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DISMISSING DISLOCATION FOR DREAMS.

Byline: PAUL OBERJUERGE

SYDNEY, Australia - OK, it wasn't a Kerri Strug moment. Nobody carried John Roethlisberger to the podium, and there was no gold medal waiting for him.

But this is the U.S. men's gymnastics team, and it will take its heroic little episodes where it can find them.

Day 1 of the men's Sydney Olympics team competition in the SuperDome. A U.S. sextet routinely described as ``our best team in a generation'' has done a faceplant on the first rotation, the floor exercise. Nerves, bad luck, bad karma . . . five guys went out and pretty much stunk up the place.

Then, during warmups for the pommel horse, American veteran John Roethlisberger suffers a dislocated finger.

The outlook wasn't brilliant for the Yanks. ``After the floor, I knew we were in big trouble,'' U.S. coach Peter Kormann said. ``Then when John hurt his finger, I thought it was over.''

U.S. star Blaine Wilson was thinking along similar pessimistic lines. ``When he hopped down and his finger was sticking out sideways, I said, `No way.' ''

That's when Roethlisberger, a gymnastics geezer of 30, came up with the performance that turned around the Yanks' day. And maybe their Olympic fortunes.

First, he had a trainer pop the digit back into place. And taped it tight.

Then he mounted that tube of leather with the two handles on it and nailed his routine. A healthy 9.600 score that seemed to snap the Americans out of a team-wide funk.

``It pumped up the team,'' Wilson said.

``Somebody had to stop the bleeding,'' teen-ager Paul Hamm said. ``John did it.''

The other guys responded.

They were solid on the rings. They shined on the vault. They were authoritative on the parallel bars and explosive on the high bars.

The team that was down, dead or at least dying spurted to a fourth-place finish at the end of the day, good enough to put them in Monday's six-team final.

``Most amazing thing I've ever seen,'' Kormann said.

Roethlisberger suggested more amazing things may be upcoming.

``I didn't watch the other teams, and I don't need to,'' he said. ``I can tell you for sure, we have a chance to win a gold medal.''

Heady stuff for the U.S. men's team.

You know the men's team. Or maybe you don't. Lots of Americans think only women compete in gymnastics. Most college men's programs are extinct, clubs have dwindled and our guys haven't exactly torn it up since 1984, when Peter Vidmar, Bart Conner & Co. won team gold in a boycotted Olympics.

Enter the 2000 team. Wilson, the 5-foot-4 dynamo engaged to a 6-foot-2 volleyball player, is one of the top four or five all-around gymnasts in the world. There are veterans Stephen McCain - who competed at UCLA - and Sean Townsend and 17-year-old Wisconsin twins Paul and Morgan Hamm.

And Roethlisberger, older than dirt by gymnastics standards. It may not be a group that scares the Chinese or Russians, but the Americans cannot be discounted.

``I've never been on a team this good,'' said Wilson.

They proved it Saturday. Wilson improved as the day went along, but he never performed to his standards.

He was shaky. Distracted. Sloppy. His collective scores ranked only 14th.

``That's what I'd say constitutes a bad meet,'' Wilson conceded. ``I sucked.''

Normally, as Blaine Wilson goes, so go the Yanks.

``He has been the main man,'' Kormann said of Wilson. ``In other meets, when Blaine has struggled, the rest of the team has fallen apart.''

This time, the Hamm twins, nerveless high school seniors from Waukesha, Wisc., stepped up; Paul had the eighth-best score of the day. Morgan had the seventh-best score in the floor. ``Must be the cheese,'' Wilson said.

Townsend was big on the bars.

And Roethlisberger got the ball rolling with his playing-in-pain pommel horse episode.

``He's so tough,'' Wilson said of Roethlisberger. ``He's a brute. He's a fighter.''

So . . . if Wilson on Monday does what he is supposed to do, and his supporting cast comes through like it did Saturday . . . who's to say the Yanks can't finish first?

``That,'' Paul Hamm said, ``is exactly what I'm thinking.''
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Title Annotation:Sports
Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
Date:Sep 17, 2000
Words:693
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