Danell Leyva looks to defend title at American Cup

Danell Leyva walked off the podium in London seven months ago

with a bronze medal in the gymnastics all-around draped over his

neck and a gnawing in his stomach.

Rather than cash in on the stream of offers that came his way,

the 21-year-old American took a short vacation before heading back

to the gym, his thoughts already drifting toward the 2016 Games in

Rio de Janeiro.

”Being there at the Olympics and having the result, you have

this feeling of hunger,” he said. ”You just want to get back

there already.”

There’s still more than three long years to go before Rio,

though Leyva already has a tentative plan in place. The next phase?

Repeating as champion at this weekend’s American Cup in Worcester,

Mass.

Leyva rallied to win the event at Madison Square Garden last

year in what was the official kickoff of the run-up to London. The

momentum helped carry him to victory at the U.S. Olympic trials and

his medal at The O2 Arena last August was the only one captured by

an American gymnast at the games.

The impact wasn’t as widespread as the fame that engulfed the

gold-medal winning U.S. women’s team or women’s all-around champion

Gabrielle Douglas. Still, for an athlete who fled Cuba as an

infant, being recognized on the street by strangers is pretty heady

stuff.

”We don’t really know how many people were actually watching

the games,” Leyva said. ”Then you get back and every single

person you meet is like, `Hey, I saw you.”’

There has been, however, no Olympic hangover. You won’t find

Leyva chatting with Oprah or hoofing it on ”Dancing With the

Stars” or taking a year off.

Don’t get Leyva wrong. He’s not jealous of the attention

lavished on the ”Fierce Five.”

”It’s cool to watch them get all the glory and stuff,” Leyva

said. ”They deserve it. They did a ridiculously amazing job. We’ll

get ours soon enough. We’ll feed off that.”

Leyva allows there will be a distinctly different feel to the

American Cup this time around. His performance last spring – when a

typically brilliant high bar routine catapulted him from fourth to

first in the final rotation – sent a message he was ready to become

the standard-bearer for the U.S. men’s program.

The triumph at the Garden and Leyva’s success in London,

combined with a knee injury to friend and rival John Orozco, has

left Leyva alone at top. It’s not something he takes lightly,

though his sights are set on loftier goals.

”I guess that’d be cool if people would be thinking that (I’m

the top American),” he said. ”I just want to make it very evident

that I want to try and be the best not just in the U.S. but in the

world.”

It’s a distinction Leyva can inch closer to with a second

straight victory in one of the signature events in a non-Olympic

year. The eight-man field may actually be more difficult that the

one Leyva faced a year ago. Olympic silver all-around medalist

Marcel Nguyen will compete, as will Leyva’s U.S. Olympic teammate

Jake Dalton. Kristian Thomas of Britain – who helped the host

country to a surprising bronze in the men’s team competition last

August – will also be on the floor.

”The stakes aren’t as large, but the competitors are the same

if not better,” Leyva said. ”They’re all the guys that went to

the games and I mean, I’m pretty sure some of them are looking for

redemption. Me, myself? I’m trying to take leadership from marcel

internationally.”

It will be the next step in a process that Leyva knows will be a

battle at times. He’s in the midst of tweaking some of his routines

to increase the difficulty, including his acrobatic high bar

routine. Leyva is considered one of the best high-bar performers in

the world, but he finished off the podium in the event finals in

London.

It was an eye-opener, one that forced him to re-evaluate how he

goes about his work. Gone is the popular ”jump hop” move – in

which Leyva paused at the top of the bar in mid-routine and

literally leapt with his hands – and in its place are more

intricate connections that he hopes will impress the judges.

Things are still pretty fluid at this point, though Leyva says

his goal is to get things sharp for U.S. nationals and the world

championships later this spring. Standing alone at the top on

Saturday afternoon would be a pretty good start.

”We’re just trying to build,” he said.

So are the eight women competing, though the event lacks the

star power it had a year ago. None of the ”Fierce Five” will

compete after Kyla Ross withdrew with a bruised heel. Still, the

U.S. could get a glimpse at its future in 15-year-old Americans

Simone Biles and Katelyn Ohashi.

The youngsters will face a field that includes four Olympic

veterans, including Germany’s Elisabeth Seitz and Italy’s Vanessa

Ferrari.

There will be jitters for Biles and Ohashi but pressure for

Leyva. The road to Rio has already started and Leyva knows if he

can get where he wants to go over the next three years, one day all

the opportunities he’s putting off now will only increase.

”I feel like if you do well enough in the Olympics you’ll be

famous enough to do whatever you want,” he said. ”Look at the

girls, it’ll be easier to do what you really want to do if you win

it all. I guess that’s where I’m at for right now.”

Follow Will Graves at www.twitter.com/WillGravesAP