Leyva takes lead at US gymnastics

Leyva takes lead at US gymnastics

Published Jun. 7, 2012 1:00 a.m. ET

Danell Leyva lifted up his thumb and index finger, separated them by the narrowest of margins and squinted.

''I'm in first, but I'm in first by this much,'' Leyva said after taking the early lead in the US men's gymnastics championships Thursday night.

Hey, beats the alternative.

The defending champion slipped past John Orozco in the final rotation thanks to a polished parallel bars routine, capping two eventful hours that showcased how serious the Americans are about making a run at the podium in the London Olympics.


Leyva's smooth 15.800 on parallel bars propelled him to a 91.850 finish, just ahead of Orozco's 91.8 and more than a point ahead of 2010 junior champion Sam Mikulak, Chris Brooks and Jonathan Horton.

All five posted scores above 90, the kind of competitive balance the US hopes will make them a threat to perennial powerhouses Japan and China in London.

''It shows how much depth we have as a team and how much it's going to (stink) for people who have to pick the team,'' Leyva said.

You won't find the five-person selection committee complaining following a solid start to a four-round, three-week test of nerves.

The scores from this weekend will be combined with the scores at the Olympic trials at the end of the month, with the gymnast earning the top overall total locking up an automatic Olympic spot.

Barring injury, Leyva is considered a near certainty to head to London but cemented his status as the front-runner by bookending his night with a pair of dynamic performances.

The 20-year-old began the night with a daring high bar routine featuring a 7.2 start value, one few gymnasts in the world can match. He sailed over the bar four times on a series of increasingly difficult releases, making up for in ambition what he lacked in execution.

Leyva scored 15.850 points to tie for the top spot, but saved his best for the parallel bars. The reigning world champion in the event needed 15.750 to track down Orozco, who led throughout. Moving effortlessly up, over, under and around the bars, Leyva put together a nearly flawless 45-second routine, his stepfather and coach Yin Alvarez exploding off the floor in celebration when Leyva stuck the landing.

''Not exactly at my peak, but that's perfect,'' Leyva said. ''I'm using this meet as a stepping stone to get to the games.''

So is the rest of the field of largely familiar faces. Five of the top six finishers were part of last year's team that won a bronze medal at worlds, the only newcomer being Mikulak.

Then again, the sophomore from Michigan had a pretty good excuse. He broke both of his ankles during a freak accident at a meet in Puerto Rico when he shorted a landing during his floor exercise routine then crumpled as the ankles gave out simultaneously.

The injury derailed his goal of making it to worlds, though the 2010 junior champion has bounced back spectacularly. He finished second in the all-around at the NCAAs in April and showed men's team coordinator Kevin Mazeika he was ready to deliver on the sport's biggest stage.

Mikulak scored in the top 10 in five of the six events, his only wobble coming on floor when he gingerly stepped out of bounds leading to a hefty deduction that took him out of the running for first.

''That was my goal coming in here, showing I'm ready, I'm feeling good and I'm ready to compete for Team USA,'' Mikulak said. ''I think they saw that. I had a good fight throughout the whole competition.''

As did Orozco, who appeared to have the top spot locked up for much of the evening. He finished in the top 11 in all six rotations, getting a reprieve from the judges on pommel horse when they raised his initial score from 13.75 to 14.650 after a review.

It was vindication after Orozco hung on mightily at the end of his routine when he appeared ready to slip off the horse when he momentarily lost control of a handstand.

''My arms felt like noodles,'' Orozco said.

He dug in and recovered, allowing him to stay atop the leaderboard and break up the expected duel between Leyva and Horton.

Leyva edged Horton — a two-time national champion — last year and Leyva jokingly asked Horton on Wednesday if he was ready to finish second again.

Horton's not quite there yet but appeared to be all the way back in his first full competition since breaking his left foot at worlds. He struggled on pommel horse — as usual — but overcame it by putting together a dazzling high bar routine. The 26-year-old joked ''I'm tired'' as he trudged toward vault, his final rotation, but drilled a solid 15.700 to cement his return to form.

''I felt like a gymnast again,'' Horton said.

He looked like one too, hovering near the top five throughout and was joined by former Oklahoma teammate and best friend Brooks, who soared up the leaderboard with a thrilling vault. Brooks exploded off the table with a front handspring, before flipping twice in the air. He landed on the pad with a thud and didn't move before clapping his hands and following it up with a fist pump.

The men's competition continues Saturday. Barring any major setbacks the top five appear to be in prime position to head to trials with some serious momentum as opening ceremonies in London loom.

''Everyone looks great,'' Leyva said. ''There's not one single person you can focus on. Everyone is fighting for it and I love that because this team is going to be ridiculous.''