LONDON -- The first thing Danell Leyva noticed about the medal around his neck was how heavy it was -- three-dimensional, with heft, instead of the flat, shiny disk that has hovered behind his closed eyelids since he was a little boy.
He gazed down at it for a few seconds, looked back up and exhaled, puffing out his cheeks, then stood at attention while the Japanese national anthem was played for Kohei Uchimura, one of the best gymnasts who has ever lived. As Leyva stepped down and walked away, he took the medal in one hand and began to study it: the Roman numerals, the letters spelling out Olympiad, the abstract image of the host city. Charging out of the center is what Leyva called an angel but is actually the winged figure of the Greek goddess of victory.
Watching the powerful Leyva soar around the high bar as if gravity were a mere distraction could lead one to believe that a guardian spirit was keeping him aloft. In fact, his ease in the air is the product of thousands of dogged repetitions, and an inner conviction that enables him to let go and never doubt he'll find his grip again.
He is grounded in that belief. What Leyva and his parents, both Cuban defectors, have experienced is far more challenging than whittling away at a scoring deficit the way he did Wednesday to reach the podium. But Leyva clearly views his accomplishment as a waystation on that odyssey rather than a culmination of anything. Moments removed from the medal ceremony, he said he was "very happy but not satisfied," and already looking ahead to competing in the 2016 Rio Games.
Leyva competes in a sport decided by fractions, but at age 20, he has already lived an epic life. His mother spirited him and his half-sister to Florida when he was 2 years old, a chubby toddler with warm brown eyes who suffered from frightening asthma attacks. Maria Gonzalez gravitated into the arms of another former gymnast, Yin Alvarez, who saw a boy who loved to please people and sensed he might go to great lengths to do that.
He was right. Leyva doesn't have the ideal body type for a gymnast -- for that, look no further than the compact yet ethereal form of the 23-year-old Uchimura, a triple world champion who dances through routines that are a forced march for other men. Leyva is big-boned and lanky and still growing, which makes certain events such as the pommel horse and the still rings challenging. Fortunately for him, his events tracked roughly from weakest to strongest Wednesday, allowing him to finish with the theatrical high bar routine that meshes so well with his performer's personality.
Leyva rebounded well from the letdown the young U.S. men suffered a couple of days ago when they went into the team event as top qualifiers only to succumb to nerves and slip to fifth. He didn't do it the easy way. Leyva opened with a strong performance on floor exercise -- outscoring Uchimura and silver medalist Marcel Nguyen of Germany -- but an error on his pommel horse dismount and a set on rings that was only passable dropped him into 17th place and the lower half of the 24-man field, leaving little margin for error halfway through the competition.
Fans have become accustomed to seeing Leyva drape his lucky blue towel -- which now has its own Twitter account with nearly a thousand followers -- over his head to shut out the world during a competition. Even without that visual screen, he has trained himself not to dwell on scores and do math on the fly; obsessing only increases the chance that a small error will trigger a downward spiral.
Leyva put up a big score of 15.833 -- once again higher than Uchimura's -- on the parallel bars. It's the event in which he is reigning world champion but missed qualifying for the individual event championships here in London, a casualty of the collective U.S. meltdown in the team finals. That put him within a point of bronze medal position. Leyva caked his hands with chalk, received the customary kiss on the head from Alvarez and stood ramrod straight yet relaxed as his stepfather lifted him to the high bar.
The better angels of his nature -- not to mention his rigorous discipline -- took over from there. His score of 15.700 in that pressure cooker was earned in
as thrilling a routine as he has ever done and represented the opposite end of the spectrum in every way from his spectacular fall off the apparatus at the world championships last year.
If they stay healthy, Leyva and his year-younger teammate John Orozco -- whose innate talent shone through even as he was undone by inexperience -- will be in the precise prime of their careers at the next Summer Games. Leyva said he hopes Uchimura is still in the sport four years hence and told him so. There are incremental improvements Leyva needs to make, both physical and intangible, to be the best in the sport, but only sustained excellence and style will give him a champion's aura.
"If we knew, we'd all be on his level," Leyva said when asked to describe the elements of Uchimura's mystique. "I like that he's up there. That's what I need to go for."