Paul Hamm had the best medical care there is, and the drive and determination to make yet another spectacular comeback.
What he didn't have was enough time.
With only about a week of training time left, the reigning gold medalist withdrew from the Beijing Olympics on Monday because he won't be healthy enough to compete. Besides persistent pain from the right hand he broke 2 months ago, he strained his left rotator cuff in his accelerated recovery effort.
"There came a point in the gym where I almost threw my arms in the air and just knew, this wasn't working,'' the 25-year-old Hamm said. "It was a really tough decision for me to make. You could drag this out even further. But what I know with my body and what I feel, there's no point for me to do that. It's not in the best interest of everyone involved.
"I pushed for the comeback, I did everything I possibly could,'' he said. "There just wasn't enough time. I feel like if I had another month, I would have been able to get the job done.''
‘We were so close’
But he didn't have a month. He didn't even have a week's worth of practices. The American men go through processing Tuesday and leave for China on Wednesday. Podium training - the one opportunity gymnasts have to train on the competition floor and in front of judges before the meet begins - is Aug. 6.
The men's competition begins Aug. 9.
"We were so close,'' said Dr. Lawrence Lubbers, the hand specialist who operated on Hamm on May 27. "Without the shoulder, we probably would have made it. But the two were just too much.''
Alternate Raj Bhavsar will take Hamm's place in Beijing.
"It's difficult to train sometimes when you don't know what your training is truly for or whether you'll get that chance. It can be a disheartening experience. There are times you have to dig deep and not lose faith,'' said Bhavsar, who almost quit the sport after being an alternate in 2004.
"I wish this was done in a better circumstance, without losing a great athlete. I accept it, and I'm ready to fulfill this mission.''
USA Gymnastics also is still waiting for final clearance on Hamm's twin brother Morgan, who received a warning July 3 from the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency for getting a prescribed anti-inflammatory shot without having the proper paperwork.
Paul Hamm's withdrawal is a huge blow for the Americans, who were fourth at last year's world championships and hoped his return - and that of Morgan - would get them back on the podium. Hamm is the only American to win the world (2003) or Olympic (2004) all-around titles.
It also clears the way for China's Yang Wei in the all-around. Yang, the two-time defending world champion, is so technically superior that Hamm was considered the only one who could challenge him.
"I was giving myself the chance to see how this past week went, to see if I could turn the corner at any point. That just never happened,'' Hamm said. "When you go into the Olympic Games, you're supposed to be in the best shape of your life. Not the worst shape.''
Hamm's recovery appeared to be on track when he proved he was physically able to compete at a July 19 intrasquad meet. He did portions of all six events that day, estimating he was about 90 percent, but said he still had pain in the right hand.
He said his shoulder began hurting the day after that intrasquad meet. When he returned home to Columbus, Ohio, it was clear just what a toll the hard training had taken.
"The week after camp has been a disaster,'' Hamm said flatly.
Time and again last week, he got up on the still rings only to have to quickly drop back off. Skills he had been able to do a few days earlier were now impossible.
"What stopped us, I think, is the shoulder,'' coach Miles Avery said. "It's just from working hard. It's just an overuse injury. If you rest and ice it, you'll be fine and can pick back up. We don't have the time.''
Hamm broke the fourth metacarpal - the bone extending from his right ring finger to his wrist - May 22 at the national championships, just 11 weeks before the start of the games. It's a devastating injury for a gymnast, because every one of the six events the men do puts a heavy load of stress on the hand. Many moves require the hand to be twisted sharply or support a gymnast's entire body weight.
Lubbers stabilized the fracture May 27, inserting a titanium plate and nine tiny screws. Though Hamm was allowed to do strength and conditioning work, he wasn't cleared to resume full gymnastics activity until July 3.
"I felt we could make it under the wire, even though it was close and it was going to be close,'' Lubbers said. "If we'd just had another month or if we could have gone a little slower. (But) I didn't have the flexibility in the time table.''
The Americans likely would have needed him on all six events in both qualifying and team finals. Because the scoring format in team finals is so unforgiving - three athletes compete on each event and all three scores count - Hamm didn't want to hurt the Americans if he wasn't fully ready to go.
Hamm did talk with USA Gymnastics officials about going to Beijing and only doing a few events. But that isn't realistic or fair, he said, especially considering rings is one of the events the Americans would have needed him on.
"This has been the hardest decision I've ever had to make,'' he said. "But I have too much respect for the Olympics and my team to continue on when I know the best thing for everyone is for me to step aside.''
Hamm's withdrawal likely ends the career of one of, if not the best gymnasts the United States has ever had. In addition to his world and Olympic titles, he led the Americans to a silver medal in Athens, their first at the Olympics in 20 years.
His comeback in Athens was one of the most spectacular ever in the sport. After a fall on vault dropped him to 12th place with only two events left, he rallied with two of the best routines of his career to win the gold.
Two days later, however, the International Gymnastics Federation said that bronze medalist Yang Tae-young of South Korea had been wrongly docked a tenth of a point on his second-to-last event.
Add that extra tenth, and Yang would have scored higher than Hamm. That assumes, though, that everything in the final rotation would have played out the same, something nobody can say for sure.
The Koreans did not protest in time, and the FIG said it couldn't change results after the competition. But the Koreans took the matter all the way to the Court of Arbitration for Sport, forcing Hamm to defend his gold medal. CAS eventually declared Hamm the rightful champion.
A long break
Despite taking 2 1/2 years off after Athens - an unprecedented layoff in the sport - Hamm had firmly established himself as a contender for another gold, winning every meet he entered this year, often by large margins. Even with his injury, he still finished the first night of nationals almost four points ahead.
"Enough cannot be said about the effort Paul has made over the last few months and the contributions he has already made,'' said Steve Penny, president of USA Gymnastics. "His decision is being made with the team's best interests in mind. It's a shame that it's happening right now, and one of the world's best gymnasts will not be able to compete at this summer's Olympic Games.''
Hamm, a three-time U.S. champion, also was the cornerstone of silver medal teams at the 2001 and 2003 world championships. He has five medals from the world championships, and three from the Olympic Games.
He had said he planned to retire after Beijing, and said Monday that is still his intention. He graduated from Ohio State last year with a degree in accounting and plans to go to business school.
"Of course right now it's a difficult moment for me,'' he said. "The truth of the matter is, I've had a wonderful career. The success that I've had in the sport has been more than I ever dreamed of, and I'm more than happy with the way things have turned out.''
Except for the ending.