INDIANAPOLIS (AP) – Olympic silver medalist Blaine Wilson’s voice caught and shook, and tears filled his eyes.

He’s been the poster boy for grit and determination for more than a decade, enduring injuries that should have ended his career, seven operations and long separations from his wife and daughter, all in a quest to put U.S. men’s gymnastics back on the podium. When it was finally time to say goodbye, though, his trademark toughness dissolved.

“This moment was coming. It’s kind of tough,” he said Tuesday, his voice breaking. “All I have to say is thanks.”

Wilson, who turned 31 last Wednesday, had initially planned to compete at this week’s U.S. Gymnastics Championships before retiring. But his latest surgery, to remove some bone in his left shoulder because of arthritis, had altered the joint.

When he had trouble lifting his arm after intense training a few weeks ago, Wilson realized it was time to go.

“There’s no getting around it, I’m getting old,” he said, drawing laughter. “I want to stay at the top of the game. If I don’t have it, I’m not doing it. Walking off the podium in 2004 with my teammates was enough for me.”

Wilson won five straight national titles from 1996 to 2000, and carried the Americans in international competition for most of the late 90s.

The U.S. team had talent, but it didn’t have the depth or the tough tricks to stand up to the Eastern Europeans or Chinese. The Americans were fifth at both the 1996 and 2000 Olympics, and it often was a fight simply to make it to team finals at the world championships.

But Wilson could swing with the best of them, missing the bronze medal at the 1999 world championships by a mere 0.001 points.

“Especially 1996 to 2000 … if we didn’t have Blaine, we would have been in a really tough spot,” said John Roethlisberger, Wilson’s teammate on the 1996 and 2000 Olympic teams. “He added so many points to our team.”

He also gave the Americans an edge. With a pierced tongue and tattoos scattered across his body, Wilson added some spice to a staid sport that once included rope climbing. He could talk trash with the best of them, and no one was better at firing up his teammates.

“He was such an intense competitor, and I think that motivated a lot of us,” said Jason Gatson, one of Wilson’s teammates in Athens. “His intensity I think made us all compete better and made better gymnasts out of all of us.”

Many thought Wilson might retire after Sydney. Most of his peers had moved on, and Wilson had married and had a daughter. But he knew the Americans were getting better, so he stuck around in hopes of finally winning a world and Olympic medal.

“That was the biggest thing, watching other countries come in and beat us, and I would think, “I know we’re just as good as they are,”‘ Wilson said.

Wilson helped the U.S. team win its second straight silver at the 2003 world championships, and it seemed a good bet that he’d add an Olympic medal in Athens. But in February 2004, less than six months before the Olympics began, Wilson tore his left biceps completely off the bone.

“So many people – and I can understand why – counted him out,” said Miles Avery, Wilson’s longtime coach. “The heart and toughness of that young man would not be denied.”

Wilson made the Olympic team, and helped the American men win the silver, their first team medal in 20 years.

“To see him get an Olympic medal, it certainly brought tears to my eyes knowing his road had been so difficult,” Avery said.

But it wasn’t the medal so much as standing on the podium, Wilson said.

“It’s very difficult for me to explain it,” he said. “But the fact you’ve beat other countries that beat you in the past. It felt good.”

Wilson plans to move to California, where his wife, Makare Desilets, is a beach volleyball player with her own Olympic aspirations. He’s eager to spend more time with her and his daughter, who is now 21/2, and plans to get into coaching.

Though he’s come back after saying before he planned to retire, Wilson promised that this really is it. The tears proved it.

“I’m ready to be done,” he said. “I wouldn’t look back at anything and say I would have done it differently.”

AP-ES-08-09-05 1956EDT


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