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The first day of the Olympic trials, June 28, began badly. As the top contender, he was the first to show off his skills. Visibly wired, he approached the mat, his eyes darting around the packed house as cameras flashed and clicked away. Off to the side, Alvarez pumped his fists and did a slow clap mimicked by spectators.
Leyva started his floor routine strongly, tumbling and flipping effortlessly across the mat. But he botched the landing, stumbling instead of landing upright. Groans and gasps echoed through the HP Pavilion.
NBC's announcer, former Olympic gold medalist Tim Daggett, lamented the error to hundreds of thousands of viewers watching live. "Not good," he said. "Obviously, Danell is very amped. You never know what being here is going to feel like."
Although everyone in the stands assumes Leyva is an Olympic shoe-in, only the top two finishers are guaranteed a place on the men's team. In addition to Orozco, Leyva must face Horton, the vet who won a silver medal on the high bar in Beijing; and Sam Mikulak, the 2011 NCAA champ from the University of Michigan.
"These guys will not give you anything," USA Gymnastics' Steve Penny says. "They want it just as bad as Danell."
After the first four routines, Leyva trailed Orozco by two-tenths of a point. While he waited his next turn, Leyva, as usual, covered his head under a blue beach towel decorated with crescent moons and stars. Ever since he began competing, wearing the towel like a cloak has become a ritual, helping him tune out the noise of the crowd and sometimes the antics of his stepdad coach.
"Everyone knows not to bother him when he is under the towel," Penny says.
Adds Leyva: "I put that over myself to just breathe and relax."
For the final routine of the first day of competition, Leyva was on the pommel horse. He worked like a break dancer, swiftly kicking his legs around the apparatus while moving back and forth with his arms. He swung one last time and landed perfectly, arms extended into a stiff T. The HP Pavilion roared to life. Alvarez clapped his hands and rushed over. He screamed, "You are the best, baby!"
At the end of the first day, Leyva held the top spot. But Orozco trailed by only 1.3 points. At a news conference after the meet, Leyva panted like a hyperactive French bulldog to demonstrate his early jitters. "It's nerve-racking," he said. "I guess I put too much juice [at the end of the first routine]. But I feel like I had a really good day."
Before going to sleep, Leyva watched a video of the 1996 Olympics men's gymnastics competition. Team USA finished fifth that year, the best showing for the squad since 1984. "Everyone had a huge amount of heart and passion for the sport," Leyva said. "It was amazing."
After a one-day break, the trials resumed Saturday, June 30. As the day wore on, Leyva and Orozco changed leads three times. Horton followed closely after four routines. Leyva pulled off a near-flawless set on the pommel horse and looked like Spider-Man flying through Manhattan on the rings. "Oh, my God!" Alvarez yelled as he stuck the landing. The crowd went wild.
But Orozco wouldn't fall back.
That's why, after two days — and decades of training and competition — it's all come down to this one moment on the parallel bars, a routine in which Leyva has been all but unbeatable in recent years.
Before grasping the bars, he runs through the order of the routine in his mind: a mount, a peach Diamidov (a move in which his body swings forward before one arm twists his form sideways while upside down), a peach full (in which he raises his legs to his stomach and swings up), a peach hot, a peach, a giant Diamidov with an extra half, a giant Diamidov, a giant Stutz, and a double pike.
Leyva leaps into his starting position and begins swinging. At the end of the first skill, he comes out wrong. Instead of going into the peach full, he goes into a giant peach. He winces but quickly ad-libs, shifting into a peach full, a peach, another peach, a giant Diamidov and a quarter, a giant Diamidov, a Stutz, and a double pike.
The final move rockets him straight onto the mat — a perfectly stuck landing. He puffs out his cheeks and then raises both arms. As he leaves the raised stage, he waves to the cheering masses.
Alvarez bows in front of Leyva like a meditating Tibetan monk. The young man scrunches his face and picks his stepdad up off the floor, tightly hugging him as his mom gives her son a warm hug and a kiss on his cheek. Throwing the towel back over his head, Leyva waits for the final tabulations.
After a brief wait, the scores flash on the screen. Leyva earns a solid 16.00 on the parallel bars, making the overall score:
While Leyva stoically watches the scores, Alvarez does the sign of the cross, points to the sky, and claps his hands.