RIO DE JANEIRO — They wrapped the strongest of arms around him, pulling him in close for a group embrace. And Danell Leyva appreciated it, he did. But there was nothing his teammates could say, no hug hard enough, to allow him to absolve himself.
Not at that moment, anyway. Not seconds after his hands slipped off the high bar on the Americans’ final routine of the team gymnastics finals Monday night, ensuring they would miss the podium in a second straight fifth-place Olympic finish. Japan ended up edging out Russia for the gold, and two-time defending Olympic champion China took bronze.
This is a tough man, having returned to competition two months ago after having a sizable chunk bitten out of his calf when trying to break up a dog fight. He is a powerful man, excelling in a sport that few would argue is one of the most physically grueling in the world.
And he is resilient, the all-around bronze medalist four years ago accepting his place as an alternate with grace and a positive attitude until two weeks before the Games, when he was placed on the U.S. team after a teammate was injured.
But as Leyva crouched on the mat, his teammates urging him on, there was only “disbelief, shock, obviously disappointment,” he said. “I didn’t know what happened.”
What happened in the big picture was not all on Leyva. Rather, the U.S. men, as buoyant a group as their female counterparts are talented, came out on floor in their first rotation and succumbed to what they described as jitters.
“I really don’t know what happened, honestly, it happened so quick,” said Alex Naddour, the first performer who faltered on a front double and full combination, then fell on his full layout dismount. “My legs felt a little bit tired, I guess, and so I rushed the twist and meant to do a full-out and did a full-in and kind of got lost.
“I tried my best … and tried to land it, but it just kind of happens in this sport.”
As also happens in this sport, Mikulak followed and seemingly got sucked into the vortex of nerves, stepping out of bounds on his first two tumbling passes.
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The U.S. men’s gymnastics team squandered a strong qualifying start only to fall to fifth overall (again) in Monday’s final. Japan won the gold, ahead of Russia and China.
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“I was a little jittery, a little cautious,” he said. “Sometimes you go out of bounds, sometimes you don’t, that’s just how it is.”
And just as he is, Mikulak never lost his voice, either figuratively or literally.
“I just started screaming and shouting at everyone at that point,” he said. “That’s how we train, as men. Believe in yourself. Go attack it. I think we started with too little belief.”
Indeed, the Americans picked it up from then on, with solid sets on pommel horse and rings, better still on vault and parallel bars, inching into sixth-place after the fourth rotation and into fifth-place after the fifth, within striking distance of the podium.
Selling each routine upon completion with shouts of “Let’s go,” accompanied by self-inflicted chest thumps, they set up a dramatic conclusion.
And when Mikulak ripped off a 15.7 on high bar and Chris Brooks a 15.1, it seemed only logical that Leyva, who qualified for the high bar finals along with parallel bars, would follow suit.
Before the competition began, Brooks had given his teammates a pep talk.
“I told all of them before we started that I can look each and every one of them in the eyes and say I know we did everything we physically could to prepare for this moment,” he said. “So I just reminded them to trust themselves and be aggressive and if there’s mistakes while you’re being aggressive, that’s just part of the sport, that’s the nature of it. But if there’s mistakes when you’re being timid, that’s when you can get a little frustrated with yourself.
“But we were aggressive in my opinion. We got the ball rolling about halfway through and tried to finish it out and had a mistake at the end but Leyva was being very aggressive. He was going for the bar, he was going for the connection and that’s what I told him to do. That’s what we want from him.”
Leyva’s stepfather, also his private coach, told him he tried to make the connection too early.
“My grip wasn’t really on the bar and I really tried to hang on, I really did, but I just slipped off,” Leyva said. “I don’t know how it happened, I can’t tell you what I did.”
The fact that even if he had hit, the U.S. may still not have made it to the podium, did not cheer him up afterward.
“No, I’m still going to feel like it was my fault,” he said. “I was the last routine and I should have hit no matter what.”
After getting up and completing his routine, Leyva walked over to his teammates and apologized.
“You can’t say sorry,” Brooks told him. “There’s nothing to be sorry about.”
Leyva was being aggressive, Brooks said. “He did exactly what we asked and the bar slipped out of his hands. It happens to everybody. It’s gymnastics. It’s extremely difficult. But I’m proud of him to get up in that moment and finish the way he did.”
That the sport is fragile and fickle is nothing new to any of them, least of all Leyva, and it didn’t help to be reminded.
“I wish I could use it as a consolation, but that’s what makes the sport so intense, that’s what makes it the hardest sport in the world,” he said. “Any small little thing can make a huge difference, you know.”
In the group hug, they said they loved each other.
“It’s one thing if you go out and someone on the team didn’t do this or that and then they make a mistake and mess up,” Naddour said. “It’s a whole other thing when you know everyone’s been sacrificing, working on their diet, training day in and day out. It doesn’t feel as badly.”
They will move on to all-around finals with Mikulak and Brooks, and to apparatus finals with all five participating in at least one event.
“I still think we’re on the road to success,” said Jake Dalton. “Today, yeah, it wasn’t our best day but we showed we were second best in the world in prelims. I know we can contend for the podium but we just didn’t have our best day today.”
For Leyva, who patiently answered every question about the slip, regrouping is his only option.
“I left it out there,” he said, pointing to the arena floor. “That’s it. There’s nothing I can do about that routine anymore, you know. The only thing I can do is the routine I have.
“The only thing I can say is I tried grabbing the bar and it slipped off.”