While the three-time world champion was solidifying his exalted status with the Olympic title Wednesday, all but wrapping up the gold midway through the meet, Leyva gave a glimpse of what the young American hopes could be the sport’s next great rivalry. Closing with perhaps the two most spectacular routines of the night, the 20-year-old rallied to land in third place.
It was only the second all-around medal for a U.S. man since 1984, and added yet another chapter to Leyva’s incredible story. He fled Cuba as a sickly toddler with his mother and older sister, making their way to Miami through Peru and Venezuela.
“I’m going to keep working to beat him,” Leyva said. “His gymnastics is just so beautiful. ... I’m not trying to copy his style. I have my own style. I need to perfect me more to beat him.”
Uchimura finished with 92.690 points, almost two in front of Leyva. Marcel Nguyen won the silver, giving Germany its first Olympic medal in the men’s all-around since 1936.
When Uchimura finished floor exercise, his final routine, he gave a slight bow to the crowd before breaking into a wide grin. He pumped his fist toward several fans waving Japanese flags as he trotted off the podium, then graciously accepted congratulations from his competitors.
“I have been a world champion three times, three years in a row,” Uchimura said. “But this is different. It’s once in four years, and the wait was there. I felt like the demon was chasing me this time.”
The Japanese star was uncharacteristically off in qualifying and the team finals, perhaps feeling the pressure of pursuing gold. Japan was runner-up to China at the Beijing Olympics and the past four world championships, and Uchimura said earlier this year he was “fed up” with always finishing second.
He finished ninth in qualifying after falling off both high bar and pommel horse. He wasn’t much better in the team finals, botching his pommel horse routine again and needing a score review just to get Japan the silver medal.
Leyva does not have the natural build of a gymnast. His feet are too flat, his backside too big and, truth be told, he was downright pudgy as a child. Even his mother, who was a member of the national team in their native Cuba, said gymnastics was not the right sport for him. But Yin Alvarez, Leyva’s stepfather and coach, convinced her to let the boy try.
And what Leyva lacked in natural ability, he has more than made up for in dogged determination.
He had finished first in qualifying, but faltered in team finals, where the Americans finished fifth. He put himself in an early hole Wednesday with a mediocre routine on pommel horse, his second event. But as the guys above him faltered Leyva slowly chipped away.