LONDON -- With the Olympic all-around title finally in his pocket, Japan's Kohei Uchimura could at last stare down the only competitor who could truly contend with him: history. Looking back, Uchimura has peers, be they former Soviets, Chinese or even his own countrymen. But in his own era, he now stands alone, a winner of three world all-around titles and now an Olympic gold, each by decisive margins.
"He is simply the best," silver medalist Marcel Nguyen said. "To be second behind him is like winning your own competition."
In the mad scramble for the remaining medals behind Uchimura on Wednesday, Danell Leyva, winner of the U.S. Trials in June, rallied from 19th place after a messy pommel horse to capture bronze. But the night really belonged to the unimposing phys ed student at Nippon Sport Science University.
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In fact, Uchimura was the chosen one as early as age 15 when, as a great fan of Japanese gymnastics legend Mitsuo Tsukahara, he moved to Tsukahara's gym hoping for precisely what he achieved in London. Even as he was winning three consecutive world all-around titles by enormous margins, Uchimura would say he was hardly satisfied, as if those competitions were giant preliminary events, appetizers for his planned feast.
Last year, he said he felt he couldn't live up to his own name until he won the Olympics. Talking to International Gymnast Magazine, he explained that Hei derives from the Pacific Ocean and Ko means crossing. To move beyond his borders and evolve from a national star to an international one, he believed, he needed an Olympic title.
Uchimura was his country's best hope for a medal and a source of optimism for a place that was still suffering from the psychological effects of the tsunami last year. Following him around the stands was a large sign that read, in Japanese, "Give us hope. Give us courage. Make us smile."
"I'm so grateful today," he said. "It's not just ability, not just my skills; it's the support that made me stronger."
The Games had started poorly for Uchimura, who finished ninth in individual qualifying and appeared to cost his team a medal two nights later, when he flubbed his dismount on pommel horse in the team event. Judges originally gave him no credit for the element and dropped Japan down to fourth before accepting the team's protest and lifting it up to second. Uchimura admitted to losing sleep over the performance, especially since his roommate and teammate Koji Yamamuro had been injured in the team final. Yamamuro later withdrew from the all-around.
"To be honest, I was not good this morning," he said. "Yamamuro was in bed and we were hoping to join the finals together. I was very regretful today."
On Wednesday, Uchimura happened to start his night on pommels.
"It was my first time starting on that apparatus in the last four years," he said, "so I knew my night would flow from that routine."
It did. Uchimura swung through the same element that felled him and pumped his fist after seeing 15.066. Two events later, he received his highest score of the night, 16.266, after sticking a Yurchenko (round-off) 2½ vault as well as one can.
He modified one release skill, a full-twisting Kovacs, from his high bar routine, knowing that as the night progressed, he had margin for error. "I had a gut feeling I didn't need it," he said. Uchimura still wasn't perfect. He put his hands down on his second tumbling pass on floor, but by then, he had the title wrapped up.
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Leyva had a harder time. Though he usually puts a towel over his head to avoid seeing scores, he inadvertently caught sight of the 13.500 he received on pommel horse, his second event, when he couldn't make his way through a handstand dismount. With a deduction and an omission for not completing the skill, Leyva's coach and stepfather, Yin Alvarez, estimated that judges docked him 1.4 points, enough to drop him behind all but five competitors in the 24-man field. Teammate John Orozco, was one of those competitors after he also whiffed on his pommels dismount. Orozco earned just 12.566, and the U.S. men who had finished first (Leyva) and fourth (Orozco) in Sunday's qualifying session were now stuck in 19th and 24th.
But Alvarez, who takes optimism to extreme sunny-side-up levels, brought up a baseball analogy. His team, he said, was down 11-0 with two outs, nobody on and two strikes in the ninth inning. And the batter, he said, was the pitcher. "I knew we were going to win."
Those odds were about right. But Leyva had his best events ahead. He hit rings for 14.733, vault for 15.566 and parallel bars, the event on which he is the reigning world champion, for 15.833 and then approached high bar. Alvarez knew that from sixth place, Leyva needed to make up about a point on one of his best events. Just after Japan's Kazuhito Tanaka, then standing in second, fell off pommel horse, Leyva hit a superb set. He caught three release skills, including a dynamic fingertip layout Kovacs (double back over the bar), to earn a 15.700.
"I thought I was going to have a heart attack," Alvarez said. "It was perfect, perfect under that pressure. He threw every single skill. When he finished, I said, 'You're going to get a medal. I don't know what color, but you're going to get a medal.' "
It was enough to lift him into third, a better result than the disappointing performance that left the team off the medal stand two nights earlier.
"This is redemption first for me, but also for Team USA," Leyva said.
Given the way he reached third place, Leyva was beaming widely and pumping his right fist as he received his bronze medal to the tune of Chariots of Fire in the background. He put his fingers to his mouth, offering a hearty whistle for Uchimura as he was introduced and laughed as Uchimura fiddled with his medal as he stared down at it.
For Uchimura, it was also a night of redemption, a step up from the Olympics in Beijing, where he fell off pommel horse twice and still took a silver medal behind Yang Wei of China. Now there is only context. Is he the best in the history of his sport?
"I'm flattered," he said, insisting that he would be back in four years. "I don't want to take that as pressure. I want to make artistic gymnastics more artistic, to lift the sport."
For a night, he used it to lift a country.