ST. PAUL, Minn. — Danell Leyva smacked his hands together and let out a triumphant scream.
Yeah, he can get a little emotional, too.
Leyva, known as much for stepfather and coach Yin Alvarez’s theatrics during competitions as for his own considerable skills, won his first title at the U.S. gymnastics championships on Friday night. He beat two-time defending champ and world bronze medalist Jonathan Horton in the process.
“Awesome. It’s an amazing feeling,” Leyva said. “One of my biggest goals has just been accomplished.”
Alvarez was hopping up and down on the podium, clapping in rhythm, before Leyva even finished his high bar routine, his final event. When Leyva stuck his landing, Alvarez grabbed him in a bearhug and rubbed his head. Leyva responded by picking his stepfather up, prompting a big laugh from fans. As Leyva walked off the podium, Alvarez yelled, “That’s my boy!”
Leyva finished with 183.8 points, 2.75 in front of Horton. Three-time junior champion John Orozco, who blew out his Achilles tendon at last year’s national championships, was third.
Before Leyva’s final score was even posted, Horton had made his way across the arena to offer his congratulations. The two are good friends, and it was Horton’s victory over Leyva at last year’s nationals that pushed the 19-year-old from Miami every day in the gym.
“Something clicked in my head. I realized, ‘Wow, this could happen,'” Leyva said. “It gave me more trust in myself to work that much harder.”
And now he’s a U.S. champion, joining a list that includes Olympic champion Paul Hamm, Blaine Wilson, Bart Conner and Peter Vidmar.
“Psychologically, I’ve been ready since 2009. I’ve been trying to take the title since then,” Leyva said. “But my preparation wasn’t what it was supposed to be, what it was for this meet.”
While the team isn’t expected to be announced until Saturday, Leyva and Horton are all but locks for the world championships, which are Oct. 7-16 in Tokyo.
Worlds are the main qualifier for the London Olympics and will give the U.S. men a chance to back up their big talk about contending for the gold medal next summer. It also gives Leyva and Horton a chance to measure themselves against Kohei Uchimura. The Japanese star has been otherworldly since the Beijing Olympics, winning the last two world titles — by significant margins.
“Danell and I make a really great team together on the international stage,” Horton said. “A lot of people will see what we did here and they’re definitely going to know that we are coming.”
Leyva began the night with a two-point lead and extended it to a whopping 3.4 points after the first rotation. But that was partly because Horton went on pommel horse, by far his worst event.
Horton chipped away at Leyva’s lead with an impressive still rings routine — made even more impressive because he’s got a strained shoulder — and then all but erased the gap in the third rotation.
But with Leyva making few mistakes and closing on his two best events, parallel bars and high bar, Horton had to be perfect on high bar and then floor.
Horton’s high bar routine is one of the best in the world; he’s the reigning Olympic silver medalist on the event. It’s a high-risk, high-reward routine, the next best thing to going to the circus. But as he reached for the bar after his first release move, one of his hands slipped off. The momentum pulled him down and he dropped to the floor, prompting a gasp from the crowd.
“You can’t win with two major falls, one the first night and one the second night,” said Horton, who fell off pommel horse on Wednesday. “Danell pretty much had a perfect week. It’s hard to beat somebody that doesn’t make mistakes when you’re making mistakes.”
Horton got up, shaking his head and a look of disgust on his face. As he took a few seconds to compose himself, Leyva yelled out, “C’mon man, finish it!”
Horton did — and then did one of the best floor routines of the week.
But the damage was done. The national title, his for the last two years, was gone.
“Did I want to win the meet? Yeah,” Horton said. “But he deserved to win. I didn’t hit everything. … You could see the confidence in him. You could see he was not going to miss a routine.”
Leyva could have fallen on his high bar once, maybe even twice, and still won the title. His routine wasn’t perfect, but it was entertaining. He launched himself so high in the air above the bar, the folks in the front rows had to crane their necks to see him. There was no hesitation when he grabbed for the bar, and he oozed confidence.
He did a little hop when he was in a handstand, letting go of the bar briefly, drawing oohs and aahs. Alvarez, meanwhile, was standing a few feet away, pumping his fists and giggling. And when Leyva’s feet hit the mat with a resounding thud, the celebration was on.
“That’s the happiest I’ve been in a really long time,” Leyva said. “It’s an amazing accomplishment.”
Copyright 2011 by The Associated Press
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