With one event remaining at the U.S. gymnastics championships last Saturday night in St. Paul, coach John Geddert gave an unusual speech to his protégée Jordyn Wieber. "You've got this won even if you fall three times," he told her. "Forget that. Send a message that you can nail beam." Wieber was stunned, but she delivered a superb routine to seal the women's all-around title. "He had never told me that before," she said. "Usually it's neck and neck down to the last event."
One night earlier Danell Leyva won the men's championship with such flair that a Japanese TV crew asked how he thought he measured up to Japan's Kohei Uchimura, the all-around world champion and undisputed king of the sport. "I've never gotten that question," Leyva said, raising his arms. "[Uchimura's] way up here."
Against opponents with more established résumés, Wieber, 16, and Leyva, 19, vaulted to the top of U.S. gymnastics last weekend, handily winning their first national all-around titles and establishing themselves as medal contenders at October's world championships in Tokyo.
In her first year at the senior nationals, Wieber lapped the field, finishing 6.15 points ahead of runner-up McKayla Maroney. Wieber, who had been a decorated junior, moved to the head of her new class by scoring in the 15s on all four events on Saturday without a jitter. "I'm not sure [Jordyn] feels pressure," Geddert says. "She's like a racehorse who just wants to go."
With London a year off, Wieber, who has no weak event, is still growing as an artist, spending long hours on dance and style—or, as U.S. team coordinator Marta Karolyi puts it, "expression. Show the audience. Swing on the bars; don't just muscle them. Once Jordyn expresses who she is and not just what she can do, the Olympics can be her time to shine."
Wieber's ascent looked even more critical to the U.S. team after Rebecca Bross, the reigning U.S. champion and world bronze medalist, dislocated her right kneecap on an awkward vault landing on Saturday.
Leyva, meanwhile, surprised Jonathan Horton, the two-time defending champ, who never recovered after a fall from the pommel horse last Wednesday night. The Cuban-born Leyva has some of the flair of his stepfather, Yin Alvarez, a former member of the Cuban national gymnastics team who defected to the U.S. in 1992. Alvarez later opened a gym in Miami with Leyva's mother, former Cuban gymnast María Gonàlez, and became the sport's most colorful and gregarious cheerleader, a playful foil for his more skilled but also more reserved stepson. On Aug. 17, Leyva's high-bar set, with four dynamic release skills, scored 16.900, the meet's high rating.
After his title-clinching high-bar dismount on Friday, Leyva hoisted his stepfather off the ground. Alvarez fought back tears. "In that moment," he said, "our lives went from just a dream to that beautiful American dream everybody talks about."
A trio of Olympic veterans had varying results in St. Paul. On her last routine of a strong meet, Chellsie Memmel, the 2005 world all-around champion, dislocated her right shoulder and fell twice from the uneven bars. Memmel, 23, had surgery on the same shoulder in 2006. Still, she says she'll be back in the gym next week. Nine-time world medalist Alicia Sacramone, 23, placed first on beam and second in vault. And Shawn Johnson, 19, who won Dancing with the Stars two years ago and has since had two surgeries on her left knee, hit six clean but watered-down routines, skipping the floor exercise to protect the knee. "I came into this meet thinking, I'm going to pass out," said Johnson, who won four medals in the Beijing Games. "Instead I'm on cloud nine. It's real now."
PETER READ MILLER
JORDYN RULES Wieber scored high on the uneven bars and every other event and won the nationals by a convincing 6.15 points.
PETER READ MILLER