LAS VEGAS — He used to be the world's best gymnast.
Right now, Paul Hamm is nothing more than a guy with a dream of making the Olympics — and a lot of work to do to get there.
In his first gymnastics meet in four years, the 2004 all-around Olympic champion fell off the pommel horse early, landed hard on the floor exercise late and mixed in more wobbles and bobbles than he usually throws out there in a year.
Performing in four of six events Thursday at the Winter Cup Challenge, the 29-year-old from Wisconsin only scored higher than 13.9 on one of them — a frustrating day for an athlete not used to giving performances like this in public.
"This has been one of my weaker performances of my career," Hamm said. "It's disappointing for sure. I'm not happy. I just have to be constructive here. It's all I can really do."
Granted, this event is viewed by almost everyone in gymnastics as a warm-up for the more important stuff to come on the road to London. And Hamm has only been training for eight months since tearing up his right shoulder — injuries that have ended many a career in this sport.
Still, after a day that fell well below his own lowered expectations, the man who used to define excellence finds himself in positions that were once unthinkable:
—Instead of leaving the gym locked into one of the top 42 spots in Saturday's final, he had to sweat out a night session before knowing if he'd make the cut.
—Instead of positioning himself for a gimme spot on the 15-person national team to be named at the end of the weekend, he was very much on the bubble for that. Not making that team won't necessarily eliminate him from contention for the Olympics, but it would deprive him of chances to compete for the U.S. in international events.
"I'm a little bit worried about that," Hamm said. "I really want to get on the national team. Things didn't go the way I wanted today. I guess I just have to take it for what it is."
Save his high-flying vault — where he scored a 15.4 for his roundoff into a front flip with a full twist — this was not a pretty day.
He opened the meet on the pommel horse and was the last competitor in the gym to go during the first rotation. The judges, slow on the draw, held him up for more than a minute, and when Hamm finally did get the green light, he grabbed onto the pommels for five, six, seven seconds, then jumped onto the horse and back into the world of competitive gymnastics.
Less than 10 seconds later, though, he slipped and was back on the ground.
"Pommel horse and parallel bars, I goofed up a skill early in the routines and that just kind of set me off on a bad path for the rest of it," Hamm said.
Leading after the first session was Chris Brooks, an alternate from the team that finished third at last year's world championships. Next was Brandon Wynn, followed by Steven Legendre, a member of the bronze-medal team that has potential, Hamm says, to do even better this year in London.
Two-time Olympic medalist Jonathan Horton worked on only one event, the pommel horse, and struggled to a score of 12.25. He's overcoming a broken left foot and is scheduled to get the pins out next Tuesday.
"It wasn't a great routine today, but people saw my upgrades," Horton said. "People with a trained eye see I'm swinging better pommel horse. The national coordinator and the national coaches see what I'm doing in training and I'm not behind at all."
Of course, training and competition are two different animals, and Hamm was the first to admit that.
"Today, I just felt more fatigued than I usually would in competition," he said. "Then on top of it, there's the nervousness and all the other elements that might throw you off. It was enough to get you off track."
Hamm scored 13.9 on floor (good for ninth on the event), 13.05 on pommel horse (12th) and 13.4 on bars (17th).
Through all the struggles, however, he did show glimmers of the kind of gymnast he can be.
His flairs on the floor were as big and exciting as anyone's, legs kicking high above his shoulders and bringing audible gasps from every corner of the small arena. And there are still the precise lines of his handstands, the explosiveness of his leaps, the businesslike attitude of everything he does, that bring back memories of the champion he once was — and hopes to be again.
On this day, though, it was hard not to think back to four years ago.
Back then, Hamm was returning from a lengthy break, hoping to defend his Olympic title. The quest began at the same meet, in the same city, in the same gym. He won that meet by a whopping 7.25 points. After the first day — a day in which he looked every bit the champion — Hamm was asked to grade himself. He gave himself an 'A-minus.'
Same question, four years later: "Definitely in the 'D' range today," he said. "I'm not happy. I'm frustrated. Today's been very frustrating to me."