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Wilson Wins 5th National Title

Blaine Wilson has the size, strength, stamina and now, another national title.

All he could use is some company near the top in time for the Olympics.

America's preeminent gymnast won his fifth-straight championship Friday night, with barely a challenge from the rivals who were supposed to push him.

A fall off the pommel horse and a missed twist on his floor routine left John Roethlisberger stalled in fifth place. Jay Thornton, considered a prime candidate for a spot on the U.S. Olympic team, finished 11th, only .2 points over the cut line for the Olympic trials.

That's more than Jason Gatson can say. Considered the second-best gymnast in the U.S. until a devastating knee injury last year at nationals, his injury proved too much to overcome this soon. He finished 18th.

The only real pressure on Wilson came from Sean Townsend, the 1997 junior champion who, according to his biography, believes he will peak in 2004.

But even that challenge ended early, when Townsend slipped off the pommel horse, landed on the mat, wobbled forward and nearly fell on his face. The 21-year-old Texan finished with 113.975 points, a full 1.7 behind Wilson.

"I know he was closing the gap," Wilson said. "I watched his routines. I think I watched every one of them. When he fell off the horse, I didn't really watch any more."

Paul Hamm of Wisconsin finished third and Stephen McCain of Texas fourth.

But the night belonged to Wilson maybe moreso than he would have liked.

"I know he'll be happy that he won his fifth title," said Wilson's father, Bill. "But I don't think he'll be happy with the other stuff. It's tough to see it when some of the guys you're counting on have problems."

The top 14 gymnasts advance to the Olympic trials in August, where their scores will be combined with those from nationals to determine four spots on the Olympic team. Two others will be chosen by the men's committee.

Head coach Peter Kormann was anything but downcast. He recalled last year's world-team trials, where the team hit only 64 percent of its routines. The Americans more than bounced back at worlds, hitting every routine they tried.

"Between this and trials, you're basically looking at four meets," Kormann said. "Everyone has one meet that isn't that good. A lot of them went through that this week. It doesn't bother me."

Still, at this point, only Wilson looks like a shoe-in for the Olympics. He became the first gymnast to win five straight national titles since George Wheeler did it from 1937-41.

Wilson's performance started slow, but gained lots of steam. After dropping a full twist from a 1 1/2-twist tumbling pass on the floor routine, he came off muttering obscenities. He scored a 9.05.

Later, he reached his favorite apparatus, the rings, where he put in his second sterling performance of the meet. Moving from the planche position, ith legs perfectly parallel with the ground, he pushed up on the rings to bring his feet over his head, a pair of beautifully aligned angles the judges clearly appreciated.

He scored a 9.95 on rings to go with a 9.9 the first night.

"Bad judging," was the only explanation Kormann could give for why both routines didn't merit perfect scores.

After the rings, Wilson nailed his vault landing and showed his first signs of levity this week, giving a coy little grin to the sidelines and a nice two-handed wave to the cheering crowd.

The fans spent the rest of the time gasping at mistakes.

On the floor, Roethlisberger bailed out of the 1 1/2-twist on his second tumbling pass the same one he had trouble with Wednesday settling for a half-twist and the penalty that came with it. He scored an 8.75.

Moments later, on the pommel horse, he lost his grip and had to jump off. He finished the routine cleanly, but scored an 8.65, then ripped the tape off his hands and threw it at the trash can.

He scored a 9.725 to close the night on the parallel bars flexing his muscles after the dismount and shouting in joy into a television camera. But the damage on his scorecard had already been done. He started the night in sixth place and only moved up one spot.

"If you'd have told me I'd get an 8 and miss some things and still move up a spot, I'd have told you you're crazy," said the 30-year-old war horse, trying to make his third Olympics. "I'm thankful to be where I am."

Among those who exceeded expectations were the 17-year-old Hamm and his twin brother Morgan.

Paul Hamm didn't post a score of less than 9.275 the entire meet. His best performance Friday came on the high bar, where he gave three sharp, short fist pumps after his dismount, a flawless full-twisting double layout.

Morgan Hamm's final routine came on the vault, where he stuck his landing and ran over to coach Stacy Maloney with a big grin, knowing an eighth-place finish and a trip to the trials was secure.

Gatson, meanwhile, had only one score over a 9. Strangely, it came on the high bar, which is where his right knee buckled at last year's nationals, an accident that cost him the lead, the victory and ultimately, a trip to the Olympics.

"I'm proud of the way he came in here and fought like a champ," Kormann said. "This just might have been too much, too soon for him."

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