukesha, Wis., Hamm began doing gymnastics with his identical twin, Morgan, at age 7 when their father built them a pommel horse from an old maple tree covered with foam and leather from an old car seat. He fashioned parallel bars from old stairway rails. And since then Hamm has rarely asked for more from life than the chance to get better at the sport he loves.
Hamm arrived in Athens as the favorite to finally break the chokehold that European men have held on gymnastics for the last century. And he was rock steady from the start, leading the six-man squad to a silver medal in the team competition Monday night.
On Wednesday, he faced off against 23 of the world's best gymnasts for all-around honors based on performances on floor exercise, pommel horse, still rings, vault, parallel bars and uneven bars.
Hamm opened with a strong floor routine to share the early lead with China's Yang Wei. Yang inched ahead on the next rotation. Then Hamm took the lead on the third rotation with a steady showing on still rings, while Yang muffed his vault landing.
Hamm's fourth event was vault, and he planned to perform a familiar stunt -- one he'd done for three years and botched only once in the past eight months. His form was perfect as he hurtled his 5-foot-6, 140-pound frame over the vault, but he landed short, staggered for balance and crashed into the scorers' table.
Hamm's cheering section fell silent. Vidmar, broadcasting live on radio, informed listeners that Hamm's quest was over. His coach, Ohio State's Miles Avery, knew the same in his gut. "I thought it was gone," Avery said.
Hamm could barely speak, muttering simply, "I don't know what happened." So Avery started talking, telling him to dig in and don't give up. "Anything can happen," he reminded him. "Fight for every tenth [of a point]." If Hamm scored 9.8 (out of a possible 10) on his last two events, Avery figured, he'd have a shot at bronze.
Hamm answered with a 9.837 on parallel bars that moved him to fourth.
He turned his attention to the high bar. It was his best event, and Avery had scripted a routine precisely for a come-from-behind scenario -- difficult enough to impress the judges, yet familiar enough that Hamm could perform with ease. Hamm grabbed the bar and off he went, whipping around it like the spokes of a bicycle while dangling with one hand, then letting go altogether, hurling himself in the air and catching the bar on the rebound, letting go three times in all.
He stuck the landing, thrust his arms skyward and threw his beaming face toward heaven, sure he'd done his best. Americans erupted in cheers, and American sportswriters started doing the math, trying to figure out exactly what score Hamm needed for gold. Vidmar tabulated it in his head: 9.825 to tie.
When 9.837 flashed on the scoreboard, Avery jumped to his feet and shouted, "Olympic champion!"
Hamm barely grasped the meaning. "It was a fairytale ending for me," Hamm said. "I just can't believe it happened."