Posted: Friday March 1, 2013 5:16 PM

Danell Leyva looks to defend title at American Cup

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Danell Leyva walked off the podium in London seven months ago with a bronze medal in the gymnastics all-around draped over his neck and a gnawing in his stomach.

Rather than cash in on the stream of offers that came his way, the 21-year-old American took a short vacation before heading back to the gym, his thoughts already drifting toward the 2016 Games in Rio de Janeiro.

"Being there at the Olympics and having the result, you have this feeling of hunger,'' he said. "You just want to get back there already.''

There's still more than three long years to go before Rio, though Leyva already has a tentative plan in place. The next phase? Repeating as champion at this weekend's American Cup in Worcester, Mass.

Leyva rallied to win the event at Madison Square Garden last year in what was the official kickoff of the run-up to London. The momentum helped carry him to victory at the U.S. Olympic trials and his medal at The O2 Arena last August was the only one captured by an American gymnast at the games.

The impact wasn't as widespread as the fame that engulfed the gold-medal winning U.S. women's team or women's all-around champion Gabrielle Douglas. Still, for an athlete who fled Cuba as an infant, being recognized on the street by strangers is pretty heady stuff.

"We don't really know how many people were actually watching the games,'' Leyva said. "Then you get back and every single person you meet is like, `Hey, I saw you.'''

There has been, however, no Olympic hangover. You won't find Leyva chatting with Oprah or hoofing it on "Dancing With the Stars'' or taking a year off.

Don't get Leyva wrong. He's not jealous of the attention lavished on the "Fierce Five.''

"It's cool to watch them get all the glory and stuff,'' Leyva said. "They deserve it. They did a ridiculously amazing job. We'll get ours soon enough. We'll feed off that.''

Leyva allows there will be a distinctly different feel to the American Cup this time around. His performance last spring - when a typically brilliant high bar routine catapulted him from fourth to first in the final rotation - sent a message he was ready to become the standard-bearer for the U.S. men's program.

The triumph at the Garden and Leyva's success in London, combined with a knee injury to friend and rival John Orozco, has left Leyva alone at top. It's not something he takes lightly, though his sights are set on loftier goals.

"I guess that'd be cool if people would be thinking that (I'm the top American),'' he said. "I just want to make it very evident that I want to try and be the best not just in the U.S. but in the world.''

It's a distinction Leyva can inch closer to with a second straight victory in one of the signature events in a non-Olympic year. The eight-man field may actually be more difficult that the one Leyva faced a year ago. Olympic silver all-around medalist Marcel Nguyen will compete, as will Leyva's U.S. Olympic teammate Jake Dalton. Kristian Thomas of Britain - who helped the host country to a surprising bronze in the men's team competition last August - will also be on the floor.

"The stakes aren't as large, but the competitors are the same if not better,'' Leyva said. "They're all the guys that went to the games and I mean, I'm pretty sure some of them are looking for redemption. Me, myself? I'm trying to take leadership from marcel internationally.''

It will be the next step in a process that Leyva knows will be a battle at times. He's in the midst of tweaking some of his routines to increase the difficulty, including his acrobatic high bar routine. Leyva is considered one of the best high-bar performers in the world, but he finished off the podium in the event finals in London.

It was an eye-opener, one that forced him to re-evaluate how he goes about his work. Gone is the popular "jump hop'' move - in which Leyva paused at the top of the bar in mid-routine and literally leapt with his hands - and in its place are more intricate connections that he hopes will impress the judges.

Things are still pretty fluid at this point, though Leyva says his goal is to get things sharp for U.S. nationals and the world championships later this spring. Standing alone at the top on Saturday afternoon would be a pretty good start.

"We're just trying to build,'' he said.

So are the eight women competing, though the event lacks the star power it had a year ago. None of the "Fierce Five'' will compete after Kyla Ross withdrew with a bruised heel. Still, the U.S. could get a glimpse at its future in 15-year-old Americans Simone Biles and Katelyn Ohashi.

The youngsters will face a field that includes four Olympic veterans, including Germany's Elisabeth Seitz and Italy's Vanessa Ferrari.

There will be jitters for Biles and Ohashi but pressure for Leyva. The road to Rio has already started and Leyva knows if he can get where he wants to go over the next three years, one day all the opportunities he's putting off now will only increase.

"I feel like if you do well enough in the Olympics you'll be famous enough to do whatever you want,'' he said. "Look at the girls, it'll be easier to do what you really want to do if you win it all. I guess that's where I'm at for right now.''

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Follow Will Graves at www.twitter.com/WillGravesAP

 
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