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U.S. men’s gymnasts: The naysayers helped us medal

The U.S. Men’s Gymnastics Team think that widely publicized doubts about their abilities actually helped them to their surprising bronze medal win in Beijing. “It got us fired up,” team member Jonathan Horton said.
/ Source: TODAY contributor

The U.S. Men’s Gymnastics Team think that widely publicized doubts about their abilities actually helped them to their surprising bronze medal win in Beijing.

“It got us pretty fired up,” Jonathan Horton told TODAY co-hosts Matt Lauer and Meredith Vieira Tuesday. “We probably shouldn’t have, but we read all of that stuff. I mean, you can’t help it when it’s on the Internet. You look at it, you check it out and you’re just like, ‘What!? Come on! We’re a great team.’ ”

Using a patchwork crew to make up for the absence of their two strongest members, Team USA took third place after naysayers kept talking about what shaky ground they were on. Predictably, it was the Chinese team that won the gold, with 286.125 points. Japan passed the U.S. for silver on the final apparatus, totaling 278.875 points. The U.S. tallied 275.85 to slip past Germany for the bronze.

Considering that the third-place victory went to a patchwork crew that lacked injured reigning Olympic champion Paul Hamm and his twin brother Morgan, Team USA were thrilled to medal. Said gymnast Justin Spring: “I couldn’t ask for anything more.”

“We knew we could go out there, and we fed off of each other the whole time,” Horton added. “It was an incredible experience. We can’t even put it into words.”

Anything but routineThe doubt that surrounded the U.S. male gymnasts was perhaps justified. Four years ago, the team earned a silver medal at the Summer Olympics, but it finished a disappointing 13th at the 2006 World Championships. There was a resurgence, however, as the team rose up to fourth in last year’s World’s.

But then three-time Olympic medalist Paul Hamm broke his hand in May and, realizing he wouldn’t recover in time, withdrew on July 28. Last week, an ankle injury took out Morgan Hamm. So there were no Olympic veterans on this team.

But thanks to some early heroics from Horton and fellow Houston-based gymnast Raj Bhavsar on the rings, the U.S. team actually found itself in the lead after three events. Bhavsar, one of the two alternates on the team, called the experience “surreal.”

“I don’t think it has sunk in yet, what we just did yesterday,” he told Vieira and Lauer.

Still, the team soon found itself in a precarious position.

When U.S. gymnast Kevin Tan struggled in his routine and received a score of only 12.775, chances for a medal dimmed. The Chinese, who have won seven of the last eight world titles, took the lead after their acrobatic turn on the rings — as expected.

The American hopes for a medal would come down to the pommel horse. But there, an impressive performance by Alexander Artemev — who scored 15.350 — saved the day.

Artemev, whose nickname is Sasha, was an alternate because he sometimes has difficulty staying on the horse. But his routine in his only event of the day ultimately brought home the bronze.

“I was just confident in these guys and feeding off their performance in the previous five events,” Artemev said. “I just had that energy and confidence that they had throughout the whole meet. That gave me the power to do my routine with less pressure and be a little bit more relaxed.”

Said NBC gymnastic analyst Elfi Schlegel: “You have to give so much credit to Sasha Artemev. That was the routine of the night.”

Spring said he was proudest of the team’s willingness to commit despite “zero for error.”

“It was pretty nerve-racking,” he said. “It seemed the guys started great on rings and the momentum just kind of snowballed.”

And now that it’s over, the experts are saying it was the underdog mentality that pushed the U.S. to an unexpected medal.

“They dealt with so much adversity,” NBC gymnastics analyst Tim Daggett said. “I thought it could either knock them down or it could really bring them together.

“They came together.”