Patricia and Ron Golden needed something to occupy their youngest child, a 4-year-old boy whose frenetic energy was taking its toll on their furniture and their patience.

"Sean used to flip down the stairs backward, like a Slinky," said Ron Golden, a retired juvenile detective with the Camden Police Department and now a federal court security officer.

So Sean Golden, who would graduate from Camden High School with Dajuan Wagner, a phenom in basketball, tried that sport. Then he tried bowling. And ice skating. And T-ball.

"T-Ball," Golden, 24, said recently, shaking his head and smiling at the memory. "You don't put a kid like me out in the outfield. Too much energy. I mean, I was picking the grass, doing cartwheels. My team didn't win very often."

The Goldens rejected suggestions that their son try Adderall, a drug frequently prescribed for hyperactivity. Finally, they discovered gymnastics.

Sean took to the sport so well that now, two decades later, he is one of America's leading male gymnasts, the U.S. champion the last two years in the vault, the 2005 champ on the rings, and a member of the American men's team that finished fourth at the recent world championships in Stuttgart, Germany.

Golden moved to Houston three years ago to train with 2004 Olympic coach Kevin Mazeika. And though he has had a successful career, he has reserved any celebratory somersaults.

Those won't happen until he has made the U.S. Olympic team, a dream that Golden can realize in June when the team trials take place at the Wachovia Center.

For some people, having the trials so close to home "would put on a little more pressure," Golden said while stretching before a recent practice session at Temple. "But it just makes me feel really comfortable. I'm an all-or-nothing guy. I just want to go into the trials knowing I've put my heart and soul into it, and can't ask any more of myself.

"Some people hold back a little bit. It only happens every four years, and some people feel like they cannot deal with the failure. They just want to hold back so they have an excuse. I want to put it all out on the line. That's what I did when I made the world team, and that's what I'll do at the trials."

The 5-foot-5, 150-pound gymnast is an anomaly in the sport, an African American from the inner city. His hope is that his ascent will serve as a pathway to gymnastics for other African Americans, the way Tiger Woods' success has in golf.

"Sean is a great athlete with a tremendous story to tell," said Shannon Miller, the seven-time Olympic medalist who hosts a gymnastics show for Comcast. "He's fun to watch, and he can be an inspiration to so many."

Golden admitted that he felt odd - unique was the word he used - taking gymnastics when all the other youngsters in his Camden neighborhood were running track or playing basketball and football.

"But that wasn't going to stop me in any way, shape or form," he said.

Training at first in Mount Laurel, he had an ordinary early career.

"My attention wasn't always there," he said, "but my passion was."

It wasn't until 1999, when he moved to Macey Watson's training facility in Feasterville, Bucks County, that he made the big leap. And he credits the instruction there for his doing so.

He recalled: "Coach said, 'If you want to be good, I can make you good. But you're really going to have to work hard.' I remember at summer camp, we'd go from 9 to 9. There'd be a two-hour break. I only took a half-hour. I'd eat and go back to the gym. It wasn't always by choice. But that one year, my all-around score jumped by 10 points. That's when I realized I could do something special."

He left Camden, his parents and five siblings in 2004 for Mazeika's academy. A friend in the sport, Philadelphia's Taqiy Muhammad, was already there.

Golden's training regimen intensified. Soon he was concentrating on just three events: the vault, rings and floor exercise. By 2005, he was the national champion in the first two.

Gymnastics is a sport geared to all-around performers. In simple terms, international competitions have been conducted using the 6-5-4 system - six team members, five of whom compete in each event, with the top four scores counting.

Though 6-5-4 will remain in effect for the preliminary rounds at the 2008 Olympics in Beijing, the finals will be 6-3-3. That means every performance in the finals will count, a development that could make specialists such as Golden more valuable.

"You absolutely can't have a weak link," Miller said, "and that's where people like Sean Golden come in. He's so strong in those three events that he can really help the U.S. team."

The U.S. men traditionally have opted for all-around gymnasts, but several other nations, including the reigning world champion, China, have never been afraid to carry more specialized gymnasts.

"We've been competing against some teams around the world that only use specialists," Miller said. "Some don't even bother competing [using] all-arounders. Getting the right mix is going to make it very difficult" for the Olympic selection committee.

The Americans' philosophy seemed to change when the scoring format did. With more specialists, the U.S. men jumped from 13th place in 2006 - a finish that wouldn't have qualified them for the Olympics - to a surprising fourth last summer.

"Last year, we focused too much on the 6-5-4, which got us into the finals but didn't help us once we were there," Golden said. "This year, they took more of a risk, and we benefited."

Contact staff writer Frank Fitzpatrick at 215-854-5068 or ffitzpatrick@phillynews.com.