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Culture

Germany's Gymnast Prodigy

With a strong performance, the German men's gymnastics team surprised the field by qualifying themselves for the team final. Leading the way, a 16-year-old who has begun turning heads in Athens.

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Fabian Hambüchen: a little man with big dreams

Were it not for the muscle-packed arms that make him look like a pint-sized Popeye in Athens on shore-leave, Fabian Hambüchen could pass for a character in one of J.K. Rowling's books.

At 16, Hambüchen is Germany's youngest athlete at these summer Games, part of a men's gymnastics team that was expected to quietly exit the competition ahead of Monday night's team final. Instead, the Germans have improbably made it into tonight's final, largely on the arms of Hambüchen, who punctuated strong performances in four of the competition's six events by pumping his fist into the air.

"We had to celebrate, we were just in too good a mood," Hambüchen told DW-WORLD.

After their combined score flashed on the board, the team let out loud cheers and unfurled a German flag. On it was written "For Ronny" in tribute to their team colleague and German all-around champion Ronny Ziesmer, who was tragically paralyzed at a competition in July, ending his career and Olympic dreams.

Ziesmer would have been proud of the performance of the gymnast most likely to succeed him as Germany's top athlete on the mat.

Hambüchen's score of 9.737 on the high bar, which requires athletes to execute complicated twists and flips as high as 10 feet above the ground, was enough to qualify him for the event finals in that discipline, the only German to qualify. After impressive performances on the bar and floor exercise, he turned to the crowd of Germans seated in the upper bleachers at the Indoor Hall in northern Athens and mugged for the cameras.

"I can't get enough of the Olympics. If I could, I'd like to compete every day," said Hambüchen, who lives in Wetzlar.

The Germans aren't expected to have a chance in tonight's team final, where China, Japan and the United States will dominate the podium spots. But Hambüchen will get to show a world audience what the future of German gymnastics looks like.

Each team sends three of its best gymnasts in each event -- the rings, floor exercise, vault, parallel bars, pommel horse and high bar -- to compete tonight. Hambüchen will likely compete in four events of the six events.

"There's a few areas where he needs to improve," said Peter Vidmar, a member of the US gold-medal winning squad from the 1984 Olympics, who is working as an analyst at these Games. "But if he works on it, he could be one of the next big names."

Not bad for a kid who was competing in the world junior championships just a few months ago. At the tournament, he proved he was on his way by winning gold medals in the vault, high bar and floor exercise, and bronze in the all-around category. The success has infused him with confidence.

"At my age, others are already world champions. I'd definitely like to be an Olympic champion," said Hambüchen.

Maybe that won't happen this time around. But Hambüchen's break-out performance has already earned him one title -- he's German gymnastics' next big thing.