BEIJING – Morgan Hamm’s eyes were red, his voice shaky.
The bone spurs digging into his left leg made it impossible for him to tumble, and giving up his spot on the U.S. men’s gymnastics team was the right thing to do — the only thing to do. That didn’t make it hurt any less.
Hamm withdrew Thursday, two days before competition begins. He aggravated a chronic injury in his left ankle during training in Beijing, and it never responded to treatment. He clearly struggled on floor exercise during the men’s training session Wednesday, and it wasn’t any better Thursday.
“This has been an extremely hard decision for me to make. I’ve given everything I can to be ready to compete at this Olympic Games,” Hamm said. “It’s best for me to step down and have another athlete fill my position. This is something for me that’s very tough because it’s end of my career, and it’s not the way I had planned it.”
Nothing about these Olympics has gone the way Hamm and his twin brother, Paul, planned it. Not for the Americans, either.
Morgan Hamm tore a muscle in his chest in early October, an injury that required a five-month rehab. He was able to return, but the injured ankle continued to give him trouble. Bone spurs from his ankle dig into his tibia, producing “extreme” pain.
Hamm tried taping, ultrasound and other therapies to treat the injury. When those didn’t work, his doctor gave him an injection of a glucocorticosteroid, a cortisone-like anti-inflammatory, on May 2 in hopes of reducing the swelling and inflammation. That resulted in a positive doping test at nationals; the drug is allowed if an athlete gets a therapeutic use exemption, which he failed to do. Hamm had to have another cortisone shot before he left for Beijing, and yet another Wednesday.
Paul Hamm, the reigning Olympic champion, had to withdraw July 28 because he wasn’t going to be healthy enough to compete in Beijing. Besides persistent pain from the right hand he broke two months ago, he has a strained left rotator cuff.
“I wouldn’t change anything,” Morgan Hamm said. “I gave it all that I had. … Obviously it hasn’t worked out as I wanted it to, but I love gymnastics, I love competing, and I’m going to take all of my experiences that I’ve had and grow as person and move on with my life after this.”
The Hamms’ withdrawals mean the Americans, once considered favorites to return to the medals podium, now have no one with Olympic experience. Sasha Artemev, the 2006 national champion and world bronze medalist on pommel horse, will replace Morgan Hamm. He was chosen Thursday night over David Durante. Both have been training at the U.S. Olympic Committee’s facility at Beijing Normal.
It also leaves the Americans with a huge hole on pommel horse, already their weakest spot. Artemev is the Americans’ best on the event, but has problems with consistency.
“Morgan Hamm is an irreplaceable athlete, an incredible gymnast,” said Jonathan Horton, who was fourth at the world championships last year. “The expectations stay the same. The vision doesn’t change at all. We still feel we’re medal contenders.”
Since making his first Olympic team in 2000 at 17, Morgan Hamm’s career has been star-crossed. He feared his gymnastics career might be over when a nerve injury left his left shoulder numb in the summer of 2001. Feeling eventually returned — though the shoulder never will be as strong as the other — and he and his brother led the Americans to the silver in Athens, their first Olympic medal in 20 years.
The Hamms took the next 2 1/2 years off after Athens to finish their education at Ohio State, but decided in February 2007 to return in hopes of making their third Olympic team.
Then came the chest muscle. And two weeks after he celebrated making his third Olympic team, news of the positive doping test. The U.S. Anti-Doping Agency announced July 3 that the 25-year-old gymnast had accepted a warning for getting a prescribed anti-inflammatory shot without the proper clearance from anti-doping authorities. Hamm tested positive May 24, the second day of the national championships.
Because those results were used to help select the U.S. team, USA Gymnastics had to rerun all of its numbers from nationals and the Olympic trials. After its review, however, USAG said Hamm would still have made the team. The International Gymnastics Federation later said it would not appeal the punishment.
But the ankle wasn’t 100 percent when he arrived in Beijing, and he aggravated it on an awkward landing one day in training.
“It doesn’t sound dramatic,” he said. “But it’s something that is to the point where my ankle is shutting down and it’s not responding to what I’m telling it do to. As a result, I can’t do my gymnastics. Especially not safely.”
The injury is the end of Hamm’s career. He and his brother both said they planned to retire after Beijing, and Morgan already has been accepted at the National University of Health Sciences in suburban Chicago, where he will study to become a chiropractor. He is also getting married next spring.
In addition to his silver medal from Athens, Hamm was part of the 2003 U.S. team that won the silver medal at the world championships.