Small as the gymnastics world is, Paul Hamm doubts anyone was all that surprised to hear he was making another comeback.
What they thought of the news, he's not sure.
"I don't think anyone was probably overly worried at first," the 2004 Olympic champion said. "But I think as time goes on, I think they'll see what I'm capable of."
Dismiss him at your own peril, guys.
Kohei Uchimura of Japan will be an overwhelming favorite to defend his all-around title when the world gymnastics championships begin Saturday in Rotterdam, Netherlands. Even with a performance he described as "not entirely up to my standards," the mop-topped Uchimura finished more than 2½ points ahead of silver medalist Daniel Keatings. In a sport where medals are decided by tenths of a point, that's a rout on par with some of those non-conference laughers in college football.
But Hamm is as fierce a competitor as they come, and he's spent hours glued to YouTube to see how he and Uchimura compare -- and how Hamm can beat him.
Unlike 2008 Olympic champion Yang Wei, whose routines were so jam-packed with difficulty he started a point or two ahead, Uchimura has a similar style to Hamm. Both have exquisite lines and positioning, and everything is done with a polish that makes fans and judges alike sit up and take notice.
"He's going to be tough to beat, no question about that," Hamm said. "I'm excited to go after him and see what happens."
After taking 2½ years off to get his degree at Ohio State, Hamm returned and made the 2008 Olympic team. But a broken bone in his hand and an injured shoulder forced him to withdraw a few weeks before the games. Many thought that was the last they'd seen of the best male gymnast the U.S. has produced. He moved to Chicago and took a job as a finance trader.
But in the back of his mind, he knew his gymnastics career wasn't over quite yet.
"That's not the way I want to end my career," Hamm said. "It's the one thing that keeps me going is try to go back and prove I'm still a very good gymnast, and one of the top all-arounders in the world."
Hamm quit his job and started training full time in July. He spent most of the last two months in his hometown of Waukesha, Wis., but recently moved to the Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs, Colo.
By training at the OTC, Hamm will have ready access to the country's top nutritionists and medical staff -- anything he needs for a comeback at 28. He'll also have high-level training partners, key for a guy who has had his twin brother, Morgan, alongside him almost his entire career.
Morgan, who also made the Olympic team in 2008 only to be forced out by an ankle injury two days before competition began, has gotten married and started coaching since Beijing.
"Over the last couple of years, I've gotten used to Morgan doing his life and me mine," Hamm said. "I love having Morgan in the gym, and it [stinks] not having him. But I think can get what I need at the training center as far as training partners."
Although Hamm said he is not in prime shape yet, a video he posted on his 28th birthday last month might give his competitors pause. The beauty and precision that make his gymnastics so appealing is there, and no doubt men's national team coordinator Kevin Mazeika would love to have Hamm on pommel horse at worlds.
"The guy looks incredible right now. He's like the same old Paul," two-time U.S. champion Jonathan Horton said. "He's a machine when it comes to gymnastics. He doesn't just add a couple of event scores, he adds six more scores to our team."
Even without Hamm, the American men, bronze medalists in Beijing, join Japan as podium favorites in Rotterdam.
China appears to be in rebuilding mode -- the Olympic champions left Beijing triple gold medalist Zou Kai at home -- and Britain and Germany are hobbled by injuries. Keatings is back in Britain rehabbing a torn ACL. Germany is without Marcel Nguyen, who broke his leg last month, and 2007 all-around silver medalist Fabian Hambuechen won't do floor or vault because of a lingering Achilles' injury.
In the women's competition, Russia is on the rise again after winning the European title, and China is bringing four members of its gold medal team from Beijing. The Americans look great on paper, led by reigning world champ Bridget Sloan, runner-up Rebecca Bross and Beijing silver medalist Alicia Sacramone. But Bross may be limited to two events because of inflammation in her shin, and Sloan is recovering from ankle and shoulder injuries.
"I know we're going to be on the podium because this team is so prepared," Horton said. "That's just a huge message that the U.S. has this upcoming group of guys that no one's ever heard of before, and we're still a powerhouse."
But they'll be even better with Hamm.
Hamm hopes to be competing again by early next year so he can make the 2011 world championships in Tokyo, the main qualifier for the London Games.
"I'm going to do what I can to help everybody, and I think I can do some great things. But I'm still on the comeback path. That attitude, that cockiness that might come out, [but] I don't have that at the moment," Hamm said. "[But] I still think I could be the best all-around gymnast in the world at the next Olympics. It's definitely possible."