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Leyva refused to give up
This would be different.
“I never lost my hope,” his coach said.
This time, the American gymnast would ensure that the pressure would not best him, that another early stumble would not define his day.
“One thing about all the USA team members is they never give up,” said national team coordinator Kevin Mazeika. “That’s exactly what he did. He never gave up.”
This time, he would not let America — or himself — remain open to the criticism that its men’s gymnastics team was nothing but an over-hyped illusion.
This time, Danell Leyva would ensure a comeback worthy of an Olympic medal.
In a gritty, stirring performance, the 20-year-old from South Florida recovered from an awful pommel-horse routine, bore down and earned the bronze medal in an individual all-around finals Wednesday that came down to a final, exhilarating high-bar routine.
He finished with a score of 90.698. Japan’s Kohei Uchimura earned gold with a 92.690 and Marcel Nguyen took silver with a 91.031 in an event packed to the atom with pressure.
“I don’t think I’ve ever had this much pressure,” Leyva said. “You look around, see those rings, and go, ‘Ooooh.’ ”
Wednesday, when he looked around, he was looking at those rings and feeling that awestruck pressure from inside a giant hole just two rotations into his day. He’d put himself there after another wobbly start, as did John Orozco, the other American in the individual all-around. Orozco stumbled early and then also rebounded to finish a respectable eighth place.
But it was Leyva who had the comeback that changed his life. He started his day with a fine floor routine, scoring a 15.366, but then it was time for the pommel horse.
He was tentative, missed some combos, and by the time he dismounted he knew he was in trouble. He scored a very poor 13.5, exiting that stage in 19th place. Many thought he was already done.
Leyva didn’t look at the score. Yin Alvarez, his coach and stepfather, did. Even then, with Levya so far back, Alvarez still believed he could do it.
“Danell has always been coming from the bottom to the top,” Alvarez said. “He’s done it many, many times in his career since he was a little kid. I think every coach always hopes that you can go up and, even with a mistake, you can finish in the top.”
Leyva kept fighting. He went to the rings, put up a so-so 14.744, and kept his head down, not wanting to know how far back he was. He did not look at the leaderboard. He did not worry. He knew he had two strong events he would finish with. He kept fighting.
On the vault, he thrust himself in the air, stuck the landing and put up a very, very good score: 15.833.
Now it was time for the parallel bars and high bar. He would need to be at his best, his absolutely most precise, to even have a chance.
“I had to relax,” Leyva said. “I kind of used it like a little kick in the butt. A little motivation. Just coming back and relaxing and trying to show off and do the best routines that I knew I could do on parallel bars and high bar. Just have fun with it.”
This was everything. This was the difference between a medal and knowing that what he called “a mess on the pommel horse” would stay with him forever, dooming him to a disappointing finish tagged to another inability to handle the moment.
He went to the parallel bars and was masterful. A 15.833.
Now in striking distance of the podium and needing a mid-15 score on the high bar, Leyva attacked the event. His power, his speed, his technique — he poured everything he had into this one moment.
He turned inward.
“I told myself, ‘Hey man, you do this so many times. I’m going to slap you in the face if you don’t hit this routine the way you know how,’ ” he said. “I listened to myself.”
He laughed. “I didn’t have to slap myself in the face.”
No, he did not. He landed, thrust his arms up, and then the score flashed: 15.7. Incredible. He was now an Olympic bronze medalist.
“I wanted to hit beautifully like I did today but with a stick,” he said. “Either way, I know that I did good. To win an Olympic medal is a dream come true.”
Now the men turn toward the future, and it is bright. Leyva is just 20. Orozco, who put up an 89.331 despite an embarrassing 12.566 on the pommel horse, is just 19.
“To score an 89 in the all-around with a 12 on the pommel horse is unreal,” Mazeika, the team coordinator, said. “I look forward to a lot of great things from John.”
And from Leyva. He is 20, he is motivated, and he has his eyes set on gold.
Asked about Uchimura, who took the gold, Leyva praised his opponent while setting his own bar even higher.
“If I could speak Japanese,” he said, “I’d tell him he’s the best gymnast to ever live.” He paused. “For now.”
You can follow Bill Reiter on Twitter or email him at email@example.com.
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