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Bullish for bronze in Beijing

By Eric Gold, Contributing Olympics Editor

Beijing, China (Sports Network) - It hardly mattered that the inexperienced U.S. men's gymnastics team dropped from a second-place finish.

The past two weeks have been a tumultuous one to say the least for the team of first-time Olympians, but by Tuesday afternoon the six-man squad was all smiles showing off their bronze medals.

China was head and shoulders above the competition, and Japan passed the U.S. for the silver medal, but after losing two veterans to their team due to injuries, the Americans pulled off a shocker by reaching the podium in Beijing.

When Paul Hamm, the reigning Olympic all-around champion, pulled out of the Games along with his brother Morgan because of injuries, it was widely thought the U.S. didn't stand a chance to medal.

Sasha Artemev, Raj Bhavsar, Joey Hagerty, Jonathan Horton, Justin Spring and Kevin Tan thought otherwise and were inspired by media clippings of their underdog status.

"We read a lot of stuff people say about us and it gets us fired up," said Horton. "So many articles said the U.S. team was not going to make it to team finals or if they do there would be no chance of a medal."

That certainly wasn't the case on Tuesday thanks mostly to Artemev's pommel horse routine on the final rotation. Artemev didn't even make the team until last Thursday night when Morgan Hamm withdrew due to an ankle injury.

Artemev's scissor-like moves earned him the USA's highest score on horse with a 15.350, securing the bronze medal. The Americans denied probable podium finishes for Russia or Germany.

"Why did anyone count us out?" asked Spring. "Anything that got thrown at this team, we rolled with it. We never counted us out, we never doubted ourselves. I guess that we're all first-time Olympians, we never counted ourselves out."

One could argue that the media played a part in lifting the team up by writing about how they didn't have a chance to medal, or how the injuries to the Hamm brothers were a devastating blow.

"We felt like we were the only ones who could do this," said Horton. "I understand when two of the best gymnasts in the world drop out of the team there's going to be some doubt. When we first read this stuff we didn't have a chance we were like, 'What?' But I could kind of see what they're (the media) thinking, but this is an incredible team. We have so much heart and we just put everything out there on the floor today. We knew we could do it, we pulled it off and now we've got these incredible medals around our necks."

CHALLENGING FOR INDIVIDUAL GOLD

The next step is the men's individual all-around on Thursday, and again the U.S. men are underdogs with China's Yang Wei the favorite to win gold as he participates in his third Olympics. The 28-year-old Yang was the silver medalist in the all-around eight years ago, but was seventh four years ago. He also won the world championships in 2006 and '07, this after sitting out Worlds 2005 to allow younger Chinese gymnasts to gain experience on the international circuit.

Horton and Artemev are the U.S. competitors in the all-around, but again they're considered underdogs. Horton, though, was fourth in last year's World Championships and remains inspired, but is also realistic that Yang will probably win gold.

"If I put on one of the greatest performances of my life I could come close or maybe be on that podium, stand up there with guys like Yang Wei," Horton said. "He's a machine right now, he's absolutely incredible with what he's doing. If he has a good competition I don't think it will be possible to step up and overtake his spot as all-around champion."

Comments? Criticism? Applause? Contact Eric Gold at egold@sportsnetwork.com.
Eric Gold

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