With scary injury behind him, Danell Leyva vying for Rio spot

Danell Leyva is hoping to return to the Olympics after winning bronze in the all-around four years ago in London. AP Photo/Matthias Schrader

ST. LOUIS -- Gymnast Danell Leyva peeled down the sleeve covering his left calf like a kid showing off the ugly scab on his knee after a wipeout on his bike.

After the requisite "oohs" and "icks," Leyva reassured the grossed-out but highly curious group huddled around his leg after a workout Wednesday for the U.S. Olympic trials that he felt "completely different" than three weeks ago, when he finished 16th in the all-around at the U.S Championships.

"Really solid mentally as well as physically," said the 2012 Olympic bronze medalist in all-around. "I'm just excited, man."

Under the circumstances, feeling solid should in no way be underestimated considering that Leyva's calf was reduced to a gaping hole after he was attacked by two of his family's dogs while breaking up their fight in early May.

Leyva said it immediately went through his mind what was at stake.

"He was biting me and I was like, 'Really, right now? Right now you're doing this?'" he recalled. "[But] I guess it happened at the right moment, to be honest. Any later and it would've been a lot worse."

Astonishingly, it was the second time in four years that an altercation with his dogs put Leyva's gymnastics career in jeopardy. The first time, he needed about 80 stitches to close a wound around his right ear before the 2012 American Cup, another pre-Olympic meet that he won right after having the stitches removed.

The same two American bulldogs were put down after biting him this time. Leyva missed a week and a half of training in May, which cut down his preparation to just two weeks prior to the U.S. Championships.

"For the first four days, I couldn't move my foot at all, and every time I had it lower than my hip, it was pretty massive pain and I needed ibuprofen pretty regularly," he said.

"There's always that lack of confidence in your mind when something happens like this, especially in a sport like this. I was always a little scared to land short and have something, like, pffft."

The wound was not stitched closed, he said, because of the risk of infection. Instead, it was packed with Viscopaste, a zinc gauze that is believed to speed healing. But Leyva said it was not the wound that concerned him.

"These were actual puncture wounds and, more than anything ... I was worried something would tear unexpectedly," he said. "But after I was able to touch my leg, I was kind of like massaging [it] the best I could. But it was scary."

Leyva said he was "pretty happy" with his performance at the U.S. Championships, given the situation. Perhaps happier because he said he is trying to savor the moment more than he did in 2012.

"Coming into [the 2012] trials, it was all about preparation, preparation," he said. "And then when I got here ... I was in complete awe that I was at the Olympic trials. And now I'm here again and I'm like, 'Wow, this is pretty cool.' ...

"I'm enjoying it all. Obviously, I'm going to be very concentrated and prepared for what I want to do. But more than anything, [I want to] just be in the moment."

Leyva said he also "slapped myself" out of the mentality that he had to prove himself. "I was like, 'Dude, enjoy it.' I was just like, 'I don't have to prove anything, actually.' I just have to tell people, 'Hey, watch me.' That's about it."

Leyva's U.S. teammates have been among those watching him as 18 gymnasts prepared to battle this week for the five spots on the Olympic team that will compete in Rio. To them, Leyva's toughness was not surprising.

"I wasn't really too concerned because I knew he could overcome it," said Donnell Whittenburg, another favorite to make the U.S. team. "He's a gymnast, he knows what pain feels like. He just needs to compensate in his own kind of way."

Leyva recalled the doctor's words at the wound care center right after the accident.

"My personal assistant was with me," he said, "and she goes, 'So what can't he do?' And he goes, 'Probably exactly what he wants to do.' But then he said, 'But I know he's an athlete and he's not really going to stop, so the best I can say is to use common sense.'

"Luckily, I don't have any of that."