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Kohei Uchimura Wins Gold Medal In Men's Gymnastics Individual All-Around, Danell Leyva Wins Bronze

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UCHIMURA
Japanese gymnast Kohei Uchimura gestures after his performance on the pommel horse during the artistic gymnastics men's individual all-around competition at the 2012 Summer Olympics, Wednesday, Aug. 1, 2012, in London. (AP Photo/Julie Jacobson) | AP

LONDON — Like pretty much everybody, Danell Leyva thinks Kohei Uchimura is the greatest male gymnast who's ever lived.

For now.

While the three-time world champion was solidifying his exalted status with the Olympic title Wednesday, all but wrapping up the gold midway through the meet, Leyva gave a glimpse of what the young American hopes could be the sport's next great rivalry. Closing with perhaps the two most spectacular routines of the night, the 20-year-old rallied to land in third place.

It was only the second all-around medal for a U.S. man since 1984, and added yet another chapter to Leyva's incredible story. He fled Cuba as a sickly toddler with his mother and older sister, making their way to Miami through Peru and Venezuela.

"I'm going to keep working to beat him," Leyva said. "His gymnastics is just so beautiful. ... I'm not trying to copy his style. I have my own style. I need to perfect me more to beat him."

Uchimura finished with 92.690 points, almost two in front of Leyva. Marcel Nguyen won the silver, giving Germany its first Olympic medal in the men's all-around since 1936.

When Uchimura finished floor exercise, his final routine, he gave a slight bow to the crowd before breaking into a wide grin. He pumped his fist toward several fans waving Japanese flags as he trotted off the podium, then graciously accepted congratulations from his competitors.

"I have been a world champion three times, three years in a row," Uchimura said. "But this is different. It's once in four years, and the wait was there. I felt like the demon was chasing me this time."

That demon had about as much luck as the rest of the world.

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."

"He's in a different world," German coach Andreas Hirsch said. "He wasn't part of this competition."

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. Even in photographs, there are no signs of the flaws – bent legs, crossed ankles, crooked lines – that bedevil other gymnasts.

"I like perfection," Uchimura said.

The Japanese star was uncharacteristically off in qualifying and the team finals, perhaps feeling the pressure of pursuing gold. Japan was runner-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. 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 didn't post a score below 15.066, and had the lead after only three events.

"He earned the gold medal," Nguyen said. "He is world champion three times in a row, and is the best gymnast. No one will be able to reach him easily."

But Leyva sure wants to give it a go.

Leyva does not have the natural build of a gymnast. His feet are too flat, his backside too big and, truth be told, he was downright pudgy as a child. Even his mother, who was a member of the national team in their native Cuba, said gymnastics was not the right sport for him. But Yin Alvarez, Leyva's stepfather and coach, convinced her to let the boy try.

And what Leyva lacked in natural ability, he has more than made up for in dogged determination and, similar to Uchimura, a relentless quest for perfection.

"You know Danny, Danny always thinks he's going to win," Alvarez said. "And I think there's going to be a chance because the competition is six events."

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 second 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 lightness of a dancer and the rhythm of a musician. 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.

When Leyva's score flashed, guaranteeing he would win a medal, father and son celebrated again. Uchimura's name may have been on top, but Rio will be here before they know it.

"I like that he's up there," Leyva said. "That's what I need to go for, I need to go for that."

___

Follow Nancy Armour at http://www.twitter.com/nrarmour

(This version CORRECTS Corrects Leyva score to 15.066)

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