By Mark Lamport-Stokes
SAN JOSE, California, June 30 (Reuters) – World parallel bars champion Danell Leyva and John Orozco booked their tickets to the London Games by finishing in the top two after the final day of men’s competition at the U.S. Olympic trials on Saturday.
Cuba-born Leyva emerged narrowly ahead after an enthralling battle with Orozco to head the overall standings, based on combined scores from the U.S. gymnastics nationals and the trials, on 368.350.
U.S. all-around champion Orozco, who had led going into the final routine of the afternoon at the HP Pavilion before he made a slight error on the parallel bars, was second on 367.400.
“It’s very surreal, super unbelievable,” an emotional Leyva said in the center of the arena after he and Orozco were formally introduced to the crowd. “I just finished my Olympic trials and I am so happy to be here.”
Asked later to assess the significance of a journey to the U.S. Olympic team that began when he left Cuba as a baby with his mother, the 20-year-old replied: “It’s amazing. It’s a great experience.
“I have so much gratitude and feel so privileged… because I wasn’t born here and yet they have welcomed me with open arms to compete and represent them.”
A teary-eyed Orozco, like Leyva now set to make his debut at the Olympics, said: “I can’t believe that I’m really here right now. We did it. Nothing is better than this right now.”
Jonathan Horton, the 2008 Olympic silver medalist on high bar, finished third (361.500). Jake Dalton and Chris Brooks were joint fourth (358.350) but the remaining three spots in the team will be announced by a selection committee on Sunday.
The likely three additions will be Horton, Dalton and Sam Mikulak, who was third in the standings after the first day of the trials but took part in only the pommel horse on Saturday due to a sprained left ankle.
Mikulak, the 2012 U.S. parallel bars silver medalist, is one of the rising talents in American gymnastics and his place in the Olympic team had always looked secure.
“I am just hoping that everything I have done in the past few weeks is enough for them (the selection committee) and they know that I am reliable and that’s just an ankle sprain,” the 19-year-old said.
“I will be back in no time and hopefully stronger than ever. I will have plenty of time to be fully recovered if I am selected to go to London.”
On the final day of the men’s competition, Leyva set the tone for his duel with Orozco with a stunning performance in his opening high bar routine, sending the crowd wild as he executed a high level of difficulty to earn 16.300.
He then lost ground on his floor exercise routine after making a surprising error by falling on a strength pose to end with a score of just 14.450.
Less flamboyant than Leyva but more consistent, Orozco closed the gap with rock-solid routines on the floor and pommel horse before edging ahead with a superb performance on the rings.
Orozco, dubbed the “Silent Ninja’, increased his lead on the vault with a score of 16.050 but then opened the door for Leyva in the final routine, earning just 14.350 after a slight wobble on the parallel bars when his hand cramped.
“P-bars, I am still a little frustrated,” the 19-year-old Orozco said. “I wanted to finish up good and have an almost perfect competition but that didn’t happen. It doesn’t matter now because I did what I had to do.”
With a near-capacity crowd of 10,516 watching, 2011 world parallel bars champion Leyva then took his turn on his strongest discipline and delivered in style, earning 15.850 on the parallel bars.
He saluted the crowd in triumph and his showman step-father and coach Yin Alvarez then bowed to him extravagantly several times before they warmly embraced in a bear hug.