LONDON – Kohei Uchimura, the Japanese gymnast, did not fool anyone by qualifying in ninth place last week for the Olympic men's all-around event in gymnastics. His competitors knew all along that he would be the one to beat in the final Wednesday, and they were right.
Uchimura, the three-time world champion, took the lead halfway through the all-around competition – and never let it go.
He finished his night on the floor exercise, twisting through the air so quickly during his tumbling passes that he was nothing but a blur. When he was done and his feet finally hit the ground, he walked off with a smile that had been missing from his Olympics so far.
Finally, four years after winning silver in the all-around at the Beijing Games, Uchimura stood atop the medals stand to hear Japan's national anthem being played just for him. He took the gold medal in his hands and examined it, as if to make sure it was real.
"It's like a dream," he said. "I'm thinking about how far I've come, and I'm just so thankful."
Uchimura, 23, is now at the pinnacle of the sport, considered one of the best male gymnasts – if not the best – in history.
He won the gold medal with a score of 92.690 points. Marcel Nguyen of Germany won silver, with 91.031 points. Danell Leyva, 20, who came to the United States from Cuba as a toddler, won bronze, with 90.698 points.
"If I spoke Japanese, I would tell him that he is the best gymnast that ever lived – so far," Leyva said, with a laugh. "I'm going to work to beat him."
John Orozco, the other American in the competition, finished eighth after a poor pommel horse routine derailed him. Leyva also had a rough pommel horse routine, laboring on the dismount. The two Americans also struggled on the pommel horse Monday, in the men's team finals. Favored to win a medal, the U.S. team went home empty-handed.
Leyva got better and better as the meet went on. His pommel horse routine Wednesday had the potential to ruin his night, but he would not let it.
His stepfather and coach, Yin Alvarez had confidence in him, too. No matter how bleak things seem, he said, he never allows Leyva to give up. "I knew a medal is coming – it just depended on what color," he said.
With Alvarez's prodding, Leyva convinced himself he could make a comeback. He stayed focused, knocking out solid efforts until the parallel bars came and he really started to show off. He nailed his routine, scoring 15.833 points, tying the night's best score.
On his last event, the horizontal bar, Levya executed his daring moves so breathtakingly and smoothly – soaring over the bar while flipping and twisting – that the crowd could do nothing but ooh and aah. He scored 15.700, the top high bar score of the competition.
On the floor below him, Alvarez was bursting with excitement. Leyva ran to him, and they hugged each other hard. Finally, they had achieved what both had dreamed about.