Another matchup ahead? Bronze-winning Dannell Levya wants a shot at Japan medalist in 2016

  • Article by: WILL GRAVES , Associated Press
  • Updated: August 1, 2012 - 11:55 PM

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LONDON - The Olympic gold medal had been draped over Kohei Uchimura's neck for all of a minute when Danell Leyva leaned over and asked the man who is arguably the greatest male gymnast of all-time if he planned on being in Rio de Janeiro in four years.

"I told him 'you better,'" Leyva said.

The charismatic 20-year-old wasn't being cocky. Just confident. If the elegant Uchimura is the standard by which all gymnasts will be measured, why not challenge him head-on?

"I want to beat him," Leyva said.

Good luck with that. At least for the moment.

While the Cuban-born, Miami-raised Leyva put together a powerful comeback to grab bronze — just the second individual all-around medal by an American in the last 28 years — Uchimura cemented his legacy with a typically jaw-droppingly graceful performance to cement his legacy.

The scoreboard said Uchimura's 92.690 total was just 1.5 points more than silver medalist Marcel Nguyen of Germany and a little less than two points ahead of Leyva.

Make no mistake. The outcome was never in doubt. It never really is whenever Uchimura is in the field.

"He's in a different world," German coach Andreas Hirsch said. "He wasn't part of this competition."

Early on, it didn't appear Leyva was either. And not in a good way.

The handsome kid with the perfectly trimmed sideburns and the slightly goofy smile has emerged as the standard bearer for a resurgent U.S. men's program.

It's a role Leyva and teammate John Orozco — who finished eighth — have embraced. Which is why they took a disappointing fifth-place performance in the team finals on Monday particularly hard. The duo both stumbled on pommel horse, ending America's medal hopes in the process.

When Leyva stalled at the top of his pommel routine barely 48 hours later, it appeared disappointment was moving toward disaster. He draped his lucky blue towel — the one with its own Twitter account — over his head and just let it out.

"I was like 'Grrrrr,'" Leyva said with a laugh. "I just tried to use it and channel it into positive energy."

It wasn't difficult. Leyva competes with a level of self-assuredness ingrained over the years by coach and stepfather Yin Alvarez. Even as Uchimura turned every meet into his own private invitational — ripping off three straight world all-around championships before finally getting the gold he so narrowly lost in Beijing four years ago — Alvarez never corrected Leyva whenever he talked about standing atop the podium at the games.

"I try to keep him thinking that it's possible. I don't want to tell him Uchimura is super better than you," Alvarez said. "Everything he believes in, he does."

It's an optimism that's hard won. Leyva's mother, Maria Gonzalez, fled Cuba when her son was an infant and eventually made her way to Miami, where she reconnected with Alvarez, who was also a Cuban refugee with a gymnastics background.

They opened up their own gym, Gonzalez said, "because that's all we knew." There was no need to persuade Leyva to give the sport a try. He was too busy diving into the foam pit to know any better.

There's a charm to Leyva's gymnastics. He's an admitted show off who thrives on pressure.

Good thing, because the tension ramped up when Leyva saw his name listed near the bottom of the 24-man field.

The comeback began slowly, as steady work on still rings and vault lifted him back into contention. Things got serious on parallel bars — where he's the world champion and his 15.833 tied Nguyen for the highest of the night.

Heading into the sixth and last rotation, Leyva was within striking distance of a medal on an event — high bar — that's sort of a personal canvas.

The slender rod is a nine-foot high roller coaster that lends itself to risk-taking, which melds perfectly with Leyva's swashbuckling persona. Putting together a series of tricky releases, each one harder than the last, Leyva soared above the bar.

When Leyva's feet smacked the mat, a nearly flawless routine complete, Alvarez exploded. The two embraced, with Alvarez grabbing his stepson's face with both hands and planting more than one kiss atop his head.

The score of 15.700 catapulted Leyva onto the medal stand, the first in the all-around since Paul Hamm won gold during the Athens games eight years ago.

Leyva believes he'll eventually get there too, and Alvarez has already joked the 2020 games — at a site that won't be determined for another year — aren't out of reach.

It's not a bad idea, because 23-year-old Uchimura shows no signs of slowing down. His slender frame is in stark contrast to some of his bulky competitors, yet he paints a tableau on all six rotations that no gymnast in the world can come close to matching.

He took the lead for good with a textbook vault that he stuck so well it appeared as if his feet were glued to the mat. He was never really threatened the rest of the way, and when Uchimura finished his floor routine he put his hands together and politely bowed twice.

Hard to blame anybody in the crowd if they wanted to do so in return.

There will be more chances. Uchimura called the Rio games a "vision" while allowing he can't predict whether his body will hold up.

"As much as I can, I want to challenge my limit," he said.

And Leyva wants to challenge him.

Leyva isn't being disrespectful when he says he wants to chase down the legend. If his Japanese was a little better, Leyva knows what he'd like to tell Uchimura.

"I would tell him he is the best gymnast who ever lived," Leyva said.

Then he paused ever so briefly before adding on small qualifier.

"So far."

___

Follow Will Graves at http://www.twitter.com/WillGravesAP.

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