LOCALS IN LONDON
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LONDON — Bronze medal around his neck, Danell Leyva applauded as Kohei Uchimura took the top spot on the podium.
Hey, no shame finishing behind a guy who might be the best gymnast of all time.
Uchimura added Olympic gold to the world titles he's won the last three years, and it was never much of a contest. All but wrapping up the gold midway through the meet, the only question was how big his margin of victory would be and who would be standing next to him on the medals podium.
"I have been a world champion three times, three years in a row. But this is different," Uchimura said. "It's once in four years, and the wait was there. I felt like the demon was chasing me this time."
Uchimura's score of 92.690 was more than 1.5 points ahead of silver medalist Marcel Nguyen of Germany. Leyva closed with two of the most spectacular routines of the day, on parallel bars and high bar, to land in third place.
It was an incredible finish for the 20-year-old, who fled Cuba for the United States as a toddler with his mother and older sister. When Leyva saw his high bar score, guaranteeing him a medal, he pumped his fist and threw a few roundhouse punches while his stepfather and coach, Yin Alvarez, hopped up and down and yelled.
"It's a very big deal, but it's good now that we're finished," Alvarez said. "It's great."
Uchimura has been untouchable since winning the silver medal in Beijing, so stylishly sublime that Germany's Philipp Boy, runner-up at the last two world championships, lamented he had been born in "the wrong age."
But the Japanese star was uncharacteristically off in qualifying and the team finals, perhaps feeling the pressure of pursuing gold. The Japanese have been runners-up to China at the Beijing Olympics and the last 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.
Whatever ailed him, it was gone Wednesday. He didn't post a score below 15.1, and had the lead after only three events.
"He's been a rock the last four years, and he really deserves that gold medal today," Britain's Kristian Thomas said. "It speaks for itself. I had no doubt he'd bring his 'A' game today and that's just what he did. That's the sign of a true champion."
What makes Uchimura so special is that he doesn't seem to have any flaws. When Yang Wei was running roughshod over the competition in the last Olympic cycle, winning a pair of world titles and the gold medal in Beijing, he did it through sheer strength. He bulked up his routines with so much difficulty he started most meets two or three points ahead.
But there's "art" in artistic gymnastics, and Yang didn't have it. He managed to win one of his world titles despite taking such a big fall on high bar that he rolled off the mat to the edge of the podium.
Uchimura has the tough tricks, but does them with such elegance and precision that his routines look more like performance art.
"I like perfection," Uchimura said.
Starting on pommel horse, he was far more composed than he had been the previous two competitions. His lower body looked as if it was on a swivel as he worked his way around the horse, his legs swinging in perfect unison while his torso stayed perfectly still. The slap-slap-slap of his hands was mesmerizing.
He gave a slight smile when he landed his dismount, as if to say, "Whew!" then proceeded to bury the competition.
"He's in a different world," German coach Andreas Hirsch said. "He wasn't part of this competition. Uchimura was just like barricaded in his own way."
Uchimura may lack the Hulk-like biceps of the top rings guys, but don't test him in an arm wrestling contest. He hung upside down, batlike, for several seconds, a position that would leave anyone out of sorts — not to mention dizzy. He pressed back and up into a perfect handstand, barely making the cables sway.
His score of 15.333 moved him into fourth place — notable because the three guys ahead of him had already done vault, which inflates the scores.
Sure enough, Uchimura stuck his vault stone cold and leaped to the top of the standings. No one was going to catch him.
"If I spoke Japanese, I would tell him that he is the best gymnast that ever lived — so far. I'm going to keep working to beat him," Leyva said. "His gymnastics is just so beautiful. ... I'm working toward that. I'm not trying to copy his style, I have my own style. I need to perfect me more to beat him."
Leyva 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 first event. But as the guys above him faltered — Uchimura's teammate Kazuhito Tanaka had a medal until he fell on his last two events — Leyva slowly chipped away at the lead.
And when he got to p-bars, where he's the reigning world champion, and high bar, he was dazzling.
Leyva's p-bars routine is filled with intricate combinations, yet he does them with the rhythm and grace of an artist. He is perfectly still on handstands, his toes perfectly pointed, his legs perfectly straight.
His high bar routine is better than any circus act — a two-for-one show, actually. While Leyva dazzles the crowd with three release moves, Alvarez was doing the routine right along with him down on the floor. Fans laughed as Alvarez dipped, swayed and gave little kicks of his feet, and he couldn't contain himself when Leyva hit the mat with an emphatic THUMP!
He jumped up and down and then grabbed Leyva in a bearhug, planting a kiss on the top of his head.
"This was definitely a redemption not only for me but for the whole Team USA," Leyva said. "I didn't do the pommel routine I wanted to do, that I knew that I could. But I used it to channel into positive energy. I kept fighting and finished strong, and I'm really, really happy with the way that I finished."