Back From Injury, Wilson Looking To Regain U.S. Title

By NANCY ARMOUR, AP Sports Writer

CLEVELAND (AP) - Blaine Wilson has no interest in "aging gracefully."

Sure, he turned 28 last weekend, making him practically a senior citizen in gymnastics. And so what if he missed the last year with a shoulder injury, watching from afar as the U.S. kiddie corps made history with a silver medal at the world championships.

If the youngsters think they're going to push him off the mat at this week's U.S. Gymnastics Championships, well, just let them try.

"I don't think I've quite accepted the 'granddaddy' role yet," the five-time national champion said, laughing. "I still think of myself as part of the younger crowd."

Until last year, Wilson was without question the best male gymnast the United States had. He'd won five national titles in a row, not losing a major meet in the United States since the 1996 Olympic trials. He came within .001 points of a bronze medal at the 1999 world championships.

When he won his fifth U.S. title in 2000, he finished 1.7 points ahead of the second-place finisher. Just how big a victory is that? Think Florida State beating up on some non-conference patsy.

And with his tattoos and pierced tongue, Wilson gave the U.S. men some sorely needed star power.

But when he tore his rotator cuff in June 2001, knocking him out of both nationals and worlds, a funny thing happened. The youngsters who'd been following Wilson's lead wasted no time grabbing the spotlight he'd practically owned.

Sean Townsend won the national title and a gold medal on the parallel bars at worlds. Paul Hamm challenged for an all-around medal at worlds, and has since beaten the gold, silver and bronze medalists.

"You can see it in a lot of guys' faces. They want to win, and they want it bad," Wilson said.

But so does Wilson. He wouldn't be here otherwise, pushing himself day after day in the gym with his eye on the 2003 worlds in Anaheim, Calif., and the 2004 Athens Olympics.

And make no mistake, the Columbus, Ohio, native isn't just putting on a show for the dozens of family and friends making the trip to Gund Arena. He wants that sixth U.S. title.

"My thinking hasn't changed," he said. "If you go into a meet, you want to win it."

He's already let the young guys know he means business, putting on a show at the national team training camps. In his first meet in more than a year, he easily won the U.S. Men's Qualifier in June, finishing more than a point ahead.

He also won the still rings and parallel bars events.

"It's going to be intense this year," said Stacy Maloney, Paul and Morgan Hamm's coach. "Blaine is trying to hold onto his kingdom, and Sean is the defending champion. And, of course, they both have to look out for Paul.

"So I think it's going to be quite a dogfight."

Which suits Wilson just fine.

"Competing for me is like riding a bike," he said. "You never forget how to do it."

(Copyright 2002 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)