HOUSTON - Whenever Paul Hamm mentions Beijing or the Olympics, he's quick to throw in an "if."
As in, "If I qualify." Or, "If I make the team."
Uh, Paul, have you seen the scores you've been putting up since you came back? Not only are the other Americans expecting you to be with them at the Beijing Olympics, most figure you'll be going as the US champion.
Four years after winning his last national title, Hamm is a heavy favorite to pick up another when the US Gymnastics Championships begin tonight. Never mind that he took 2 1/2 years off after winning the gold medal at the Athens Olympics. He's routed the competition everywhere he's gone this year, and most expect more of the same at nationals.
"He's like the Terminator in this sport. If he hits, it's not going to be possible to touch him, he's so good," Jonathan Horton said after yesterday's workout on the competition floor. "I always say I don't go to any competition to finish second. But if I don't beat Paul, I won't be upset at all. He's incredible."
That's a big statement coming from any competitor. Considering that Horton was fourth at last fall's world championships, missing a medal by a measly .2 of a point, it speaks volumes as to just how good Hamm is.
"Like I've been saying, he's the best guy in the world right now," said Sasha Artemev, the 2006 US champion and a member of last year's world championship team. "He's going to be hard to beat. He doesn't have a weakness, and there aren't a lot of gymnasts that have all six events that are as strong as his."
That Hamm is good is hardly a surprise. He's the only American man to win the world all-around title (2003) or Olympic gold medal (2004). He helped the Americans to the silver in 2004, their first Olympic medal in 20 years, and has five additional medals from the world championships and Olympics. He won three straight US titles from 2002-04.
But Hamm and twin brother Morgan decided to take a break after Athens. They were drained following the scoring controversy that forced Paul to defend his gold medal for three months after the Games. And after years of juggling school and training, they wanted a chance to be normal college students.
It wasn't as if they were strangers at the Ohio State gym where they train. But they worked on conditioning, not high-level gymnastics skills. And the sport changed a great deal in their absence, with a new scoring system forcing gymnasts to pack their routines with more and more difficult skills.
The Hamms returned to competition at last year's nationals, doing two events each. But Paul's comeback really began in earnest in February at Winter Cup, a national ranking meet. He won by almost 4 points and hasn't slowed down since.