There was absolutely no reason to pay attention to Fairfax's Dan Gill early in Thursday's men's gymnastics preliminaries at the U.S. Olympic trials. Gill sat in 12th place, having done nothing to elevate himself in his first three events. He was tense, sloppy, mistake-prone. And he was angry.
As Gill awaited his high bar routine, he chided himself for his showing. Though only two of the six men's Olympic team positions would be awarded after Saturday's final round at Arrowhead Pond, the men's national selection committee was watching closely, and Gill was giving them nothing to see.
"I was pretty disappointed after the first three events," said Gill, who attended Robinson High and graduated this past spring from Stanford with a degree in biology. "I knew I either had to make a change or give up on the competition. . . . If I didn't do my best routines, I wasn't even going to be in consideration for the Olympic team."
So Gill decided to stop tiptoeing nervously around the arena as he had done at the early June U.S. championships in Nashville, whose results account for a portion of the scoring here. Three events later, Gill had made an extraordinary leap, and not just in his attitude. He finished the night in seventh place, firmly in contention for the Olympic team spots that will be awarded by the middle of next month.
Paul Hamm, the reigning world all-around champion, kept his grip on first place overall despite a rare fall off the pommel horse. Brett McClure held onto second place with a crisp performance as Morgan Hamm, Paul's twin, lost ground to Sean Townsend and Todd Thornton, dipping from third to fifth.
Meantime, five-time national champion Blaine Wilson, who four months ago tore his left biceps completely off the bone, performed well on all six events and declared himself almost back to full health.
"I'm about a month away from where I should be," said Wilson, who only accrued a partial score Thursday as he did not compete at the U.S. championships. "That's enough time for the Olympic Games."
Gill's transformation began on the horizontal bar. There, Gill performed a difficult dismount that no other American can do, and only two or three international gymnasts have landed, which involves two back flips in the layout position (i.e. with a straight back) and three twists. Gill called it a "dare trick." He said he had been using it in competition for several months.
The landing was perfect, and the crowd of about 6,000 rewarded Gill with roars. Gill responded by punching the air, an unusual display for him. He received a score of 9.725, the second-best of the night behind Paul Hamm.
"That was a real momentum shift for me to hit that routine," he said. "I started having a lot of fun. . . . I was as aggressive as I could be."
Gill then performed an interesting and nearly flawless floor exercise that included a sequence that's as difficult as it sounds: a tuck double-double punch front one and a quarter. For that, he received a 9.675. He concluded on the pommel horse, an event on which he messed up his dismount at nationals, and that, too, went according to plan, earning him a 9.575.
Both marks were the third-best of the night in those events. "I still am completely cognizant that I am an underdog for the Olympic team," said Gill, who made his first national team last year. But "I'm confident that if I am chosen for the Olympic team, I would do my job to help bring home a gold medal for the U.S. team."
Gill intended to enter medical school in the fall, following his dream of becoming an orthopedic surgeon, but he decided to put off academics for another year as he attempts to qualify for either an Olympic or world championship team.
It's not been easy. After Thursday's competition, Gill sat with bags of ice wrapped around both arms. He had a torn muscle in his left shoulder that still bothers him and a joint injury in his right shoulder that has resulted in the deterioration of his collarbone.
When he woke up Friday, the elation of the previous night was muted, he said, by the pain radiating throughout his upper body.
"We try not to think about injuries at these competitions," he said. " . . . [But] my shoulders are not doing very well."
For Saturday's finale, Gill said, he intends to block out the pain and send another message to the men's national selection committee.
"I just want my name brought up in the meetings," he said. "I've worked extremely hard and I really do believe I can contribute to this team."