The key to mastering gymnastics lies in endless repetition, performing the same skill thousands of times until it's etched in the muscles' memory. So it came as jarring news to American Blaine Wilson that he needed to change his time-tested high-bar routine on the eve of the 2004 Games because Olympic judges had downgraded his most dazzling skill.
Wilson, the senior member of a U.S. squad that is gunning for gold, made the last-minute switch, replacing one difficult move with a tougher one in Saturday's opening competition. He whipped his 5-foot-4 frame around the horizontal bar and flung his body skyward, flipping twice in a full stretch before reaching out to grab the bar again. His hands were perfectly positioned, but he failed to grasp the bar fully and fell, with the back of his head taking the brunt of the blow.
The impact knocked him loopy and cost him a shot at contending for an all-around Olympic medal.
"When you want to puke, it's not good -- especially when you're trying to do gymnastics," Wilson explained later.
But led by Paul Hamm, who outscored all gymnasts on the day, the U.S. team soldiered on, finishing second in Saturday's qualifications to earn the right to compete for the coveted team gold on Monday. Eight countries advanced to the finals. Japan led all with 232.134 points. Romania (230.019) was third, and China, which had been favored, was a disappointing fourth (229.507).
Those scores will be wiped out for Monday's finals. But Saturday's competition gave each team a sense of where it stands relative to the rest of the world. It also determined which 24 gymnasts will compete for the all-around medal and which eight will compete on each apparatus final: floor exercise, pommel horse, rings, vault, parallel bars and high bar.
Hamm, 21, was both the anchor and artistic showman for the Americans, outshining all gymnasts with 58.061 points to sail into Wednesday's all-around final as the favorite. He also qualified for four individual event finals: floor, pommel horse, parallel bars and high bars.
"I felt so much different than I did when I competed in Sydney," said Hamm, of Waukesha, Wis. "The confidence level is so much different. When I walked out on the floor today to march out, I felt in control. Nothing was really going to throw me off. And I think that's the way everyone on our team feels."
South Korea's Tae Young Yang was second overall, at 57.924. Hamm will be joined in the all-around finals by American Brett McClure, who was generally solid Saturday (56.323, for 19th overall). Hamm's twin, Morgan, qualified for the floor exercise and high bar finals.
Only two gymnasts per country can compete for the all-around title. Paul Hamm was considered a lock as the 2003 all-around world champion. Sentimentalists rooted for Wilson to claim the other spot.
At 30, Wilson is ancient for a gymnast. And his scarred body attests to the sport's cruelty. He has undergone three major surgeries since 2000 -- the latest, just five months ago, to repair a torn left biceps. Yet he remains the team's battered heart, having carried U.S. men's gymnastics on his back for the last decade. He has a host of accolades to show for it, including an NCAA title earned at Ohio State and five U.S. championships. But he has never won an Olympic medal, partly because the country lacked the depth in his sport to go very far at the Games.
Athens, however, should be different with the Hamms reaching their peak and youngsters Jason Gatson and Guard Young rounding out the squad. Wilson also showed Saturday that he's not done yet.
The Americans drew the biggest cheers from the sparse crowd at the Olympic Indoor Hall, but fans fell silent when Wilson plummeted to the mat. The competition moved briskly, leaving Wilson no choice but to launch into his floor exercise. He was both powerful and crisp, earning a 9.70 despite a pounding headache and queasy stomach. "Maybe I should ring my bell more often," Wilson quipped.
Immediately afterward a trainer escorted him to a chair and waved smelling salts under his nose. With his head still reeling, Wilson sat out the next event, the pommel horse, and returned to his regular spot in the rotation for his signature event, the still rings, and led the team with a 9.625.
"We'll monitor him very closely for the next 24 hours," said USA Gymnastics President Bob Colarossi. "But Blaine is also the toughest gymnast I have ever known."
Rounding out the team qualifiers are Ukraine, Russia, South Korea and Germany.