Danell Leyva is quite confident on the high bars. When he was five years old, at his very first gymnastics meet, he was so excited to compete that he swung too high and flew right off the apparatus. His coach and step father, Yin Alvarez, grabbed his arm to catch him but Leyva landed on his head. His parents rushed him to the trainer, and Leyva was crying. Not because he was in pain, but because he wanted to finish his routine. Alvarez vetoed that option, but when his back was turned, the five-year-old went to the judges and asked if he could have a do-over. “I’m really good on the high bars,” he told them.
In a come-from-behind finish that saw him move from 19th place to a bronze medal, Leyva proved that he is still really good on the high bars. The event was last in his rotation, and his score of 15.7 launched him from sixth place to the podium. He was helped a bit by the shaky performance of Japan’s Kazuhito Tanaka, who came off the pommel horse and saw his second place standing drop to sixth. Tanaka’s teammate, Kohei Uchimura, who had his pommel horse score upgraded during the men’s team final on Monday, earning the Japanese the silver medal over Great Britain, won the gold medal by 1.659 points over Marcel Nguyen of Germany.
“It feels great, and I’m really really happy, but to be completely honest, I’m not entirely satisfied,” says Leyva of being crowned the third best male gymnast in the world. “Bronze is beautiful but at the same time, the gold medal is my goal.”
And gold was entirely within reach of many of the 24 gymnasts in the North Greenwich Arena. Noticeably absent were the Chinese, who won the event in Beijing in 2008 and dominated the sport at the last Games, claiming seven of the eight medals in gymnastics. The squad had a weak showing during the qualifying round, finishing sixth, behind the US, Russia, Great Britain, Germany and Japan. And because the team is made up of specialists on specific apparatus, which helped them take the Gold in the men’s team competition the other night, China failed to enter any athletes in the all-around competition in which gymnasts perform on all six apparatus.
But since the Beijing Games, as the urgency of a good showing as the host nation waned, Japan has been stepping on to the podium; Uchimura, the new Olympic all-around champion, has won the world championship every year since 2008.
“I have been world champion in the all-around three times in a row, but this is a different feeling,” he says. “The Olympics are only once in four years so I have been waiting for this moment. It’s a dream.”
Great Britain, which had an inspiring silver finish in the team competition, saw their two entrants come in seventh and 13th. The US’s John Orozco, the fourth qualifier for the event, had a disappointing pommel horse routine that set him back to eighth.
“Right now, I don’t want to do anything else but train like crazy,” he says. “All I want to do is another pommel horse routine; I wish I could get another chance to do it right.”
Even Leyva didn’t have a great start to the meet; it was a slow build from his tougher events to his better ones — parallel bars and high bar. After the second rotation on pommel horse, in which he stumbled on his dismount preparation, he was buried in 19th, then jumped to 17thafter a solid routine on the rings. Following a good score on vault, he moved to 11th, then sixth after posting a 15.833 on parallel bars. Good thing he doesn’t keep track of scores – between sets, he buries his head under a towel that he’s had for good luck since 2007 (it’s so ubiquitous that it has its own Twitter account @Leyvastowel. Really.)
“Danny always comes from the bottom to the top,” says Alvarez. “He has done this many, many, many times in his career since he was a little kid. We knew his score on pommel horse was not a great score to win the meet, but we knew if we did everything correctly, we can medal, and we did it.”
Having a medal ride on the last two routines, however, isn’t exactly a stress-reliever. Not only was Leyva counting on a big score on the high bars, he was last to go in the set. “I thought I was going to have a heart attack,” says Alvarez, one of the more colorful characters at this Games (Just watch his reactions to every routine Leyva performs; it doesn’t matter whether they are medal worthy or cringe-inducing, to Alvarez, each one earns a flurry of fist pumps, leaps, and massive hugs for his son.)
The medal is symbolic of the opportunity that Alvarez, who escaped from Cuba, sees in his adopted country. “It’s not about economics, it’s not about a better life,” he says. “It’s about freedom. In the country where I lived, there was no freedom. Anything I have here is better than anything I [had] at home. And this is like a bonus.”
In a way, the podium is a reflection of how far western gymnasts have come in matching first eastern European athletes and now those from Asia. “It’s tradition,” says Alvarez of the ability of eastern countries to continue to produce Olympic champions. “Their athletes train together with Olympians, and sweat together with Olympians, so they see so many Olympic champions and the mental preparation is totally different. Their champions compete so many times, they give the younger team tips. In this country, after every Olympics, they retire and the new generation comes and have no Olympians to talk to.”
To prepare for this Games, however, Alvarez says USA Gymnastics brought in Olympic champions like Paul Hamm and Olympians like Raj Bhavsar to give the team pointers about how to train and what to expect while competing under the Olympic rings. Jonathan Horton, a member of the 2008 squad, also provided support. But the network isn’t as well established as it is in other countries, where training camps and team workouts keep the gymnasts within the lure of the Games. “This team was always talking in training camps to Olympians, and this helps,” he says. “If this continues for the next four years, this is going to be a stronger team.”
The strong finish by the Germans for silver is also a testament to their men’s gymnastics program, which has produced a silver medalist at the last two world championships. “In 2007 Fabian Hambuchen won the silver at the world championships, in 2010 and 2011 Philipp Boy took the silver, and now Marcel wins a medal here. I’m overwhelmed and very happy,” says Andreas Hirsch, coach for the German men.
Having more and more champions, says Alvarez, is the key to building a tradition like that in China and Japan so that more younger gymnasts can feel that an Olympic medal is within their reach. For Leyva, that goal is still gold; “I’m not satisfied,” he says. “I’m going to come back in 2016 look for gold, and in 2020 I’m looking for gold again.” That’s the kind of conviction that can start a gymnastics tradition.