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Tuesday, August 10, 2004 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Olympics

Men's gymnastics: Triumph of good will lures McClure

Seattle Times associate editor

So you wondered what was the legacy of the 1990 Goodwill Games in Seattle, save the swimming and diving pools in Federal Way?

Meet Brett McClure, America's second-ranked men's gymnast, a prime possibility to win a medal in Athens.

"My parents bought tickets to the Goodwill Games, and we decided to go and just check things out," he said. "I was blown away by the gymnasts, their athleticism, the strength they used to hold positions."

Brett McClure was 9 years old. His father, Les, had pushed his three boys in more conventional directions: baseball, soccer and wrestling.

After a night on the town at the Goodwill Games, Brett, the youngest, started doing flips in the backyard, and — with pillows softening the landing — off the stairs leading to the bedrooms of their Mill Creek home.

"My dad told me if I could do 10 pushups from a handstand position against the wall, he would let me take a gymnastics class," McClure said. "I started to excel right away."

At the Olympic trials for men's gymnastics last month, McClure won the pommel horse — his best individual event — and, after placing second in the all-around competition to Paul Hamm, was given an automatic spot on the U.S. team. At nationals three weeks before the trials, he won titles in the pommel horse and the parallel bars.

In Athens, McClure will compete in the pommel horse, the parallel bars and the high bar. He may also be in the vault and will surely compete in the six-event all-around competition.

The Americans haven't won a team medal in men's gymnastics since the 1984 Games in Los Angeles, when the Soviets and their friends stayed home.

But at the 2001 world championships, they won a silver medal in the team competition and believe they can challenge the sports leader — China — for medals in Athens.

"Paul Hamm won the all-around at the American Cup last year," McClure said. "We can give China a run for its money.

China is the dominant force in gymnastics, especially after the breakup of the Soviet Union. They pick kids out for gymnastics when they are 3 years old. It is like competing against little machines.

"But our work ethic has improved tremendously," McClure said. "We are hungry. Maybe the judges will see that in our creativity."

McClure, 23, has lived in Colorado Springs near the national training center since he was 16.

"I figure I missed a few school dances," he said of his abbreviated childhood, "but I've traveled all over the world and seen and learned so much, I'm happy with the decisions I've made."

He spent two years at Jackson High School, then finished up a year early via an international high school in Woodinville. Now, he's taking classes at a junior college in Colorado Springs, and plans to get married next February to Jaycie Phelps, a gold-medal winner in the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta. Phelps coaches gymnastics in Colorado Springs.

McClure sees no reason why he can't compete for another four years, although he said he will take it one year at a time. He is astonishingly strong. But then, he has always been strong.

Once he identified gymnastics as his sport of choice, his father brought home a pommel horse gleaned from a high school that had dropped its gymnastics program.

He also ordered a set of rings to attach to the ceiling.

"There wasn't room to swing them or do anything like an iron cross without hitting your head on the ceiling," said McClure, "but I gained strength just holding positions."

McClure moved into the national picture in 1999 and seemed to have a shot to make the team to Sydney in 2000.

"I'd trained with the members of that team," he said, "but I really didn't believe I was as good as they were. And that was the problem.

"At the trials, I fell I don't know how many times. I'd lost my confidence. I was scared. I can remember looking at the exit sign in the arena and wishing I could just leave."

Symbolically, it was at the 2001 Goodwill Games in Brisbane, Australia, that McClure broke through as an international-caliber gymnast, winning a bronze medal in the pommel horse.

"Ironically, those were the last Goodwill Games," McClure said. "But for me they were once again the start of something."

Blaine Newnham: 206-464-2364 or bnewnham@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2004 The Seattle Times Company

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