ST. LOUIS -- Danell Leyva entered the Chaifetz Arena Thursday night with his goal clear as can be: to make the Olympic team selection committee’s decision easy.
But the reigning Olympic all-around bronze medalist had a major obstacle to overcome entering the U.S. Olympic Team Trials for Men’s Gymnastics. Halfway through the four nights of competition that would determine his fate, he stood 16th in the all-around and hadn’t reached the top-three in any event total scores after a dismal performance at the P&G Gymnastics Championships three weeks ago in Hartford, Connecticut.
(The two nights of competition at the P&G Championships combine with the two-night Olympic Trials to determine the Olympic team. If any athletes finish top-two in the all-around and top-three in three events, they automatically qualify; the remainder of the spots are filled by committee.)
Unlike in 2012, when he was a favorite to make the Olympic team and even medal at the Games, Leyva was on hardly anyone’s list to make the Olympic team entering St. Louis. In fact, he did not even move on to Olympic Trials automatically. The top 13 all-arounders in Hartford were chosen, as well as a handful of discretionary picks, Leyva being one.
Yet in the first half of what he hopes is an Olympic-sized comeback, Leyva quieted any doubters and moved himself securely onto several Olympic team prediction lists.
The 24-year-old finished the first night of Olympic Trials ranked third in the all-around with a total of 88.725, just 0.45 points from second-place Chris Brooks (89.175) and 1.925 points away from the night’s winner, Sam Mikulak (90.650).
So what changed between Hartford and St. Louis?
Leyva’s preparation, for starters.
He entered the P&G Championships with a bandage on his leg, having just recovered from gnarly dog bites he endured a month earlier after trying to break up a fight between his two American bulldogs.
“For the first four days, I couldn’t move my foot at all and any time I would have it lower than my hip it was pretty massive pain,” Leyva said. “In the mornings, it was pretty bad.
“There’s always that little bit of lack of confidence in your mind when something like that happens. I was always a little scared to land short. At first that was on my mind a lot, but after I realized I was fine I went all out.”
The additional time he had to prepare for Olympic Trials made all the difference. He said prior to the competition, “I feel really solid mentally as well as physically, and I’m just excited.”
“My job is actually to make it easy for the selection committee,” Leyva said when asked if his solid performance Thursday would make the decision difficult. “My job is to make it so they’re like, ‘Well he’s on the team, for sure.’ I feel like that’s what Sam’s been doing and obviously it’s working well, so that’s what I’m trying to do as well.”
Proving his point, Leyva put up the second-highest score of the night on parallel bars, earning a 15.600, also good enough for the third-highest parallel bars score of the three nights of competition so far.
He also landed the third-highest high bar score of the evening (15.225), behind John Orozco, who is also struggling in his attempt to make a second Olympic team, and Brooks, who, despite being second in the all-around, has only two strong events in his repertoire and an uphill road ahead of him to make his first Olympic team.
Leyva ended his night on pommel horse, traditionally the weakest event for the U.S. men, where he earned a 14.675, his highest score in the event at a national-level meet since the 2012 Olympic Trials.
“(My pommel horse routine felt) as good as you guys can imagine it felt, honestly.”
While Leyva competes on all six events and is capable of being a contender in the all-around, as he proved at the 2012 Olympics, he said he focuses specifically on those three apparatuses in training and knows that is where he can contribute most to Team USA should he make the 2016 Olympic team.
Now he just has to prove that once more on Saturday night and hope the selection committee agrees.