LONDON — He was deader than Jacob Marley, who once haunted this town. Danell Leyva was interred in 19th place after the second rotation of Wednesday’s all-around final at North Greenwich Arena, sitting in a folding chair with his head shrouded in a towel. “Grrrrrrr,” he said to himself, after botching his handstand dismount from pommel horse.
Were he one to keep count, Leyva might have figured that he was finished. “The great thing about Danny, he never watches the score,” said Yin Alvarez, his stepfather and personal coach. “He didn’t know what he got in pommel horse.”
All the Miami native and Cuban emigre knew was that he needed to mount up and charge. Thus began one of the more unlikely resurrections in Olympic gymnastics history as Leyva hit all four of his remaining routines, including a skywalking finale on horizontal bar, to snatch the bronze medal behind Japan’s Kohei Uchimura and Germany’s Marcel Nguyen. “I am not completely satisfied,” said the 20-year-old Leyva, who’d topped the table in the qualifying round. “Bronze is beautiful, but gold is perfect.”
Gold wasn’t in the cards, not with Uchimura, the Beijing runner-up and three-time defending world champion, on his game. “I’ve been aiming for this for a long time and now I have achieved it,” said Uchimura, his country’s first champion since Koji Gushiken in 1984 and the first to win against a full field since Sawao Kato in 1972. “It’s a dream.”
For Leyva and teammate John Orozco, the evening turned nightmarish on the same event that hamstrung both of them in Monday’s team final, where the Yanks finished fifth after being favored to win at least a bronze. For Orozco, who was hung with a killer 12.566 score after breaking his rhythm, the damage was too much from which to come back.
“Even though our motto is to fight to the end, I knew it would be really tough,” said the 19-year-old Bronx native, who steadied himself and placed a creditable eighth after climbing up from the bottom of the 24-man field. “I just told myself to enjoy the rest of the meet.”
Leyva’s situation was less dire since the final two events were his best — parallel bars, where he’s world titlist, and high bar, where he’ll go for a medal in next week’s event final. “Danny is always coming from the bottom to the top,” observed Alvarez, who competed for Cuba before defecting. “He did it many, many, many times ever since he was a little kid.”
Leyva began his revival quietly with a solid effort on the still rings that moved him up to 17th. Then he submitted a strong vault that put him into 11th. After he hit his p-bars routine for 15.833, matching Nguyen’s top score on the event, Leyva was in sixth. When Japan’s Kazuhito Tanaka, who’d been second, came off the horse Leyva had the opening he needed. All he had to do was nail the same event that ruined him at the last year’s global meet, where he had to quit after slamming his chin into the bar and ended up dead last.
This time Leyva went up and stayed up (“Definitely a redemption for worlds.”) and posted the best score of the night (15.700) on the most perilous apparatus. “You got a medal,” Alvarez assured him. “I don’t know the color, but you got a medal.”
Had Nguyen crashed on his subsequent floor routine, the color would have been silver. But he stayed upright, producing Germany’s first medal in the event since 1936, when sons of Vietnamese immigrants were not eligible to compete for the Reich. America has no such restrictions, Alvarez said, which is why he swam across the Rio Grande when the Cuban national team was in Mexico.
“This country opened the door,” he said, “and it’s open to anyone who wants to work and has a dream.”
His stepson came to England dreaming of gold and while he was unfulfilled by bronze, he saluted Uchimura on his triumph. “If I could speak Japanese I’d tell him he’s the best gymnast who ever lived — for now,” Leyva said. What he wants, though, is a rematch in Rio. “I asked him, are you coming back for 2016?” Leyva said. “You better come back.”