LONDON (AP) — Bronze medal around his neck, Danell Leyva applauded as Kohei Uchimura took the top spot on the podium.
Hey, no shame finishing behind a guy who might very well be the best gymnast of all time.
Uchimura added Olympic gold to the world titles he's won the last three years, and it was never much of a contest. All but wrapping up the gold midway through the meet, the only question was how big his victory would be and who would be standing next to him on the medals podium.
Uchimura's score of 92.690 was more than 1.5 points ahead of silver medalist Marcel Nguyen of Germany. Leyva closed with two of the most spectacular routines of the day, on parallel bars and high bar, to jump up to third place.
It was an incredible finish for the 20-year-old, who fled Cuba for the United States as a toddler with his mother and older sister. When Leyva saw his high bar score, guaranteeing him a medal, he pumped his fist and threw a few roundhouse punches while his energetic stepfather and coach, Yin Alvarez, hopped up and down and screamed.
"We are a team and any medal counts," Alvarez said.
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."
But the Japanese star was uncharacteristically off in qualifying and the team finals, perhaps feeling the burden of how badly he wanted a gold medal for Japan. The Japanese have been runners-up to China at the Beijing Olympics and the last four world championships, and Uchimura said earlier this year he was "fed up" at always finishing second.
Uchimura finished ninth — 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. He didn't post a score below 15.1, and had the lead after only three events.
"He's been a rock the last four years, and he really deserves that gold medal today," Britain's Kristian Thomas said. "It speaks for itself. I had no doubt he'd bring his 'A' game today and that's just what he did. That's the sign of a true champion."
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, bulking up his routines with so much difficulty he started most meets two or three points ahead.
But there's an "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 all the way 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. 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, while 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.
Uchimura may not have the Hulk-like biceps of the top rings guys, but don't test him in an arm wrestling contest. He hung upside down, batlike, for several seconds, a position that would have most people walking a zig-zag from all that blood rushing to their heads. He pressed back and up into a perfect handstand, barely making the cables sway.
His score of 15.333 moved him into fourth place — notable because the three guys ahead of him had already done vault, which inflates the scores.
Sure enough, Uchimura stuck his vault stone cold and leaped to the top of the standings. No one was going to catch him.