ATHENS - Blaine Wilson paced like an expectant father. Teammate Guard Young sat calmly, scribbling numbers on a piece of paper. Morgan Hamm bounced like a boxer during warm-ups.
Nervous? Naturally. After two decades and too many disappointments to count, the Americans were down to one routine on the high bar yesterday to determine whether they would be in the medals ceremony - or just watch it again.
Paul Hamm whipped himself backward over the bar twice, and barely held on the second time. When the routine ended, his score popped up and the nervous energy turned into a celebration.
The U.S. men's gymnastics team won Olympic silver to cap a four-year rebuilding project, taking home its first medal since the boycotted 1984 Games and just the second since 1932.
"Look at this thing," Jason Gatson said, holding the medal and unable to look away. "It's beautiful. I'm going to stare at it all night."
With good reason.
At home, the men long languished in the shadows of the more successful women's program, to say nothing of so many other Olympic sports. Overseas, they were largely considered outsiders, and their fifth-place finishes at the last two Olympics only reinforced that.
For a while in the final, it looked as if this team might be forgotten again. But after faltering in the middle two rotations, Wilson gathered the guys for a pep talk.
"We knew at that point we had some ground to make up," Hamm said. "Blaine told us, 'Don't worry about anything, just
worry about ourselves.'●"
The Americans hit their last six routines, on parallel bars and high bar, to push past Romania and finish with 172.933 points.
The Japanese went last and needed to average about 9.5 over three sets on the high bar to win. They did it with ease, winning by 0.888 points.
The Americans applauded the clutch effort, but they also celebrated their own.
"I don't understand whoever said it stinks to get silver, or we lost the gold," Wilson said. "Hey, we won the silver medal. I wouldn't change anything today."
The rebuilding project showed promising signs when the men won silver medals at the world championships in 2001 and 2003. Doing the same in the Olympic finals was anything but easy.
Young and the Hamms took big steps on their vault landings to cap a bad stretch on rings and vault, dropping the Americans from first to a precarious third.
The parallel bars changed that.
Paul Hamm, Wilson and Gatson all scored higher than 9.7. Gatson closed the act with a routine that includes a move named after him - in which he grips the bar with his left hand and swings upside down while turning himself completely around.
He did it perfectly, prompting coaches Kevin Mazeika and Miles Avery to start high-fiving each other. When the score of 9.825 came up, Gatson slapped hands with his teammates and the crowd started yelling "U-S-A, U-S-A," a chant heard all too infrequently over the years with the men on the mat.
Paul Hamm's closing high-bar routine was less than perfect. He did only two straight blind-release moves instead of his customary three after nearly falling on the second turn.
But it was good enough. His score, a 9.462, clinched the medal and started the celebration.
"It doesn't get harder than that. It doesn't get more dramatic than that," USA Gymnastics president Bob Colarossi said. "To come back out and hit the last six routines like that is unbelievable."
Japan did the Americans one better, with one of the most clutch Olympic performances.
Needing 28.574 points on the high bar, Isao Yoneda, Takehiro Kashima and Hiroyuki Tomita were nearly perfect. The first two did somersaults backward over the bar and caught it to highlight their routines. Yoneda scored a 9.787 and Kashima a 9.825.
By the time Tomita closed, he needed only an 8.9 to clinch. He could have gone conservative but didn't, doing a release move backward over the bar with two somersaults and a full twist. It was a beauty, good for a 9.85.
When he stuck the landing, the Japanese and their big fan contingent cheered, celebrating the country's first Olympic gymnastics medal since 1992 and first gold since 1976.