Expectations were high for Paul Hamm entering the 2004 summer Olympics in Athens. He entered the Olympics as the reigning world champion — a feat that no other U.S. man had ever accomplished. But now it was time All eyes were on Paul because no U.S. American man had ever won the men’s Olympic gymnastics all-around title. Paul was expected to change that. In fact, the only U.S. gymnast ever to earn a medal at all was Peter Vidmar in the 1984 Olympics. But now, Paul Hamm seemed destined to eclipse Vidmar and win gold.
Hamm started strong in the first three events and held the first place lead in the all-around by .038 points. Spirits were high. Then, disaster struck. During his vault performance missed his landing, fell down and nearly rolled off of the stage into the judge's table. Ten years later Paul recalled, “I just remember running down the vault runway, hitting the springboard, block off the table, thinking something is not right here. It almost seemed surreal.”
His score reflected the unfortunate circumstances. As a result, he fell, too, in the standings from first place to twelfth. All eyes were again on Paul, but for a very different reason. I remember watching the telecast and seeing him sitting down again. Only this time it was on the bench, dejected and with a pale look on his face. The odds winning any medal were now insurmountable and certainly, holding a gold medal now was highly unlikely.
But, this is where Paul Hamm demonstrated the difference between mediocrity and greatness. The look on his face changed from one of desperation to one of determination. It was clear that a shift took place. He put the past behind and decided to move forward; giving his best effort to finish strong. He recalled, “Being a competitor and being a gymnast, we’re always taught not to give up during any competition. That’s the mentality I had. I thought, ‘This is the Olympic Games, I’m not going to go out having two more poor performances. I’m going to go out and fight through this and get my placement back up.’ I thought there’s still a shot of a bronze medal.”
The next event was the parallel bars and Paul was first up. He delivered a world-class effort; intimidating the competition in the process. What followed was unexpected. Several competitors delivered substandard performances and Paul leaped up the points standings to fourth place.
Paul became invigorated. The final event was to follow and it was his strongest event. The high bar. Earning a medal now was in reach. Once again, the look on his face and his posture showed a determined champion not willing to give up.
Paul was a master of the high bar and his routine had the highest degree of difficulty of all competitors. If he could execute perfectly, there was no telling what could happen. Determined to take advantage of this positive turn of events and make sure that he at least won the bronze medal. he was a master of the high bar and he scripted a highly technical routine in order to have a shot at earning the most points possible.
The die was cast as the other competitors finished their routines. Paul was the last to go.
“I hopped onto the bar, did my releases as good as I could do and I was thinking, ‘I’m going to go for it.’ As I was lining up for the dismount I was fairly confident I’d have a medal because I knew I wouldn’t fall on that dismount. I thought if I could stick the landing maybe I can pull a silver medal for this.”
As I sat and watched the broadcast I could see Paul pour his heart into his routine — you could feel his energy, focus, and determination. When he nailed his dismount it was electrifying and clear that something special had happened. Before his score was even revealed, you could see on Paul’s face that in his own mind he had won; regardless of the outcome. He came back from a crushing failure on the vault and proved to himself that he could execute beyond failure.
“I landed, threw my arms up in the air, came off the podium and I remember waiting for the score, just being so proud of myself for not giving up and knowing I probably had some color medal,” Hamm said.
It turned out much better than Paul had imagined. He performed his routine nearly perfectly earning a score of 9.837. In one of the most dramatic comebacks in all of the sports he won the event by 0.012 points and in doing so, capture the gold medal in the men’s all-around. Paul Hamm had become the first U.S. male gymnast to ever win the Olympic title.
Remember, it's what happens to you that matters. It's how you choose to respond that does. Paul chose to finish strong and so should you.