Clutch, and unexpected, performances lead U.S. men's team to podium

BEIJING -- He didn't stop shaking.

The old man was supposed to prepare him for this, but the fact was, a week ago Sasha Artemev wasn't competing for the U.S. men's gymnastics team, and now he was pacing the podium, waiting for the final event -- his only event of the day. One mistake, and the Americans wouldn't medal. How could they prepare for this?

They talked early Tuesday morning by phone, the former Olympian and the shaking one. "Whatever happens," former Russian great Vladimir Artemev told his son, "I'm always proud of you."

Depressed, angry and emotionally spent over falling off the pommel horse a month ago at the U.S. Olympic trials, Sasha Artemev nailed it Tuesday to seal an improbable bronze medal for the Americans. As the National Indoor Stadium rocked to chants for China, winner of the gold, Artemev and his teammates hugged and celebrated as if they'd finished first.

The Americans weren't expected to be there, weren't even supposed to make it to the finals after their top two performers went down with injuries. None of the six gymnasts had ever competed in an Olympics. One of them, that last performer, had a long history of inconsistency. But they were flawless through the first three rotations and gained gumption with every success.

An hour into the competition, in a seemingly tense moment, high-bar whiz Justin Spring turned to the cameras and said, "'Sup, America?"

"The momentum kept building, and it was just unbelievable," Spring said. "I think after we rocked the high bar, we were like, 'This is happening. It's happening.' After that moment … we felt like we couldn't do anything wrong."

Spring and Jonathan Horton effortlessly dazzled on the high bar, and the crowd above them started faint "USA!" chants. After the fourth rotation, the Americans were stunningly in second, ahead of Japan.

It turned out to be the high point of the afternoon for the United States. Joey Hagerty, whose father nearly died in a car accident this spring but was able to make the trip to Beijing, stepped out of bounds twice during the floor exercise. Kevin Tan faltered on the pommel horse.

With Germany creeping closer toward medal contention, all the Americans had left was Artemev. He is considered possibly the best athlete on the team, but he has shown it in flashes. A week ago, he was watching TV, drifting off to sleep, when he heard a knock on his door.

The person on the other end said Morgan Hamm was hurting and might not be able to compete. Artemev and fellow alternate David Durante were supposed to get ready. A day later, Artemev got the nod.

"Swing big," his teammates told him as he paced. He'd worked out twice that morning but was hitting the horse cold.

"If I was there by myself, I would've been crapping my pants," Artemev said. "But these guys, they're all yelling, 'Come on!' I could hear them. 'Stay confident, swing big, we don't have anything to lose.'

"I had so much energy, I felt like I could've done another routine after that."

China was the heavy favorite for the team title, but up until a few months ago, the Americans were expected to put up a decent fight. They had Paul Hamm, the 2004 gold medalist in Athens. They had Morgan, his twin brother.

When the U.S. lineup -- and medal hopes -- slowly started to come apart, the young gymnasts somehow managed to believe that everything would be OK.

"From the beginning," coach Kevin Mazeika said, "we've said this is a family of nine, and those guys were pulling for each other out there.

"It's just been a tumultuous roller-coaster ride, and I couldn't be prouder of these guys. This whole entire collective and collaborative effort really showed today."

They stood and counted near the end, trying to calculate what Artemev would need for the bronze. Horton would later call it "probably the most clutch performance I've ever seen in my whole life." And when Artemev hit the mat, they hugged and celebrated while Durante stood in the stands, crying.

"Whatever happens," Horton said in the huddle, "we were champions today."

Whatever happened, they were ready. Raj Bhavsar joined this magical medal tour when Paul Hamm pulled out with a hand injury; Artemev became a hero with one knock on the door and one amazing performance on the pommel horse.

Horton, who stuck every landing Tuesday and fist-pumped the Americans into believing, shouted to his teammates, "We're going swimming in the river tonight!"

Tan, understandably skittish, said he wasn't sure about that. But on a day when bronze was beautiful, anything was possible.

"We're all nervous; we're all freaking out," Horton said. "But the real winners, the real competitors in a sport like this, are the guys that can overcome those nerves. And that's what we did today."

Elizabeth Merrill is a senior writer for ESPN.com. She can be reached at merrill2323@hotmail.com.