United States qualifies in top spot for Athens Olympics

Mon Aug 18,12:43 AM ET

ANAHEIM, California (AFP) - The United States rallied from a slow start to place first in the team qualifying round at the 2003 World Gymnastics Championships and advance not only to the finals but also to the Athens Olympics.

"We got the ball rolling with the rings and then took it through to the high bar," said US coach Kevin Mazeika. "We wanted to be aggressive."

The hosts finished with 227.743 points, just 0.697 points ahead of Japan (227.046), while China was third with 225.119 points.

Romania (224.770 points) and South Korea (news - web sites) (224.047) rounded out the top five.

Paul Hamm (news - web sites) was the catalyst for US, posting a solid routine in the floor exercise (9.562 points). Hamm placed second in the overall individual rankings and was one of two Americans to compete in all six events.

The other was Jason Gatson (news - web sites) who had a superb rings routine for a 9.700 score.

"He exemplifies the US spirit. He has unbelievable tenacity," said Mazeika of Gatson.

The top 12 teams at the Worlds qualify for the 2004 Athens Olympics. Twelve more gymnasts will be added from teams ranked 13 to 18 in Anaheim and 10 athletes -- one per country -- from teams 19 to 28.

Canada qualified in ninth spot, becoming just the second Canadian men's team to ever make it to an Olympics.

But they would be the first to actually compete as the Canadians qualified at the 1979 Worlds but then Canada joined a US-led boycott of the 1980 Moscow Olympics.

"We are very excited," said Canadian coach Mits Ikeda. "We didn't expect to finish ninth. We were just trying to get in the top 12."

Germany grabbed the final Olympic team berth with 219.132 points while 2001 World Champions Belarus (219.120 points) provided the biggest shock of the competition as they placed 13th and missed out on sending a full men's team to Athens by the slimmest of margins.

Article Copyright Associated Press