The first few editions of BuckeyeSports.com's Olympic Digest have focused on Ohio State current or former athletes. To get a different perspective, this week Ohio State men's gymnastics head coach Miles Avery was sought.
Avery is the coach of Paul and Morgan Hamm, perhaps the two most famous active men's gymnasts in the country and graduates of Ohio State. It is up to Avery to make sure the 2004 darlings are ready to make noise yet again when the 2008 Summer Olympics begin in Beijing in August.
It's a pressure-filled role, for sure, but Avery said this time of year puts a spring into his step.
"It's an excitement, it really is, because you're representing your country," Avery said. "Paul and Morgan are Ohio State graduates, I'm an Ohio State coach, and we'll be on the floor at the Olympics. Certainly there's the excitement of being at the elite of the elite places for your sports. For us, this is it. This is the pinnacle of our sport, the Olympics, so it's a very exciting yet stressful time."
It's been made even more stressful, perhaps, by an injury suffered by Paul, who Avery called the best gymnast in the country and perhaps the world. The 2004 Olympic all-around champion suffered a broken hand performing on the parallel bars at the Visa Championships in late May. He led the all-around event at the time.
Paul still will have a spot on the Olympic team held, pending a final evaluation of his hand in July at the U.S. Olympic headquarters in Colorado Springs, Colo.
"Paul absolutely will be on the team, and he right now is the only athlete who is on our 2008 Olympic team. I've petitioned the Olympic team selection committee to place him on the team and they will," Avery said. "Then he has to show that he's on the right track to get back to be able to compete at the Olympic level. As long as we're doing everything we need to do here, he should be."
Morgan, a 2004 Olympian like his brother, will have to qualify at the U.S. Olympic trials, which will be held Thursday through Sunday in Philadelphia. At the Visa Championships, Morgan won a third national title on the floor exercise and tied for third on the vault.
Avery described the work needed to get the pair ready under his tutelage to return to the Olympics as similar to what he does with Ohio State's top-10 program on a regular basis.
"You know what you're doing in terms of you have a plan and you set that plan in motion and you're making sure that it's being followed to get them prepared to do the best that they can do," Avery said. "I don't think it's anything special. You want to get them there healthy and hopefully you put everything into them to be the best prepared that they can be at the Olympics."
Avery's association with the Hamms goes back nearly a decade. At 17, both were members of the 2000 Olympic team in Sydney, Australia, which placed fifth overall. At that point, both were looking at college and in need of a place to set down training roots.
Ohio State seems like a logical option in hindsight, starting with Avery, a rising national presence who had previously coached Olympians in OSU products Gil Pinto, Blaine Wilson, Kip Simons and alternate Jamie Natalie.
"They knew they had in Ohio State a coach and a staff that could help them get (to the Olympics)," said Avery, who started at OSU as an assistant in 1989 and took over as the head coach in '98. "Other places think they can get athletes there, but they knew they had that here right away because I had athletes on the Olympic team when they weren't even thinking about the Olympics."
In addition, the Steelwood training center was in the works, opening early in the decade, and Ohio State boasted good academics as well as access to high-level gymnasts such as Wilson and Raj Bhavsar.
"They were going to find a new place, a new coach to work with," Avery said. "One of the biggest draws for them to be here was they knew some of the athletes already here in Blaine Wilson and Raj Bhavsar. They were obviously acquainted with me as a coach. This facility was awesome. They came here for a world team training camp. And they wanted to go to school."
Avery's plan to prepare for 2004 worked. The Americans, with Avery as an assistant, placed second as a team while Paul was able to grab gold in the all-around, making him the first American to ever do so. Morgan posted the U.S.'s top score on vault and high bar.
The success of Paul, therefore, made Avery the first American coach to teach an Olympic all-around champion, a fate that later dawned on the Buckeye skipper.
"It's funny – you don't think about that, that, ‘Wow, you were the coach of the guy that won the Olympics,' " Avery said. "I actually was told that, ‘You were the first coach in the history of American gymnastics to coach an Olympic champion in the all-around.' You just don't think about it in that terms. You're just working and doing what you do.
"Certainly there was pressure having athletes like Paul and Morgan Hamm come to you already being Olympians, and … it's very good knowing that you can do a great job with great athletes."
Avery's ties to gymnastics at the national level extend to Bhavsar, who is training at the Houston Gymnastics Academy in preparation for the Olympic trials after placing fifth in the all-around at the Visa meet. Bhavsar, who competed for Ohio State from 2000-03, trained for the 2004 Olympics in Columbus and came up just shy, serving as an alternate on the squad.
Though Bhavsar is no longer working with Avery, the two stay close.
"I still love Raj and I want him to do great," Avery said. "I hope he's on that team. He'll still be an Ohio State grad, a former Ohio State athlete who makes that team. I really hope he does a great job at the trials. I've talked to him twice this week already so we still have that closeness and that Ohio State tie."
Rowlands Falls Short
Last week's piece focused on the training of Tommy Rowlands, an OSU assistant coach and former NCAA champion who was one match away from qualifying for the Olympics.
That match, held Sunday night, did not go his way. Longtime rival Steve Mocco, whom Rowlands defeated two months ago to claim the U.S. national title and advance to the Olympic trials final, came back to claim two of three bouts in a best-of-three final to move on the Beijing.
Mocco won the opening bout 1-0, 1-0, winning a takedown in the first period and grabbing a point when Rowlands stepped out of bounds in the second. Rowlands came back in the second match to with a three-point takedown in the first period and an out-of-bounds point against Mocco in the second.
The deciding match went to Mocco, a former University of Iowa grappler. Mocco earned a pushout in the first period to go up 1-0, then took Rowlands down twice in the second to finish the victory.