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The other U.S. team


SYDNEY, Australia - Pierced, tattooed and outspoken, Blaine Wilson is a rebel in a clean-cut sport.

But as the Summer Olympics approach in Sydney and the first big tumbling show is poised to be uncorked this weekend, this leader of the U.S. men's gymnastics team is daring to be different.

Wilson is toning down his off-mat act to lift the Americans onto a medal podium. He's hiding the jewelry, covering up the tattoos and talking about taking on the world.

"We've always been under- dogged," Wilson said yesterday. "We're going to go out there and do our job. We didn't come here to be second-best. If we did, we should sit in the stands. We're here to win."

Overlooked, overshadowed and often overwhelmed, the U.S. men's team that has come to Sydney could provide one of the true surprises of the Olympics.

It's a team with great character and characters, one that may be a break away from breaking through in the medals.

If things go their way, the American men may even have a chance to steal the spotlight from the women.

"Men and women's gymnastics are totally different sports," Wilson said. "I think the men are more exciting. The women are the darlings of the gym."

Does he want to become the darling of the gym?

"Heck, no," Wilson said. "I want to be the dawg."

It's not often that an American gymnast talks as if he's in a football locker room. But this is a different mix of American gymnasts, young and old, quiet and brash, stolid and charismatic.

"They each have a very unique story," head coach Peter Kormann said as he went down a row and introduced his team to the world's media.

There's Wilson, the budding star, who has endured two major shoulder surgeries since the last Olympics and who missed an all- around bronze at the last world championship by .001. "That's moving a toe," Wilson said.

There's John Roethlisberger, 30, a steady veteran and three- time Olympian who Kormann says "is really the heart and soul of our team in leadership, spirit and hard work."

There's Sean Townsend, who has battled a temperature of 105 degrees and on-and-off illness in the last three weeks to get to Sydney.

There are Paul and Morgan Hamm, 17-year-old identical twins Kormann says are "overcoming youth and inexperience."

And there's Steve McCain, who took an African safari after missing out on the 1996 Olympics and who has fought a severely sprained right ankle in the last 10 days to keep a place at Sydney in 2000.

"I did a dismount on the floor and needless to say, I did it bad. Landed on my face," McCain said. "There was no way I was going to travel all the way here and get cut."

But nothing was going to keep him away from Sydney. So yesterday, when he finally entered the Olympic arena for a full-fledged practice in front of thousands, McCain cried.

"I walked in there and I was dumbfounded," he said. "There was just such an Olympic feel to it. Now we know that, yes, the Olympics are going to happen."

First up for the Americans is the team competition, followed by the all-around where Wilson could be a threat, and individual apparatus finals.

"I've never had more of a team unit than these six guys," Kormann said. "They pull for each other."

Wilson may have a reputation as the team's wild one, but the younger gymnasts say he provides a steadying influence.

"All Blaine cares about is the team," said Morgan Hamm. "He tells us what we need to do. He's not like a bad boy - too much."

Wilson doesn't want his image to overshadow his ability. He'll take off all the studs but the one in his tongue since it would require re-piercing if it were out for more than six hours.

"The fact is, I chose to calm down whatever the image I had seemed to be," he said.

Now, he just wants to perform well, and get some medals for his team and himself.

Does he go to bed dreaming of gold?

"You've got to be crazy thinking I dream about a gold medal every night," he said. "That's excessive."

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