Depth of talent adds drama to men's trials

SAN JOSE, Calif. -- Danell Leyva's coach and stepfather Yin Alvarez said a quick prayer, crossed himself, kissed the cross around his neck and lifted his son up to the high bar.

Then, Leyva electrified the crowd at the U.S. Olympic gymnastics trials with the best high bar routine of the night. Minutes later, national champion John Orozco nailed his own set with the same highly difficult, full-twisting reverse Hecht release move as Leyva and stuck his dismount.

It was a fitting finale for the duo, ranked first and second overall after one night of Olympic trials competition combined with two days' worth of scores from U.S. nationals earlier this month. Orozco, 19, and Leyva, 20, have been pushing each other all year and will be expected to lead the team in London. The top two overall gymnasts will receive guaranteed berths on the five-man team, as long as they place within the top three on at least three events, as well. As long as there aren't any major injuries or meltdowns, those two athletes will be Orozco and Leyva.

Leyva looked especially on fire, earning the top scores on parallel bars and high bar, and the second highest on pommel horse, not usually his strong suit. Finishing second to Orozco at nationals hadn't sat well with him, and he used it as fuel the past few weeks in training.

"I'd go up to take a turn, and remember I was second and say, 'Do this routine cleaner.'"

Afterward, he gave his first round of trials a high mark. "As far as what I was expecting from today, it's a 10. I don't want it to be perfect, which is exactly what I did. I want to be perfect in London."

Orozco had hoped to do a bit better on Day 1. After a solid showing on floor, he struggled on his pommel horse dismount and then sat down his vault. He rallied with strong routines on parallel bars and high bar, but even then, he barely cracked a smile.

"I'm not satisfied with my performance at all. I can improve a lot on those two events," he said at the end of the day. Orozco is .95 behind Leyva going into the final day of competition Sunday -- a difference worth noting since Orozco was penalized 1.00 for his vault fall. Erase the error, and the two are almost in a dead heat.

The surprise of the competition was Sam Mikulak, a University of Michigan gymnast who finished third behind Orozco and Leyva at nationals, but topped them both in Thursday's scores. Mikulak is strong on pommel horse, an event where the U.S. team is weak, and throws a much harder vault -- a Kasamatsu double that includes three twists off the table -- than either Orozco or Leyva.

As the men left the arena after the meet, a teammate turned to Mikulak and asked him, "You know you won today, right?"

Mikulak's confused look in response said it all. Though he might not have expected to do so well, he'll be a no-brainer pick for the selection committee if he has another consistent day Sunday.

Jonathan Horton, the only 2008 veteran at trials, is fourth. He's one of the country's best on rings, and excelled Thursday with the second-highest score of the day behind ring specialist Brandon Wynn. Though he's an Olympic silver medalist on high bar, Horton missed his first and biggest release move (a full-twisting double layout over the bar), before re-mounting and successfully throwing two other nearly as difficult release moves. Still recovering from foot surgery late last year, he's likely to clinch the fourth spot on the team.

The fifth member could well be a specialist like Jake Dalton or Steven Legendre. The training partners have the same strengths -- vault and floor -- and may be competing for the same place on the Olympic team. Dalton is first overall on both events, with Legendre second on floor and third on vault.

Legendre had a terrible competition at U.S. nationals, though, and is still climbing his way up the standings after severe cramping in his forearms hindered his performance there. He has been downing Gatorades and eating bananas on the sidelines in San Jose, and had the highest score of anyone on his vault, a handspring double front with a half twist, named after Romanian world vault champion Marian Dragulescu.

"I just wanted to go out there and do what I know I'm capable of, and I didn't feel like I did that [at nationals] in St. Louis, so I guess it was a little bit of redemption today," he said.

While the stars of the team are clearly Orozco and Leyva, the team's depth of talent is such that even Leyva insists he doesn't feel his spot is secure.

"To be completely honest, I don't think anyone is a lock at this time," he insisted. "Especially this team, this year. All the guys are so close together in performance, it's amazing. Whoever they pick for this team is going to be out of this world."