RIO DE JANEIRO (AP) — The words trail Danell Leyva even now, four eventful years since that warm night in London when — giddy from his bronze in the all-around at the 2012 Olympics — the rising American star made a very public pledge.
Shortly after the awards ceremony, Leyva leaned over and asked newly minted champion Kohei Uchimura of Japan if he planned to stick around for the 2016 Games. Pressed on why he wanted to know, Leyva flashed a smile and said simply “I want to beat him.”
Leyva will get his chance when the men’s competition kicks off on Saturday with qualifying at Rio Olympic Arena, just not in the way he imagined.
While Uchimura heads into the preliminary round as the heavy favorite to repeat and further cement his status as the greatest male gymnast in history, Leyva will take on a smaller role for the Americans, competing in just three of the six events: pommel horse, parallel bars and high bar.
It’s not what Leyva had in mind when he plotted out the quadrennium between London and Rio. Then again, at this point he’s simply grateful to be here at all. Leyva was originally named as an alternate before filling in when John Orozco’s star-crossed career took a brutal turn after tearing the ACL and meniscus in his left knee last month.
Asked if he regrets his exuberance while good-naturedly calling out Uchimura, Leyva shook his head.
“Why wouldn’t you want to say you want to be the best?” he said following Olympic Trials in June. “Yeah, it hasn’t been the perfect quad, but that goal should always be there.”
A goal that Leyva has flirted with at times over the last four years, if only briefly. He was a close second to Uchimura in the high bar final at the 2015 World Championships, putting together an electrifying series of releases on an event that served as a reminder of how good Leyva can be when all the dots are connected.
It’s getting — and keeping — them connected that’s long been a problem. He’s seen his spot as the top all-arounder in the U.S. taken by four-time national champion Sam Mikulak, who will do all six events along with team captain and 29-year-old Olympic rookie Chris Brooks. Jake Dalton will compete on five apparatuses and Alex Naddour will salute the judges four times, leaving Leyva — the most decorated American gymnast in international competition on the team — as a true event specialist.
Leyva’s path hasn’t been marred by serious injury but smaller ones that seemed to blunt his momentum.
“I’ve always been accustomed to high-intensity training,” he said. “But there were times I couldn’t do the amount of numbers I was used to, and you could obviously tell when I was out there.”
The future of the men’s program in 2012 found himself off the national team for a brief time shortly thereafter before reclaiming his spot in 2014. While the majority of the national team works out together at the United States Olympic Training Center in Colorado, Leyva has remained in Miami with his mother Maria and his stepfather/coach Yin Alvarez.
“There was no point in moving out and having more things to deal with,” Leyva said. “I don’t live at the OTC and I don’t live in any college where everything is easier. I live at home. We own the gym, so everything is easier.”
Except when the family dogs start mixing it up. He arrived at American Cup in 2012 with stitches on his face after breaking up a fight. It happened again right before the U.S. championships in June, when gashes on his leg impacted his preparations, one of the reasons he says he looked so lethargic. He was much improved a few weeks later at trials, even if it wasn’t quite enough to force the hand of the selection committee.
Yet if you’re looking for bitterness or anger, look elsewhere. Sure he was disappointed when his name wasn’t called, yet he didn’t hesitate when national team coordinator Kevin Mazeika called him in the early morning hours asking if he’d be OK with being an alternate.
“I was just like, ‘Oh, cool,'” Leyva said. “I know how super important those guys can be.”
And now Leyva finds himself one of them. If he can help the Americans return to the podium following their flameout in London — when they topped qualifying but faded to fifth in the finals — don’t expect him to make any sort of proclamations pointing to 2020. He’s not about that anymore. For now it’s about focusing on the moment and trying to enjoy it. He’s become all too aware of how fleeting they can be.
“I’ve tried to think more about the performance,” he said. “If that’s where the focus is, then the results will come.”