Image: Alicia Sacramone
David J. Phillip  /  AP
Gymnast Alicia Sacramone competes in the balance beam during the final day of competition at the USA Gymnastics Olympic selection camp Saturday, July 19, 2008 in New Waverly, Texas.
updated 7/20/2008 8:48:44 PM ET 2008-07-21T00:48:44

Samantha Peszek hadn't even been an Olympian for an hour, and already she was hungry for bigger, better things.

"We want," she said, "to be Olympic champions."

It took two national championships, one Olympic trials and two selection camps, but the United States finally has the gymnastics teams it wants. After reigning Olympic champion Paul Hamm proved Saturday afternoon that his broken hand would be merely an irritation in his journey to Beijing rather than the end of it, and the women decided on the final four members of their squad a few hours later, the Americans are off to China with teams sure to get the attention of the rest of the world.

Teams that very well could match — or exceed — the nine medals the Americans raked in four years ago in Athens, their best showing since the gold rush of '84.

"We are going to Beijing to win medals. And I think these teams put us in great position to do that," said Steve Penny, president of USA Gymnastics. "When you look at the combined assets these teams have, we could not ask to be in a better position going into Beijing."

Wins add up
The women have won eight gold medals at the last three world championships, including the team title last fall. They go to the Beijing Games with not one, but two world all-around champions. Shawn Johnson is the reigning champ, and Chellsie Memmel won it two years earlier. Both have won individual event titles at worlds, Johnson on floor and Memmel on uneven bars, as have Nastia Liukin (balance beam, bars) and Alicia Sacramone (floor).

Together, the four have won a whopping 18 individual medals at the world championships. There are countries that have been competing for decades that don't have half that. Heck, take every U.S. men's team there's been and they can't match those four women.

Throw in Peszek, a member of last year's gold-medal world team, and Bridget Sloan, the alternate at worlds, and the Americans are heavyweights in leotards.

"I am very happy with this team. Very, very happy," said Martha Karolyi, the national team coordinator.

That doesn't mean the Americans can start planning the victory celebration, though. They went to Athens as the reigning world champions and came home with the silver medal. And China, world champs in 2006 and runners-up last year, has made no secret of how desperately it wants to win gold on its home floor, and the battle for that top spot is sure to be fierce.

‘Extreme desire to be successful’
Still, the Americans are the team to beat.

"This is a very well-prepared and aggressive team with an extreme desire to be successful," Karolyi said. "We know we'll have obstacles we have to pass, because it's hard to fight with the home team. We have to choose the toughest team, because we need the toughest girls because it will not be an easy job."

There's no doubt about Hamm's toughness. Eight weeks after breaking a bone in his right hand, the only American to win the world (2003) or Olympic title (2004) proved without question during an intrasquad meet that he will be physically ready to compete in Beijing. Asked only to do three events — pommel horse, still rings and high bar — he did portions of all six of his routines.

"He continues to demonstrate his ability to overcome odds and that he is a fantastic athlete," Penny said. "There are not enough words you can say to compliment the effort he's making and the value that effort has for our team."

It wasn't classic Paul Hamm — he grimaced and grunted his way through his rings routine and nearly fell during his high bar landing, signs he needs the next three weeks to get in competitive shape — but it was enough to show the rest of the world they shouldn't count him, or the Americans, out.

China is the overwhelming favorite for gold after winning seven of the last eight world titles. But the Americans are medal contenders with the return of Hamm and his twin brother, Morgan. Without the Hamms, the Americans were fourth at last year's world championships.

"They should be worried," Hamm said when asked if China should be wary of the United States. "China's great, they're definitely the team to beat. But we look really strong right now. I'm hoping to get healthy and help out the team in any way possible.

"I guess Yang Wei should be worried a little, too," Hamm added, referring to the two-time world champion and his longtime rival. "He was probably counting on me being out."

Cleared to resume full training only three weeks ago, Hamm estimated he's at 90 percent. He's adding new skills every day — after resuming vaulting Tuesday, he's a half-twist away from his old one — and will spend the next three weeks working on his endurance and polishing his routines.

The biggest hurdle will be his so-called "underbar" moves on the parallel bars, tricks in which he rotates his hands while he lifts his body from below the bars.

"I do feel I'm going to have time to get those skills together. It is going to be pushing it," Hamm said. "I have to push straight through to the time we get to the Olympic Games. I'm confident that my tricks are going to come together."

Just what the rest of the Americans wanted to hear. Next stop, Beijing.

Copyright 2008 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.


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