THE U.S. men's gymnastics team came to London determined not to let its more celebrated female teammates hog all the headlines. On the third day of competition, that plan hit a snag: Despite qualifying first, the U.S. men finished fifth in the team competition on Monday, six points behind China and two points out of the third-place position they earned at last year's world championships. "It's just going to push us to get better," Danell Leyva said. "What you saw on Saturday [in qualifying], that was more like what we know we can do. Our best is ahead of us."
It was a disappointing start to the Games, but in some ways the members of this men's team were already supremely accomplished before they landed in London. Led by the Cuban-born Leyva, 20, who was first all-around in the qualification round, and inner-city New Yorker John Orozco, 19, who was fourth, the squad has added a full twist to a U.S. gymnastics program that had been as diverse as a vat of gym chalk. "For years I thought we were never really able to tap into all the resources this country has," says Peter Vidmar, a pommel horse gold medalist for the last U.S. team to win the Olympic team title, in 1984, and now the USA Gymnastics chairman. "A lot of kids were left out of gymnastics because they weren't exposed to it. We kind of all looked the same. This is the new face of USA gymnastics and it's great."
The squad didn't march in last Friday's opening ceremony because team qualifying began the next day, but the gymnasts still donned their parade of nations outfits—"funny berets and all," says Orozco—and watched the proceedings together from the athletes' village. It's a close-knit group—Sam Mikulak, 19, and Jake Dalton, 20, round out the roster—and it could be around for another quadrennium. "They're so much more composed than I was then," says Jonathan Horton, the old man of the team at 26. "When a guy messes up, the others have his back."
That composure is largely due to the fact that both Orozco, who won U.S. nationals in early June, and Leyva, who was first at trials four weeks later, have imperfectly choreographed lives that deserve bonus points for originality and difficulty.
Orozco grew up in Soundview, a largely Puerto Rican neighborhood in the combustible 43rd Precinct in the Bronx, where nearly half the population lives below the poverty line. His dad, William, who worked for the city's sanitation department for 19 years, noticed a flyer about an inner-city gymnastics program while on his route, and his wife, Damaris, brought their undersized seven-year-old to the gym in Manhattan. "They told me, 'We are not a babysitting service,' " she recalls. "I said, 'You underestimate my son.' " Two months after enrolling, Orozco was the fearless fourth tier of a human pyramid during halftime at a Knicks game. He also earned a taekwondo black belt at age nine. Despite his athletic precociousness, his parents preached restraint and humility that is still evident in his whispered speech.
His parents drove to meets instead of flying, sleeping in the seats of a Honda van and putting a mattress in the back for Orozco. In 2007, John and Damaris were at a meet in San Jose when William suffered a stroke and had to retire six months shy of a full pension. He couldn't walk or see out of his left eye. Orozco started working birthday parties at the gym where he trained and gave William his first paycheck, worth $400, to put toward the mortgage. "You need it more than I do," John said.
LEYVA'S MOTHER, Maria Gonzalez, defected to the U.S. through Peru in 1993, hoping to make a better life for her asthmatic one-year-old baby, Danell. Yin Alvarez, who had been Gonzalez's teammate on the Cuban gymnastics squad, had swum across the Rio Grande the year before, escaping from his team while it was competing in Mexico. In Miami he reconnected with Gonzalez, and while he cleaned bathrooms to earn money, he talked about his fantasy of opening his own gym. Alvarez worked his way up from using a storage unit lined with mattresses as a makeshift gym, married Gonzalez in 2001 and became Danell's inspiration. "I was loco," Alvarez says, "but they supported me."
Alvarez coached Danell to a U.S. junior title at 14, a spot on the U.S. world team at 17 and a world title on parallel bars last year. Leyva is a classy, stylish performer. The stepfather is simply great theater. During routines, the ebullient Alvarez sways and spins in tandem with Leyva before going into a celebratory dance. Last Saturday, Alvarez pranced about the arena aisles since he was not picked as one of the two U.S. coaches on the floor. Leaning against a railing, he watched with glee as the team huddled triumphantly after finishing first in the qualifying session. "I am celebrating life," he said. "I represent the best country. My boy is having the best time. How should I not smile, my friend? American dream, this team. We believe in these things."
Though both Leyva and Orozco had major blunders on the pommel horse on Monday, the team remains optimistic. "Bouncing back from this is our biggest test," Leyva says.