SAN JOSE, Calif. – Danell Leyva and his family had little besides hope and determination when they arrived from Cuba almost 20 years ago.
On Saturday night, he stood in the center of the arena, a U.S. Olympian.
With his mother and stepfather by his side, Leyva completed his family's incredible journey, beating John Orozco to win the Olympic trials and clinching an automatic spot on the men's gymnastics team. As he climbed off the podium after his last event, his stepfather greeted him with a bow and Leyva picked him up in a bear hug.
"It's big," said Alvarez, who fled Cuba a year before Leyva. "It's big because I wanted to be an Olympian, and (Leyva) represents me. And all Cuban immigrants who came to this country for a better life and to make something (of themselves)."
Leyva finished almost a point ahead of Orozco in an entertaining game of "Can you top this?" Because both finished in the top three in at least three events, they automatically qualified for the Olympic team. The remaining three members will be chosen by a five-person selection committee, and the team will be announced Sunday.
One of those spots is almost certain to go to Jonathon Horton, a double medalist at the Beijing Olympics and the backbone of the U.S. squad. The other two spots are up for grabs after Samuel Mikulak, who began Saturday in third place in the combined standings from nationals and the first day of trials, was only able to compete on pommel horse after spraining his ankle Thursday.
His 14.4 was two-tenths below what he usually scores, but was still fifth-best of the day on the Americans' weakest event.
"I showed everything I could and I put everything out on the table," Mikulak said. "All I can do is wait. It's going to be the longest night ever."
For Orozco, it's going to be a night unlike any other in the past decade.
Gymnastics has been Orozco's ticket out of the rough Bronx neighborhood where his parents still live, and he's gone to bed every night the last 10 years imagining what it would be like to hear his name announced as an Olympian.
"Now it's not a dream anymore," he said. "Now it's a memory."
Leyva's mother and stepfather were both gymnasts in Cuba, but his mother never envisioned her son following in their footsteps. He was not exactly athletic as a baby — downright chubby, actually — and Alvarez had to talk her into letting the boy try gymnastics after he became enthralled watching a videotape as a toddler.
Good thing Alvarez is so persuasive.
Leyva has developed into one of the world's best gymnast, combining difficult skills with breathtaking elegance and style. His rivalry with Orozco has made both that much better, and they will be a potent 1-2 force in London, where the Americans believe they have the goods to make a legitimate run at the gold medal for the first time since 1984.
"These two guys don't want to be Olympians," Alvarez said, "they want to be Olympic champions."
The two were second (Orozco) and third (Leyva) behind three-time world champion Kohei Uchimura in qualifying at last year's world championships, and have spent the last six months playing leapfrog in U.S. meets. Orozco got the better of Leyva earlier this month at the U.S. championships, but Leyva took the lead in Thursday's prelims and threw down the first challenge Saturday on high bar, their first event.
Leyva's high bar routine puts even the best circus act to shame, and is sure to send the guys in China, Japan and Germany running for YouTube. His routine is jam-packed with difficulty, one intricate combination after another. But unlike the rest of the world's best, he finds little ways to stand out: a tiny stutter-hop of his hands before one of his four release moves, throwing his arms out on another release move so he looks like an eagle in flight. Despite all that high-flying adrenaline, though, he never lost his rhythm, flowing from one trick right into the next.
And he ought to get some bonus points for the show Alvarez put on alongside him. Alvarez was kicking his feet, bobbing and swaying with every skill. When Leyva's feet hit the mat with a thud that could be heard all the way across the Atlantic, Alvarez clapped his hands and raced around the podium like a bull let loose in Pamplona. Leyva was more restrained — though not by much. He let out a roar and clapped his hands, then turned and waved to the crowd. As he walked off the podium, he pumped his fist as if to say, "Boom!"
His score of 16.3 — including a massive 7.2 start value — opened a 1.3-point gap on Orozco.
But Leyva gave it right back with an uncharacteristically sloppy routine on floor exercise, including a fall on a strength pose, something he probably hasn't done since grade school. As he balanced on his hands, his legs pulled all the way up in front of his face, his arms gave out and he plopped onto his backside.
That opened the way for Orozco, and he took full advantage of it.
Orozco may not be as flashy as Leyva's, but he's no less effective — or impressive. Every routine is done with style and grace, his quiet precision masking the difficulty of what he's doing. On pommel horse, where getting through routines with minimal embarrassment is about the best the American men hope for, Orozco is actually respectable. While the rest of the Americans looked as if they were trying to wrestle the apparatus to the ground, his swing was smooth and fluid, almost reaching the hypnotic level that marks a good routine.
On still rings, he hung upside down, batlike, for several moments. Having all that blood rush to your head would make most people wobble like a Weeble, but he coolly swung into a handstand, the cables that support the rings staying perfectly still. Orozco's 15.35 on rings moved him ahead of Leyva ever so slightly — 0.15 — and they went into the last event with Leyva trailing by about a half-point.
But Orozco struggled on parallel bars while Leyva dazzled. His routine is among the world's most difficult, but he performs with the grace and beautiful lines of a ballet dancer. There was no doubt that he had won when his feet hit the mat with a resounding thud, and Leyva slapped his hands several times while Alvarez threw his hands into the air in triumph.
"It's crazy to say I'm going to the Olympics," Leyva said, his eyes filling briefly. "Surreal."
And it means he can now check another thing off that list he posted in the gym sometime last summer. All that's left to do?
"Team gold, all-around gold, high bar gold, p-bar medal. Yeah, nothing else," Leyva said, laughing.
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