LONDON -- This is about high bars -- the metaphorical one that a coolly dominant Japanese gymnast continued to set for his competitors in winning an Olympic gold medal, and the literal one that one of his American counterparts used to claw his way to a bronze. Kohei Uchimura and Danell Leyva took very different trips on Wednesday in the all-around final of men's gymnastics, but both journeys ended the way they wanted them to -- on the medal stand.
In the process, they reminded us again that there is more than one way to "win" in the Olympics, that gold isn't the only thing that represents victory. That medal was never really in doubt for Uchimura, who was his usual graceful, efficient self in adding Olympic gold to his three straight world championships. But he seemed less gratified by completing that unprecedented feat than he was at simply performing up to his standards after somewhat subpar work in both the team preliminaries and final.
"I have not been pleased with myself," he said Wednesday. "This was better. This was a better example of my abilities."
Perhaps it's because he has known such unqualified success that Uchimura, 23, can be detached and analytical in victory. Leyva and his stepfather and coach, Yin Alvarez, couldn't manage to be quite so composed after the way Leyva, 20, fought his way from the bottom of the standings to the podium.
"Oh, my God, I was jumping around," the always animated Alvarez said. "So excited. To come from where he came from, after the way he started? Too much. Too much."
After the first two of the six rotations, Leyva was 19th out of 24 gymnasts, due mainly to a pommel horse routine on which he awkwardly lost control trying to go to a handstand. That reduced him to an afterthought for most of the competition, as most of the attention was focused on Uchimura. Leyva quietly rose through the ranks with solid routines on the floor exercise, parallel bars and rings until it became clear that he was moving into medal contention. He was fifth going into his final apparatus, the high bar.
Now, there are a few things that you should know about Leyva and the high bar. One is that he is normally very good at it.
"A natural," Alvarez said. "I just wanted him to be at least close to a medal when he got to the high bar. If he was, I knew he would do it."
The second thing is that even though it is one of his strongest areas, when he fails on it, he fails big. In the all-around at the world championships last year, he took a nasty fall off it on which his face came so close to the bar that he narrowly missed leaving a few teeth in it. The third is that one of his first experiences with the bar in competition was both frightening and, in the end, encouraging.
"He was 5 years old and we went to an AAU tournament," Alvarez said. "First event, high bar. Danny swung so high that he flew off the bar. I tried to catch him, but that was the worst thing I could have done, because I missed and it just made him land on his head, boom, into the mat. My wife and I took him to the trainer and Danny just said, 'I need to finish my high bar.' I told him, 'No, forget it.' But he wanted to do it because he knew he was good at it. So he went to the judge behind my back and said, 'I need to finish my high bar.' They let him finish and he won the meet."
Maybe that's why both Leyva and Alvarez felt so confident when he walked to the bar and looked up at it. Leyva treated the most pressure-filled routine of his career as if it was just another AAU meet. He flew through his routine, in perhaps the most self-assured performance of the Games for the American male gymnasts. Leyva has dreams of being an actor -- he says he wants to win an Emmy, Grammy, Oscar and Tony award -- and he certainly put on a performance on the bar. He got remarkable height on his releases, drawing gasps from the crowd as he confidently caught the bar again on his descents.
"I wanted to add some flourishes," he said. "I felt like I wanted to let it all go, to make my run at it."
Leyva earned a 15.700 from the judges, good enough to vault him past Mykola Kuksenkov of the Ukraine and David Belyavskiy of Russia into third place. (Marcel Nguyen of Germany finished second.)
When it was over, Alvarez held court with reporters, telling of how his confidence that Leyva could win a medal never wavered, and why should it have? They had faced far more daunting situations than this. Alvarez, a former gymnast on the Cuban national team, defected from the country in 1992 while competing at a meet in Mexico City. He swam across the Rio Grande to the U.S., where he eventually started a gymnastics school in Miami. A year later, his former teammate Maria Gonzalez left Cuba as well, with her infant son, Danell. Gonzalez and Alvarez were eventually reunited and married in 2001.
"We have faced some things, Danny and his mother and I," Alvarez said. "Forget about gymnastics. Just to be in a country where there is freedom is like a dream. This, the medal, everything else is extra, a bonus."
But Leyva knows that the medal means as much to his stepfather as it does to him. He held the bronze in his hands after the competition, looking at it, marveling at it, knowing that he might not hold it for very much longer.
"Yin will probably take it from me because he's afraid I'll lose it," he said, laughing. "Either that or he'll make a chain for himself out of it."
As much as they'll treasure the medal, and remember fondly how Leyva battled to win it, they both have bigger dreams.
"Danny will say he's happy but not satisfied," Alvarez predicted, and a few moments later, Leyva came out and said exactly those words.
He was not satisfied because he wants to someday grab another high bar, the one the great Uchimura has set.
"I was disappointed that he wasn't in my group on the rotations," Leyva said. "I wanted to just look at him, he's so fantastic."
But if Leyva can climb from near the bottom of the standings to the podium, if he can perform so confidently with a medal on the line, why can't he someday challenge the best there is? That's obviously what he has in mind. He and Uchimura exchanged a quick hug on the medal stand, but didn't have much time to talk.
"If I could speak Japanese, I would tell him that he's the best ever," Leyva said. Then he added, "For now."