Cuban-American gymnast Danell Leyva sets sights on more Olympic medals
When Danell Leyva stuck his landing after a high-flying horizontal bar routine, his ebullient coach and stepfather Yin Alvarez clapped madly and yelled his trademark exclamation, “Yessoo!” which is a combination of “Yes” in English and Eso in Spanish.
Leyva’s chances of making a second Olympic team and pursuing a second Olympic medal looked good at that point of the U.S. Olympic Trials on Saturday night.
But it was not to be. Miami’s Leyva was left off the five-man team going to the Rio Games by the USA Gymnastics selection committee.
He was edged out by John Orozco, Chris Brooks and Alex Naddour, who had a higher combination of four scores from the U.S. championships and trials than Leyva, who competed with injuries at the national meet after being bitten on his hands and left leg while trying to break up a fight between his American bulldogs. Four-time national champion Sam Mikulak and Jake Dalton made the Olympic team with no debate.
Leyva finished 10th overall at trials and 16th at nationals earlier this month. He tied with one other gymnast for the highest score on parallel bars and horizontal bar and was confident he would be chosen on the strength of those routines and his record of accomplishment.
But the five-man committee surprised many by not choosing Leyva, 24, who has a reputation as a clutch athlete. The bigger the stage, the better he loves to perform.
“We don’t know the reason and we’re a little sad, but they are making a big mistake,” Alvarez said. “Dani is obviously the only guy who can bring them a medal under pressure. Without him, how are they going to win a team or all-around medal?”
The U.S. men placed a disappointing fifth at the 2012 London Olympics. In a dramatic rally in the all-around competition, Leyva came from behind and finished with a spectacular horizontal bar routine to capture the bronze medal, only the third American man to make the Olympic podium in all-around.
He’s known for his difficult, innovative bar routines. He won the 2011 world championship and 2014 silver on parallel bars and silver on horizontal bar in 2015.
But Leyva’s resume was not enough to convince the selection committee. He was on the bubble with a half dozen other gymnasts on a deep national team and his poor scores at nationals doomed him.
“Danell did his job here; the problem for him was how he did in Hartford [at nationals],” said Dennis McIntyre, vice president of the U.S. men’s program. “Over the course of four days at both meets, Brooks hit 24 of 24 routines and got better.”
Brooks also had the highest total score on parallel bars and horizontal bar. Orozco scored higher than Leyva at trials on still rings, horizontal bar and pommel horse. Naddour tied with Mikulak for first on horse, which has not been a stellar apparatus for the U.S. The committee was impressed by Orozco’s grit – he bumped up his degree of difficulty for trials – and Naddour’s consistency.
“It was splitting hairs and we left a lot of good, experienced athletes on the floor,” said national program coordinator Kevin Mazeika. “In the end, the numbers from both competitions spoke for themselves.”
Choosing the Olympic gymnastics teams requires the selection committees to think strategically about specialization and weigh athletes’ strengths and weaknesses on each apparatus. Because of the three-up, three-count format at the Olympics, it’s not necessary to have five strong all-arounders.
Orozco, who tore his Achilles tendon for the second time last year and lost his mother this year after she died of complications from knee surgery, was emotional after the announcement.
“I know she’s looking down on me, so proud. If you can hear me mom, I love you,” he said.
Mazeika, who had to deliver the news to the 18 gymnasts waiting together in a room at Chaifetz Arena, shed tears, too.
“We had a lot of scenarios laid out and we let it unfold,” he said. “It’s a paradox of feelings. I’m happy for the guys who made it and sad for those who didn’t. This is the culmination of so many years of work. It’s heartbreaking they can’t all go to Rio.”
Leyva and Alvarez were disappointed. Leyva decided to compete at nationals even though he was hurt and could have requested an injury petition waiver to trials.
“It’s not that easy to petition, and give him credit for giving his all,” Mazeika said. “But once you’re on the field of play and raise your hand – every one of these guys is injured.”
NBC commentator Tim Daggett said Leyva should have been selected.
“Because he was injured prior to nationals, I think they should give him a little bit of slack,” Daggett said.
Leyva was selected as one of three replacement athletes. That means he will train and travel with the team, and if anyone withdraws, he would have a chance of replacing them.
"It's bittersweet," he said.
In 2008, two replacement athletes wound up competing after Paul and Morgan Hamm withdrew with injuries.
Leyva was in sixth place after three rotations on vault, still rings and pommel horse, not his best events, yet he demonstrated significant improvement on horse.
He then scored 15.6 on parallel bars and moved up to fifth place. It wasn’t his sharpest routine – his handstands looked rushed -- but he nailed the landing. He thumped his chest and embraced Alvarez.
“I believe the judges have been overly harsh on Danell at trials,” Daggett said. “The deductions they’re taking, they don’t do that internationally.”
Leyva was more impressive on the horizontal bar. His height, smooth lines and tricky releases earned him a 15.675 on a routine with the highest degree of difficulty – 17.3.
“That routine at the Olympics would make the finals,” Daggett said.
Leyva flashed a fierce glare after his dismount and moved up to third place with one event to go.
Before starting his floor exercise, Leyva smiled. It’s unlikely he would have competed in floor at the Olympics because it’s not among his best events. But he wanted to show the committee he’s developed a reliable routine. Fortunately, they were not watching, because they understood Leyva is not a factor on floor. He made a couple bobbles, then stepped out on his final landing to score 14.25.
Alvarez punched the air excitedly even though Leyva dropped to 10th. He was subdued after the team was announced.
“It’s something we have to accept in this sport,” Alvarez said of the subjective decision-making. He and Leyva’s mother were gymnasts in Cuba – where Leyva was born -- before they defected. “We wish the best for our team. I told Dani he’s already a world champion and Olympic medalist.”
Leyva did not perform up to his usual standards three weeks ago at the P&G national championships, where he did not finish in the top three in any event.
Leyva was still recovering from wounds he sustained when intervening in a bloody quarrel between his dogs, Pirata and Hercules. Both dogs had to be euthanized and Leyva’s leg was pocked with punctures. He missed two weeks of training. He wore a leg wrap over bandages at nationals.
Choosing the Olympic gymnastics teams requires the selection committees to think strategically about specialization and weigh athletes’ strengths and weaknesses on each apparatus. Because of the three-up, three-count format at the Olympics, it’s not necessary to have five strong all-arounders. That’s why the top five finishers at trials were not locks for the team.
The conclusion of the women’s P&G national championships is Saturday night. Simone Biles is the overwhelming favorite to win her fourth straight title. The women’s Olympic trials are July 10 in San Jose, Calif.