Commentary

U.S. men can't overcome early errors

After finishing first in qualifying, Americans slide to fifth; China wins gold

Updated: July 30, 2012, 10:51 PM ET
By Bonnie D. Ford

LONDON -- He was the athlete of whom most was expected within a group that generated great expectations, and when the scores in the Olympic men's team gymnastics final went up for the world to see, Danell Leyva was the one who took it the hardest.

The U.S. quintet slid from first in qualifying to fifth with medals on the line as early errors proved contagious. Leyva had only one truly dreadful showing. It came, not surprisingly, on the pommel horse, which has been a nemesis not only for him but for the American men in general for years now. And it came at a bad time. He was first up on the horse and got bucked.

Sometimes that seems to set a tone. Monday was one of those days.

Later in the afternoon, Leyva had a couple of uncharacteristic wobbles on the parallel bars -- the event in which he is reigning world champion -- that were enough to knock him out of the individual event final later this week.

[+] EnlargeDanell Leyva
David Eulitt/Kansas City Star/Getty ImagesDanell Leyva had to restart his routine on the pommel horse, then had uncharacteristic wobbles on the parallel bars as the U.S. men faltered.

As the crowd waited out a scoring appeal that shuffled the order on the podium and delayed the medal ceremony, Leyva slumped disconsolately in a chair near the horizontal bar where he had performed the best of his four routines. Team captain Jonathan Horton, a 26-year-old double Olympic medalist and the only U.S. man who has been here before, saw his 20-year-old teammate crying and tried to comfort him, but Leyva only shook harder.

He was composed by the time he spoke to reporters more than an hour later and remained calm when he was asked the inevitable: What will you say when people say you choked?

"We weren't really shaking or anything," Leyva said. "It wasn't [as if] we were scared. We were just off. We just didn't do what we knew we could do."

Perhaps it wasn't the best of scenarios for an accomplished but still relatively green team to walk into the final as the top qualifier. Perhaps it wasn't the most ideal order in the world for the United States to compete its first two rotations on its two weakest events, the floor exercise and the pommel horse. But everyone has to graduate sometime and the Americans got sent back to study hall instead.

The defending champion Chinese, who looked shaky in qualifying Saturday, remembered who they were and sprinted ahead of the field. Japan, led by world all-around individual champion Kohei Uchimura, took silver after its scoring protest was upheld, and Great Britain captured a bronze for its first team medal in a century. The United States underachieved and no other top country helped out by faltering.

"Our guys know that they're better than fifth place, and they're going to try to show that off through the rest of the competition," said USA Gymnastics president Steve Penny.

John Orozco had arguably the toughest task on the team as the only athlete competing in five out of six events. At 19, he has been challenging Leyva for alpha dog status. But he had a similarly bad ride on the pommel horse and landed his vault, as he confirmed in his postmortem, "on my butt" -- an outcome that was not shocking given his recent struggles with the apparatus.

Orozco looked near tears as head coach Kevin Mazeika tried to steady him, and later turned in respectable performances on the parallel bars and high bar. The team as a whole scrambled its way back to shouting distance of the podium. But it would have taken superlative routines to compensate for the rough start, and that didn't materialize. Instead, the U.S. gymnasts and coaches huddled before the high bar for a group exhortation to exit on a good note, which they did, with Orozco, Horton and Leyva all turning in clean, exciting routines.

Horton said the current championship format -- three athletes per country per apparatus, with no fouls to give -- is completely unforgiving. "You know you don't have a routine to throw out," he said. "The nerves really kick in. It's tough. And it's a young group of guys, 19- and 20-year-old guys who are going out there trying to win an Olympic gold medal.

"You do everything you possibly can to keep everybody calm and relaxed … but we all want this so bad. And when you want something so bad, sometimes you just get caught up in the moment and you can't perform at your best. But they're going to learn from it. This group's going to be around for a while, and we'll be back in Rio."

The Olympics, as Horton noted, is "a whole new beast" from the world championships, where the U.S. team earned a bronze last year.

"I'm someone who is very visual in his training, and it was very hard, because I had never been to an Olympic Games before," Leyva said. "But now I know the feeling. Now I know what the crowd is gonna be like. Now I know what the air is gonna taste like when I'm in training, so it's going to help me in my training in the next four years leading up to Rio."

So what does the air in the North Greenwich Arena taste like?

"It tastes like chalk and sweat," Leyva said.

Exactly the same as the gym back in Hickory, as Gene Hackman told his mighty small-town players when he had them measure the height of the basket before the state championship game in "Hoosiers." The dimensions of the event overwhelmed the U.S. team this time and the takeaway is a rite of passage instead of a promotion in rank.

Bonnie D. Ford

Enterprise and Olympic Sports
Bonnie D. Ford is a senior writer for ESPN.com.

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