RIO DE JANEIRO – Injured from a freak accident and having finished 16th at the national championships in early June, Danell Leyva surely didn’t think he would win two silver medals at the Olympics in two months’ time, did he?
“I probably would have argued with you and said, ‘No! I’m going to win gold!’” an elated Leyva told reporters Tuesday after placing second in both the parallel bars and high bar event finals.
His pair of medals took the U.S. men from one to three podium spots at Rio 2016 following Alex Naddour’s bronze on pommel horse.
But Leyva was smiling through it all: He was an alternate for Team USA who was called up to replace John Orozco after his 2012 teammate tore his ACL exactly a month ago, and four weeks later he won his second and third Olympic medals, having won all-around bronze in London in 2012.
“It’s incredible. It’s a dream come true,” Leyva said, still beaming. “Nobody has a perfect day, but this is as close to perfect as I could have gotten. I’m incredibly happy.”
As was Leyva’s stepfather and coach, Yin Alvarez, who famously runs from corner to corner of the competition floor in celebration when Leyva hits a solid set. On Tuesday, he got his steps in, Leyva delivering a 15.9 on parallel bars and then a 15.6 on high bar.
“Two medals in one day? Last Olympics we expected more,” Alvarez told reporters. “We got one bronze medal, which was amazing, but coming here, it was a lot of emotion to see this guy come from being a replacement athlete to having the courage to say I’m ready and I’m here.”
It was days before nationals that Leyva’s dogs got in a fight at home, the Miami native trying to break it up and suffering from a series of bad – if not terrible – bites on his legs. He was heavily bandaged in Hartford, Connecticut, when he finished 16th, and many wrote his Olympic chances off completely.
But two weeks later in St. Louis at Olympic Trials he put forth a valiant effort, and when he was named as an alternate he said it was an honor more than anything else, while some expected him to be disappointed.
There was disappointment on Tuesday for Sam Mikulak, the four-time U.S. all-around champion who has some of the best skills in the world but continues to struggle in his delivery on the international stage.
He finished fourth on the high bar, 0.066 out of the medals, Nile Wilson of Great Britain scoring a 15.466 to Mikulak’s 15.4.
“I went out there with an upgraded high bar set, so I was happy with the performance I put on,” said Mikulak, who upped the ante for the final. “I’m so proud of Leyva and Naddour bringing home medals for our country. If anyone is going to bump me out, let it be an American. I’m so proud of Danell. The kid has worked his heart out for these moments. He deserves everything that he gets.”
Mikulak watched as Leyva – last to go on the high bar – did bump him out, soaring through a savvy and aggressive routine that had Alvarez jumping for joy. Rio marked the first time the U.S. men won three medals at an Olympics since 2004, the first time an American medaled on pommel horse since 1984, the first time an American medaled on parallel bars since 1996 and the first time an American medaled on high bar since 2008.
Leyva – as he has done throughout his career – shook off any criticism of an attempted comeback and – through an unfortunate injury, made the most of Rio Games.
“You have to believe in yourself and know that you can do more than what people expect,” Leyva said. “I was just happy that I was able to enjoy as much as I could.”
Leyva had fallen in the team final last week on high bar as the last American up in the team’s final rotation, and though the U.S. was already out of medal contention, he was shaken with disappointment at the mistake.
“This was a redemption not only for me but for the team, as well,” he said Tuesday, silver medal around his neck. “My success is as much as for the team as it is for me.”
Leyva had gone first on parallel bars, stressed through the next seven routines to see where he would land on the podium, then had the flip experience on high bar: Last up. Teammates Simone Biles and Aly Raisman watched from the media mixed zone on a TV as he went. His routine was not only the last of the high bar, but the last of the entire Olympic artistic gymnastics competition.
“It was a little stressful to wait for all the scores,” Leyva laughed. “It couldn’t have been more perfect though. It was an honor to know that my routine closed out the Olympics. I did it like that. I couldn’t have asked for more. I couldn’t be happier.”
Leyva, an Olympian already in 2012, never had a doubt that he would make it back from the bite injuries, saying that even right after it happened, he believed he could make a comeback.
“As soon as I got back from the hospital, I knew I would be back,” Leyva said. “The doctor said he has never seen someone heal so quickly. Nothing was going to stop me.”
“He never gave up,” Alvarez said. “I think this was the best two routines he’s ever done. These were two amazing finals. We never had a doubt. It was an honor just for him to compete. Maybe he’s not as good as he was in 2012 at the all-around, but gymnastics-wise, he’s more prepared and more mentally tough.”
And now with two more medals added to his Olympic collection.