Published November 20, 2014
The meet was over. Done. Danell Leyva had flown too high, scored too well, avoided too many mistakes for John Orozco to track him down.
Heck, even Orozco thought so.
When Orozco ended his floor exercise routine during the final event of the U.S. men's gymnastics championships on Saturday, the calculator in his head told him he hadn't done enough to catch his front-running, ceiling-scraping teammate.
"I was thinking to myself 'I don't think that will do it,'" Orozco said.
Then the scoreboard flashed: 15.500. Somewhere in the crowd Orozco's mother Damaris shrieked. The soft-spoken 19-year-old from the Bronx — nicknamed "Silent Ninja" by his friends because of his ability to sneak up on the competition — had done it again.
The best floor score Orozco can ever remember seeing next to his name propelled him to a two-round total of 184.850 and a national title, barely ahead of Leyva's 184.800.
"He doesn't know how to lose," said two-time U.S. champion Jonathan Horton, who finished fourth. "He doesn't have a weakness. He's just a phenomenal gymnast. The one thing is, he gets in a zone and you can't break it."
Horton, Sam Mikulak, Jake Dalton and Chris Brooks also secured automatic bids to the Olympic trials in three weeks. Brandon Wynn, Paul Ruggeri, David Sender and Alex Buscaglia were awarded trial spots based on a points system developed by USA Gymnastics officials while Steven Legendre, Glen Ishino, Alex Naddour, Joshua Dixon and C.J. Maestas received invitations from the selection committee.
Barring catastrophe, Orozco and Leyva can book their flights across the Atlantic as the leaders of perhaps the deepest American team since 1984. The top four on Saturday posted over 90 points for the second straight round — the threshold for elite Olympians — giving the Americans plenty to work with as the London Games loom.
And that — not slipping past Leyva in the final moments — is what mattered most to Orozco.
"For me it really wasn't about winning but it was about putting together a good routine and a good performance, and show how we're going to do in London," Orozco said. "Hopefully this is going to be a preview."
In a way, Saturday was a rerun. Or at the very least a rewrite.
Orozco led throughout the opening round on Thursday before Leyva slid past him with a thrilling parallel bars routine in the waning moments to take a 0.05 lead into the finals.
Leyva's advantage blossomed to 2.05 points through the first four events on Saturday, buoyed by electric performances on parallel bars and high bar. The routines were dramatic and daring, the kind of breathtaking displays that make Leyva the most charismatic American in the sport.
The world champion in parallel bars moved effortlessly back and forth across the chalky sticks 6½ feet off the ground, his hands in constant motion as he flawlessly strung together a series of ambitious tricks few others can match. His 16.0 score gave him some wiggle room before turning the gap between he and Orozco into a chasm on the high bar, gymnastics' version of a roller coaster.
And just like an expert rider, Leyva had no fear letting go.
In addition to four tricky release moves — all of which ended with Levya casually grabbing the bar as if he was snatching a towel walking out of the shower — he came to a full stop at the apex of his swing and did a little hop as if to say "look mom, no hands."
Leyva couldn't hold onto the lead, but then again he stressed during the week a championship here pales in comparison to peaking in time for London.
"Of course I'm upset I didn't get first and it'll drive me to win trials," Leyva said. "I'm upset with myself, but I'm not mad. I'm actually happy ... because everybody's doing amazing."
Orozco lacks Levya's flair but makes up for it with quiet elegance and precision. Both were on display as he closed in.
While Leyva labored through his pommel horse routine, Orozco — with Damaris 'watching' from the stands with her eyes covered — sailed over the high bar to post a score of 15.850 and draw within less than a point.
Still, Leyva appeared to have things in hand and looked safe after a clean run on the still rings. He and stepfather/coach Yin Alvarez celebrated after Leyva stuck the landing, figuring his 14.550 was enough to earn Leyva a second straight national title.
The ever-hyper Alvarez leapt into the air three times and clapped repeatedly before joining his stepson in a warm embrace. Even Horton figured the drama was over.
"I was getting ready to go, but I heard (Leyva) hit the floor and in my head I went, 'Congrats,'" Horton said.
One problem. Orozco wasn't quite finished.
Moving fluidly through his 45-second floor routine, Orozco channeled a breakdancer while doing a series of flares — the only thing missing was a headspin — and looked cemented to the ground at the end of each tumbling run, not a misstep in sight.
"It's definitely the best floor routine I've ever done," Orozco said.
At least, at the moment. Orozco knows if he and his teammates can duplicate their scores in London, the U.S. is a legitimate threat to reach the top of the podium for the first time in 28 years. Though he didn't win an individual gold this weekend, Orozco finished in the top eight in all six events. It's that kind of consistency that can help guide a team to Olympic glory.
Orozco's not ready to think about it. That's fine. Horton is. The 26-year-old helped the U.S. land a bronze in Beijing four years ago, then added a silver on high bar. He knows what will happen if the U.S. can cut and paste their top scores from this weekend onto the leaderboard at the O2 Arena next month.
"We're going to freak a lot of people out," Horton said. "We're going to make a lot of people go 'Wow, Team USA is no joke.'"