ST. LOUIS (AP) — John Orozco rallied to win the U.S. men’s gymnastics championships on Saturday, edging defending champion Danell Leyva on the last rotation to give the Americans a potent one-two punch at next month’s London Olympics.
The 19-year-old from the Bronx trailed Leyva by two points with two events to go before putting together a pair of spectacular routines on high bar and floor exercise to lift the three-time U.S. junior champion to victory.
Orozco finished with a two-round total of 184.850, barely ahead of Leyva’s 184.800.
Leyva and Orozco can book their flights across the Atlantic as the leaders of perhaps the deepest American team since 1984.
Sam Mikulak, Jonathan Horton, Jake Dalton and Chris Brooks also secured automatic bids to the Olympic trials in three weeks.
Brandon Wynn, Paul Ruggeri, David Sender and Alex Buscaglia were awarded trial spots based on a points system developed by USA Gymnastics officials. The five remaining trial berths will come by invitation from the selection committee.
Orozco led throughout the opening round on Thursday before Leyva slid past him with a thrilling parallel bars routine in the waning moments to take a 0.05 lead into the finals.
Leyva’s advantage blossomed to 2.05 points through the first four events on Saturday, buoyed by electric performances on parallel bars and high bar. The routines were dramatic and daring.
Orozco lacks Levya’s flair but makes up for it with quiet elegance and precision. Both were on display as Orozco tracked down Leyva.
While Leyva labored through his pommel horse routine, Orozco – with his mother Damaris `watching’ from the stands with her eyes covered – sailed over the high bar to post a score of 15.850 and draw within less than a point.
Still, Leyva appeared to have things in hand and looked safe after a clean run on the still rings. He and stepfather/coach Yin Alvarez celebrated after Leyva stuck the landing, figuring his 14.550 was enough to earn Leyva a second straight national title.
The ever hyper Alvarez leapt into the air three times and clapped repeatedly before joining his stepson in a warm embrace.
One problem. Orozco wasn’t quite done yet.
The soft-spoken kid who grew up in a gritty New York City neighborhood has been dubbed the “Silent Ninja” by his U.S. teammates because of his ability to sneak up on the competition. Moving fluidly through his 45-second floor routine, Orozco channeled a breakdancer while doing a series of flares – the only thing missing was a headspin – and looked cemented to the ground at the end of each tumbling run, not a misstep in sight.
Orozco stared anxiously at the scoreboard for the results to be posted. When the 15.500 came up, it didn’t immediately register.
It did in the stands. While his father, Willie, took pictures of the leaderboard, his mother shrieked with joy. Only when teammates and coach Vitaly Marinitch began offering congratulations did Orozco seem to get it. Meanwhile, Leyva quietly put on his warm-up outfit, disappointed but hardly displeased.
After all, if he and Orozco can duplicate their scores in London, the U.S. is a legitimate threat to reach the top of the podium for the first time in 28 years. Orozco didn’t win an individual gold this weekend but finished in the top eight in all six events.
Leyva took first in high bar and parallel bars, events that allow him to showcase his sometimes breathtaking talent.
The world champion in parallel bars moved effortlessly back and forth across the chalky sticks 6 1/2 feet off the ground, his hands in constant motion as he flawlessly strung together a series of ambitious tricks few others can match. His 16.0 score gave him some breathing room, but Leyva turned the gap between he and Orozco into a chasm on the high bar, gymnastics’ version of a roller coaster.
And just like an expert rider, Leyva had no fear letting go.
In addition to four tricky release moves – all of which ended with Levya casually grabbing the bar as if he was snatching a towel walking out of the shower – he came to a full stop at the apex of his swing and did a little hop as if to say “look mom, no hands.”
Leyva couldn’t hold onto the lead, but then again he stressed during the week a championship here pales in comparison to peaking in time for London.
This meet is the first of a three-week test that will end with five gymnasts getting their passports stamped for the games. The top five finishers all scored over 90 points – considered the threshold for an elite Olympic gymnast – for the second straight round.
Three of them – Leyva, Orozco and Horton – were part of last year’s world team that won bronze in Tokyo while Brooks was the alternate. Mikulak may have been a part of that group as well if not for a freak accident during a meet in Puerto Rico last summer in which he broke both of his ankles.
The 2012 NCAA all-around runner-up is healthy now and showed he’s a serious contender to make the squad, finishing in the top five in four events on a day the Americans showed the efforts to rebuild the program under team coordinator Kevin Mazeika are paying off.