- Associated Press - Saturday, March 3, 2012

NEW YORK — Jordyn Wieber knew the world title she won in Tokyo last fall came with more than a flashy gold medal, it also came with a target.

Gabrielle Douglas found the bullseye.

Wieber kicked off her Olympic year with a victory at the American Cup at Madison Square Garden on Saturday, though her third win in the event will come with a sizable asterisk after Douglas — who competed as an alternate and wasn’t eligible for the all-around title — stunned her more heralded teammate with a score more than two-tenths of a point higher.

“I wanted to put my name out there and show everyone what I’m capable of doing,” Douglas said.

Message received.

Though Wieber stood atop the podium with a bouquet of roses in her hands at the end of the day, she gave herself a “B” while calling Douglas “amazing.”

Dubbed “the Flying Squirrel” by women’s national team coordinator Martha Karolyi because of her gravity-defying routines, the 16-year-old from Virginia Beach, Va., sent a clear message the country’s gold medal hopes in London go beyond Wieber and Aly Raisman, who finished second.

Karolyi praised Douglas for her confidence but declined to dub her the new front-runner. It’s only March after all. The opening ceremony in London is still 146 days away. Plenty of drama remains. Douglas‘ “win” only adds to the intrigue as Karolyi tries to settle on five athletes to take across the Atlantic in late July.

“I don’t like to name leaders,” Karolyi said. “I think a team (where) every member is a good, confident gymnast and there’s unity is a good team.”

Consider the Americans deeper than advertised if Douglas can build on her breakthrough performance. Wieber, meanwhile, is still adjusting to being the one at the top of the mountain.

Competing for the first time since she rallied past Russia’s Viktoria Komova in Tokyo, the powerful 16-year-old showed plenty of grit but not a ton of grace. Only a spectacular save on uneven bars kept her from likely finishing behind the steady Raisman.

“We’ll have to adjust,” said John Geddert, Wieber’s coach. “It’s a different position being on top. Martha and I both said this is a nice little wake-up call.”

Danell Leyva didn’t need one. The reigning U.S. champion received his at the Winter Cup in Las Vegas last month, when a series of distractions and a sluggish performance on parallel bars — the event on which he’s world champion — and high bar dropped him to fourth behind John Orozco.

Redemption came during an exhilarating high bar routine that electrified the Garden and allowed Leyva to surge from fourth to first in the final rotation. Leyva finished with 90.664 points to slip past Mykola Kuksenkov of Ukraine.

“I definitely needed this today,” Leyva said. “Vegas was my first bigger all-around meet (this year). I didn’t do nearly as good as I wanted to. To be able to come here and do what I said I was expecting out of myself is great. It gave me more confidence.”

And crushed the doubt that crept in after Leyva finished more than six points behind Orozco at Winter Cup.

It hasn’t been the best start to an Olympic push for Leyva, who needed 80 stitches two weeks ago to patch up his face after one of his dogs took a swipe at him during a fight.

The stitches are out, and only two small scars remain. They were all a distant memory during Leyva’s high bar finale, a series of envelope-pushing releases that drew a stream of “oohs” from the crowd and had Leyva’s stepfather and coach Yin Alvarez doing his own unique brand of hyperkinetic cheerleading.

Leyva posted a score of 15.933. When Kuksenkov couldn’t come up with enough to hold Leyva off, the 20-year-old from Homestead, Fla., grabbed the silver cup awarded to the winner.

When asked where he was going to put the trophy Leyva joked “probably on the dash of my car.” Probably not, though he hopes the cup will have to share some mantle space with an Olympic medal or two by early August.

Orozco is eyeing the same prize, though the Bronx native took a step back while competing a few miles from his old neighborhood. The 19-year-old got off to a slow start on floor exercise and pommel horse and never threatened while placing fifth.

It’s hardly time to panic, particularly for Wieber. Besides, she’s got history in her corner.

Mary Lou Retton, Carly Patterson and Nastia Liukin all turned American Cup wins in New York into Olympic gold. Wieber will try to do the same and hopefully her health will cooperate.

She battled a viral infection during a training camp in Texas last month and was so winded by the exercise-induced asthma she suffers from on Friday she struggled to complete her full beam routine.

Clad in a purple leotard with a matching purple scrunchie holding her pony tail in place, Wieber made it through just fine Saturday while showcasing the fierce determination that makes her one of the sport’s toughest competitors.

Wieber was rolling through her uneven bars routine when she got off-balance while trying to do a handstand pirouette on the high bar. Her legs swung over her head and threatened to take the rest of her body along for the ride.

Instead of flopping to the mat, Wieber dug in and held on, saving herself from a full-point deduction. Geddert shook his head in disbelief and gave a relieved Wieber a big hug afterward.

“She just showed how tough she is mentally because she pulled this meet off,” Karolyi said. “She would not give up.”

Neither would Douglas, who left her family in Virginia more than a year ago to train under Liang Chow in Iowa, where she works alongside four-time Olympic medalist Shawn Johnson.

Though she occasionally gets homesick, the teenager knows heading to the Midwest was the right choice if she was serious about making it to London. Her mother and three siblings were at the Garden on Saturday, where they saw Douglas take one very big step toward making the U.S. team.

“I wanted to be on top,” Douglas said. “I knew I was prepared to do this.”

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