ST. LOUIS Danell Leyva approached a chair in a corridor at Chaifetz Arena, the attention of the United States gymnastics community fixed on the men's hopefuls. The defending national champion had finished the opening night of the Visa Championships in first place with a score of 91.85. As he prepared to leave the area, Jonathan Horton the fifth-place finisher (90.30) turned to Leyva with high praise.
"Hey, you're pretty good man," Horton told Leyva before offering a high-five. "You're a pretty good gymnast."
The exchange was a sign of respect among top competitors on a night when the men commanded the spotlight at USA Gymnastics' national championships. The retirement of four-time Olympic medalist Shawn Johnson on Sunday captured headlines for much of the past week, and women's stars like Nastia Liukin, Aly Raisman, Jordyn Wieber and Alicia Sacramone will have a chance to impress here in two of the next three days.
But Thursday was a time for the men, and Leyva and Horton were among the athletes that showed their field isn't short on depth. Behind Leyva, John Orozco (91.80), Sam Mikulak (90.55) and Chris Brooks (90.50) rounded out the top five on Day 1. The second men's session is set to begin Saturday.
"There are nerves all the time," Leyva said. "It's a huge, huge event. Reading that it says '2012 Visa Championships,' it's like, 'OK, here we go. Here we go.' It's great, though. I love it."
So do others, and the men's field has experience to complement world-class skill. Horton, a two-time Olympic medalist, is the lone member here from the team that earned a bronze medal at the Beijing Games. Meanwhile, all six men who were part of the squad that finished third at the 2011 World Championships are present, including Leyva, Horton, Orozco, Jacob Dalton, Steven Legendre and Alexander Naddour. Brandon Wynn and Paul Ruggeri, both 2011 Pan American Games gold medalists, also are vying to keep their Olympics hopes alive.
"That was definitely the most nervous I have been in years, because I didn't know what to expect," Horton said. "I didn't know what my brain was going to do or what my nerves were going to do. I told myself, 'No matter what happens today, just stay calm and don't get mad about anything.'"
Others could benefit from the same advice. There's plenty at stake in this high-pressure event, because it serves as the first of two competitions that will determine the men's Olympic squad.
Fifteen athletes will be named to the national team after Sunday, with each invited to the Olympic trials to be held June 28 and June 30 in San Jose, Calif. The national team will be comprised of the top-six finishers in the all-around competition here, the top four athletes on individual events not in the top six, four discretionary picks by a selection committee and one discretionary pick by men's national team coordinator Kevin Mazeika. The five-member Olympic team will be named after the trials.
"We're all going for it so hard this year," Orozco said. "Everyone is going to give a great competition out there. The only thing that matters is going out there and showing what USA can do and showing the world that USA is going to be a big competitor when we go to the Olympics."
The first step of that goal was achieved Thursday night. Leyva, for one, never allowed the moment to overwhelm him.
"I wasn't trying to let myself get into the limelight too much," he said. "I was trying to sit back and do my work and have that same underdog fighting spirit."