Danell Leyva reached for the horizontal bar as he has a million times in his life as trick pilot flipping through the rarefied air of elite gymnastics.
Leyva reached and caught nothing. The bar was just out of his grasp. Then came the interminable fall to the mat. It was almost like he descended in slow motion, like he was stuck in a dream. The spectators inside Olympic Arena sucked in their breath. One of the premier bar gymnasts in the world found himself crouching on the floor in disbelief.
He blinked hard, got back up on the bar, and completed his routine, but as was the case with the U.S. men’s team, it was too little, too late.
The Americans, determined to get on the Olympic podium after placing fifth at the 2012 London Games, finished fifth again.
“I reached in too quick, and that’s why I couldn’t get my grip,” Leyva said. “I wish I could have landed and looked up at the scoreboard to see that we were in the medals. But that’s why it’s the hardest, most intense sport. Any little mistake will cost you.”
Japan, led by Kohei Uchimura — considered one of the greatest gymnasts of all time — won gold with 274.095 points. Russia edged China for silver and Great Britain was fourth.
Although Homestead’s Leyva felt like it was “my fault” that the United States failed to win a medal, it wasn’t. Early mistakes on floor and pommel horse put the five U.S. gymnasts in catch-up mode during Monday’s six-event final, and they couldn’t close the margin, finishing 2.562 points behind China.
“It was a difference of a quarter inch for Danell on the bar, but that wasn’t the difference in the competition,” U.S. coach Mark Williams said. “We needed to come out on fire but we were slow out of the blocks. The guys put their hearts into it — that wasn’t the problem. We just have to be more prepared at the start and stronger at the finish.”
After a rocky qualification round, Uchimura returned to precision form and avenged two second-place finishes in a row to China at the Olympics with a team gold to go with his two consecutive Olympic and six world all-around titles in a row. The gymnast nicknamed “Superman” — who has been as dominant in the past two Games as Usain Bolt and Michael Phelps — will attempt to win a third consecutive all-around gold on Wednesday.
“Winning the individual gold would make me happy, but team gold is five times the happiness,” Uchimura said.
The United States was last in the eight-nation field after the first rotation, on floor. National champ Sam Mikulak stepped out of bounds twice. Alex Naddour fell on his last tumbling run.
Nobody could break the 15-point barrier on pommel horse, the discipline that has bedeviled the United States for years.
The team picked up momentum with solid rings routines by Naddour, Chris Brooks and Jake Dalton, followed by strong vaults by Mikulak and Dalton, in which they both stuck their Kasamatsu double full landings. The United States recorded its highest score on parallel bars, with Mikulak working his way to a 15.700 and Leyva hitting his high degree of difficulty with a 15.533.
The United States was in fifth after five rotations, but it wasn’t going to make up the lost ground to China on horizontal bar. Brooks’ small hop on his dismount and Leyva’s fall added to the disappointment. The team embraced Leyva when he came off the platform. His emotions were in stark contrast to 2012, when his furious comeback in the all-around competition — culminating with a dazzling high-bar routine — netted him a bronze medal.
“Dani immediately apologized to us, and we said, ‘No, no, no need to apologize. We did everything possible to be perfect today. Mistakes happen. That’s gymnastics,’ ” Dalton said. “It’s kind of surprising it didn’t work out for us because I know we were ready. We kind of fell apart in London, but we didn’t fall apart here. Everybody fought until the end.”
Leyva, the first Cuban-American gymnast to make a U.S. gymnastics team, sought solace from his stepfather and coach, Yin Alvarez.
“He was over at floor, and I asked him what went wrong, and he said I just reached in too fast,” said Leyva, who trains at his parents’ Universal Gymnastics gym. Both Alvarez and Leyva’s mother, Maria Gonzalez, were Cuban gymnasts who defected.
Leyva was a late addition to the Olympic team. He qualified as an alternate after a subpar performance at the national meet when he was still recovering from leg and hand wounds he sustained when he tried to break up a fight between his English bulldogs in May.
When John Orozco sustained a knee injury during training camp, Leyva was elevated to the starting roster.
Leyva will compete in the individual event finals for high bar and parallel bars on Aug. 16.