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Silver medalists four years ago, the Americans completed their own journey of redemption. With no members of the 2004 team around, the young U.S. men were a dismal 13th at the 2006 world championships, a stunning fall. But they grew up quickly, finishing fourth at last year's worlds.
With reigning Olympic champ Paul Hamm and his twin brother, Morgan, back, they were sure to contend for a medal in Beijing.
But Paul Hamm broke his hand in May and couldn't recover in time, withdrawing from the U.S. team July 28. Last Thursday, an ankle injury knocked out Morgan Hamm. With no Olympic veterans, nobody expected much from the Americans.
Nobody, that is, except themselves.
"We always believed in ourselves, and we kept at it. ... Tenacious," U.S. coach Kevin Mazeika said. "And we believed that our day would come."
They are a scrappy bunch, and they gutted out one impressive routine after another Tuesday. Horton threw himself so far into the air on his high bar release moves the folks in the lower rows had to look up to see him, and he caught the bar on the way down each time as easily as if he were grabbing a drink.
When he stuck his dismount, Raj Bhavsar jumped up and down. The rest of the Americans hooted and hollered, and Horton practically sprinted off the podium. Justin Spring was just as good, showing the circus types a thing or two with his flips and twists. He does a triple somersault for his dismount, and he got such great air, he landed halfway down the podium.
"They're high-risk, high-rewards," Mazeika said, "and our guys knocked it out of the park. It was just amazing."
Those routines put them solidly in second, behind the Chinese, with two events to go. But they had uncharacteristic struggles on floor, with Joey Hagerty stepping out of bounds twice. They slipped behind the Japanese going to pommel horse, their last event -- and their weakest.
They didn't start well, with Kevin Tan sitting on the horse at one point. After a serviceable routine by Bhavsar, it all came down to Sasha Artemev, who was tapped Thursday night to replace Morgan Hamm.
Artemev has perhaps the most talent of any of the Americans, and he's far and away their best on pommel horse, where he won a bonze medal at the 2006 world championships.
Consistency, though, has been an issue, costing him a spot on the original Olympic team. He paced back and forth on the podium as he waited for what seemed like hours for Bhavsar's score, the pressure building with every second.
But Artemev came through like a pro, his legs whirling like a propeller as he scissor-kicked around the pommels, his body straight and his toes perfectly pointed.
The Americans were celebrating as soon as his feet hit the mat. The bronze medal was theirs.
"He pulled off the performance of his life," Horton said.
Copyright 2008 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.
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