Danell Leyva watched highlights of the 1996 U.S. Olympic Gymnastics Trials in his hotel room Friday, the night before he competed in the final round of Saturday’s trials.
A tape of the 1996 men’s meet was what piqued Leyva’s interest in the sport when he was a chubby little boy who didn’t know the difference between a pommel horse and a real one.
“As I sat there watching, my childhood came back, and I thought, ‘I wish I was there,’ just like I had as a kid,” Leyva said. “And then it hit me, ‘Oh! Here I am.’ ”
Here he is, the 2012 trials champion, a Cuban-born, Miami-raised athlete who will lead the best U.S. men’s team in years to the London Olympics.
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“It’s very unbelievable,” Leyva said of his victory over John Orozco by .05 points in the last round and by a total of .95 points in four rounds of competition that included June’s national Visa Championships, won by Orozco.
Leyva’s stepfather and coach, Yin Alvarez, reacted with even more joy than Leyva, which is typical of the hyper-demonstrative Alvarez. He did his usual clap-clap, clap-clap-clap sequence before each of the six events. He jumped up and down. From his vantage point on the floor, he moved along with Leyva’s movements — extending an arm, pointing a toe.
After Leyva’s final landing, off the parallel bars, Alvarez bowed to him, and Leyva lifted his stepdad in a bear hug. It was a victory for the entire family. Alvarez and Leyva’s mother, Maria Alvarez, were gymnasts on Cuba’s national team. They defected to Miami 17 years ago. Alvarez scraped together enough money to open a gym, which grew into Universal Gymnastics in Kendall, home of a new Olympian.
“This is big because I wanted to be an Olympian myself,” Alvarez said. “Danell represents all Cubans who came to America and made a new life and are proud to be Americans.”
Leyva, 20, wowed the HP Pavilion crowd with his spectacular high bar routine, which launches him toward the rafters and is peppered with intricate releases that provoke gasps. It’s a showstopper. The 7.2 degree of difficulty is the highest among U.S. men. Leyva opened with a score of 16.30 that held up as the highest for the afternoon.
On his second routine, floor exercise, Leyva made an error that caught him off-guard because it occurred on a very elementary hand press.
“I pressed up too quick and was trying to fight it,” he said. “I fell on my butt. I was like, ‘Oh, come on,’ but then I forgot about it and moved on.”
He scored 14.45 points to Orozco’s 15.20.
Leyva’s next apparatus — pommel horse — is his weakest and the weakest for the U.S. team. He scored a 14.90 to Orozco’s 14.95.
Leyva lost his lead on rings but made up ground with a solid routine on vault, which Alvarez downgraded to an easier level to conserve energy for the last rotation.
On parallel bars, Leyva recorded the highest score of the day (15.85) but only by dint of quick thinking. He made a slight error early and improvised the rest of the routine, mixing up the order of skills while Alvarez watched in puzzlement.
“He changed the whole routine,” Alvarez said. “I was thinking, ‘Oh, my God. When will this be over?’ ”
Leyva, the 2011 world champion in P bars, made it look effortless and stuck his landing. He and Orozco finished 1-2, a reversal of last month’s result.
Orozco is from the Bronx, a son of Puerto Rican parents. He and Leyva have embarked on a rivalry that could be very good for the men’s side of gymnastics, often overshadowed by the women even though the men’s feats and personalities are just as engaging — or more so — than the women’s.
“I couldn’t believe it,” Orozco said of his reaction after his last dismount.
He, too, had a slight bobble on bars and had to ad-lib. “I felt like I wasn’t done; I was looking to do more. Then I put my warmups on, and I realized it’s over. Me and Danell. Danell and I. We’ve been competing since we were 9.”
A tear ran down Orozco’s cheek. Leyva and his parents embraced in a group hug.
“I’m so proud and grateful,” Maria Alvarez said. “The USA opened the doors for us, gave us an opportunity, and now we are representing the USA at the Olympics.”
While Leyva and Orozco were introduced to spectators as the first two members of the five-man team, the other gymnasts must wait until Sunday, before the women’s final, to hear whether they’re in or out.
Former No. 1 and Beijing double medalist Jonathan Horton placed third, followed by Chris Brooks and Jake Dalton. But Sam Mikulak, who had been third after three rounds, sprained his ankle Thursday and could only perform on pommel horse Saturday. He has a strong chance to make the team.
Leyva was relieved to lock up his ticket to London.
“I hope this has a huge impact for the U.S. and the Latin community,” he said.
And then he flashed his confidence.
“After our team wins gold, I want to win the all-around gold.”