Leyva rallies for bronze in men's all-around

Updated: August 1, 2012, 6:09 PM ET
Associated Press

LONDON -- Olympic medal on the line, Danell Leyva tried to find his center.

Somewhere inside O2 Arena, his mother, Maria Gonzalez, knew he wouldn't have to look too far. Her boy enjoys being main attraction. Always has.

"He loves the show," Gonzalez said.

Leyva certainly knows how to put one on.

The flashy 20-year-old shook off the jitters to deliver a rollicking high bar routine Wednesday night to rally for a bronze medal in the men's gymnastics all-around final. Leyva's score of 90.698 was just enough earn the first U.S. men's medal in the all-around since Paul Hamm grabbed gold in Athens eight years ago.

When Leyva's feet smacked the mat with a thud after drilling his dismount, he exploded into the arms of stepfather and coach Yin Alvarez, capping a dazzling comeback in which Leyva showcased the talents -- not to mention the dramatic flair -- that solidified his position as the best U.S. gymnast of his generation.

"I knew I had to stick that routine to get a medal," Leyva said.

And salvage what had been a disappointing meet for the American men, who won the team qualifying last weekend but stumbled to fifth in the finals.

Leyva accepted the lion's share of the blame after slipping off the pommel horse, sending any hope the U.S. had of contending for Olympic gold along with it.

He appeared headed for the same fate 48 hours later in the individual all-around, after a steady pommel routine nearly came undone when his legs stalled just before the dismount.

Frustrated, Leyva stewed under his lucky blue towel while the judges weighed the penalty.

"I was like, 'Grrrrr," Leyva said with a laugh. "I just tried to use it and channel it into positive energy."

He did it by violating one of Alvarez's sacred rules.

Leyva never glances at the scoreboard during a meet, instead trying to focus on the next event. Alvarez figures it's the best way to keep his star pupil from getting distracted.

"I told him, 'the judges were nice to you," Alvarez said.

They weren't.

The paltry 13.5 Leyva received put him in a seemingly inescapable hole. And Leyva knew it, admitting he "cheated" by sneaking a peek at the standings before heading to still rings.

"I knew I really needed to get to work," he said. "But you know, I believe I can win every meet. Even if I get the worst score out there on an event, I believe I can make it up."

It's that kind of confidence that's made the gifted Leyva the standard bearer for the U.S. men's program. Though he lacks teammate John Orozco's intensity, captain Jon Horton's experience and Sam Mikulak's natural ability, Leyva makes up for it in pure belief.

Leyva may be the only gymnast on the planet who wants gold medal winner Kohei Uchimura of Japan to return to Rio de Janeiro in 2016.

"I want to beat him," Leyva said. "His gymnastics is just so beautiful. I stay to watch him and you're just like 'Wow' and I mean I'm working toward that."

He might be further down the road than anybody outside of his family thought. While Orozco never got back into contention while finishing eighth, Leyva slowly worked his way through the standings. A so-so rings routine and a safe vault moved Leyva into the top half of the 24-man field.

Suddenly, everything was going to plan.

Leyva is the world champion on the parallel bars, where his showmanship shines through as he fearlessly attacks the apparatus like a child on the playground monkey bars.

A 15.833, tied with silver medalist Marcel Nguyen for the best of the night, left him sixth with one rotation to go.

Alvarez and Leyva had talked about this scenario at length when the start list for the finals was released.

Leyva went last on high bar during the team finals, the thought being his high-risk, high-reward set would make the difference.

All it did was help the Americans salvage a bit of pride.

Leyva and the rest of his teammates spent the next 48 hours trying to regroup, getting a bit of a boost when they watched the U.S. women win gold in style Tuesday night.

Watching his good friends celebrate atop the podium, Leyva got choked up.

"They were awesome," he said.

Leyva wasn't too bad himself with a medal on the line. He chalked his hands, shared a quick word with Alvarez -- who is equal parts mentor and cheerleader during competition -- then waited for the green light that tells the gymnasts to get going to come on.

And waited. And waited.

Suddenly, Leyva flashed back to the drill his stepfather would put him through during countless training sessions in the cramped, crowded Miami gym Alvarez established after fleeing Cuba more than 20 years ago.

Sometimes, Alvarez would rush Leyva onto the bar. Sometimes he would make Leyva stand for minutes on end before giving him the go-ahead.

Maybe that's why it felt so familiar on Wednesday night. Well, almost.

"It wasn't too much waiting as far as that goes," Leyva said. "But as far as pressure goes, it was a big difference."

Funny, the result wasn't.

Thriving under the pressure -- and the stage -- he so desperately craves, Leyva earned the first Olympic medal of his career with flair and grace.

"This was definitely a redemption not only for me but for the whole Team USA," Leyva said.

And more could be on the way. Leyva is in the high bar finals next week, though he's already pointing toward the future.

Alvarez said Leyva is always talking about winning the Olympidcs.

"I try to keep him thinking that it's possible," he said, "I don't want to tell him Uchimura is super better than you. Everything he believes in, he does."

Copyright 2012 by The Associated Press

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