Danell Leyva, Miami's Cuban-American Olympic Prodigy, Goes for Gold
Inside the HP Pavilion in San Jose, California, a tense crowd of 17,526 is so quiet that even the top deck can hear Yin Alvarez frantically calling for help adjusting the parallel bars. "Let's go," the Cuban-American bellows in a heavy accent toward his wife, Maria Gonzalez. "Help me!"
A petite, olive-skinned blond clad in a red Team USA shirt, Gonzalez rushes onto the mat. The pair quickly loosens the apparatus so Alvarez can pry the two bars wider.
Amid the scramble, their son, Danell Leyva, calmly squeezes honey onto his palms. The 20-year-old 2011 national champion dips his massive hands again and again into a bowl of chalk, speckling his red Lycra tank top with white dust. Leyva quietly tests the bars and then returns for more chalk. He pulls firmly on the wood.
With both the gymnast and his stepfather/coach satisfied, Alvarez gives Leyva his final pep talk. The sensei kisses Leyva on top of his head and runs his fingers through his acrobatic prodigy's hair. Then Alvarez gives a single demonstrative clap and walks off the platform.
Earlier in the morning, entering the final day of the 2012 U.S. Olympic Men's Gymnastics Trials, Leyva was in first place. But after a series of tiny mistakes, he is now 0.55 points behind John Orozco, a 19-year-old phenom who beat him for the 2012 national title in June. Minutes ago, his rival notched a 15.45 on the parallel bars. To pass Orozco, Leyva needs a lofty score of 15.90.
As he stares at the bars, Leyva thinks about what's at stake: a spot on the U.S. Olympic team.
Ever since his mom and stepdad fled to Miami from Cuba in the early '90s, Leyva has been building toward this moment. Throughout their childhood and teenaged years, Alvarez and Gonzalez were Cuban national gymnastics team members who never had the opportunity to compete in the Olympics. Now their son, if he nails this last routine, will be the first Cuban-American and the first Miamian to don a Team USA uniform in men's gymnastics. He will also lead a team that's expected to contend for a gold medal for the first time since 1984.
The pressure is on Leyva, whose talent recently prompted the Bleacher Report to declare that "he is to parallel bars what Usain Bolt is... to sprinting." If he captures individual all-around gold this week, he could be London's Michael Phelps — a legitimate crossover star with a slew of endorsement deals and perhaps even the attention of Tinseltown. After all, the story of Leyva's parents escaping Cuba and raising a champion is tailor-made for scriptwriters.
"He is a captivating young man," says the president of USA Gymnastics, Steve Penny. "Should he come out of London with one or two medals, that is going to be very valuable."
Leyva takes a deep breath, exhales, and lifts himself onto the bars.
Just before sunrise on a cold day in early January 1992, Yin Alvarez found cover behind some brush near the southern bank of the Rio Grande River, close to the border town of Matamoros, Mexico. The stocky, broad-chested athlete was 25 years old and on the run. Only a few weeks earlier, he had crept out of his hotel room in Mexico City, where he'd been performing as part of a Cuban gymnastics troupe.
After traveling close to 600 miles, Alvarez was just 100 yards from Brownsville, Texas. All he had to do was get wet. He slowly peeled off his clothes as a cold breeze raised goose bumps. The nude defector stuffed his garments into a plastic bag and knotted it tightly. With only a moment's hesitation, he jumped.
"My entire body was shivering when I climbed out," Alvarez recalls. "But crossing the Rio Grande was not my biggest fear. I was more afraid of coming to Miami and not accomplishing what I set out to do."
Now a gregarious chap with a bushy goatee, Alvarez has become the Cuban-American Béla Károlyi, the legendary coach of Nadia Comaneci and Mary Lou Retton, who dominated cameras in the '70s and '80s. During the recent Olympic trials in San Jose, NBC Sports was glued to Alvarez's jumps, roars, and fist bumps to everyone in range — even the woman helping tabulate the judges' scores.
For Alvarez and his wife, stepping into the limelight has involved a test of wills every bit as harrowing as that facing any Olympic contender. "Yin shows his passion at a very high level," USA Gymnastics' Penny says. "His enthusiasm has helped other coaches see that it is OK to show emotion."
Born in Havana in 1966, Alvarez was a hyper child who had big dreams of being a circus performer. When he was 7 years old, an uncle introduced him to Gerardo Silva, then a commissioner in Cuba's sports ministry. With Silva's help, Alvarez was placed in Cuba's elite national school of gymnastics.
"Yin was a very good athlete," Silva says. "He also had a lot of perseverance, which still serves him well."
Alvarez specialized in the floor routine, rings, and high bar and competed in the all-around when needed. As a teenager, he won the equivalent of Cuba's national championship three times. He also earned gold and silver medals against Eastern Bloc opponents.
Gonzalez, Leyva's mother, was born in Cárdenas two years before Alvarez. She remembers standing on her head and doing tumbles as a child. When Gonzalez was 8, one of her teachers asked her mother if she'd be interested in gymnastics. "My mom took me to try out, and I fell in love with the sport," she recalls. "A year later, I was in Havana."
She competed in regional and national events, and by the time she was 12, she had earned second place in the national championship in her age group. Like Alvarez, she competed in European countries such as Bulgaria and Hungary.
"Maria was very quiet and always well-prepared," former teammate Alyssa Sanchez remembers. "But Yin was mischievous. He was always joking around. We were all tight, like brothers and sisters."
With only 110 students at the academy, they became fast friends. The gymnasts lived in dormitories on the school's Havana campus, studying, training, and eating together. Their athletic gifts gave them opportunities to travel that other children in Cuba couldn't imagine.
Ivonne Conseco, another former teammate, who was 14 years old when she competed in the 1974 Copa de las Americas in the Dominican Republic, remembers that the group lived in a bubble. "We didn't know about the problems in Cuba," she says. "The government gave us the best that was available. We had more things than the average Cuban."
Alvarez agrees. "We grew up in a school where we didn't see the reality of what was going on," he says. "We had proper nutrition. We had doctors who would treat us for free. But we knew we couldn't express ourselves the way we wanted to."
In 1979, when she was 16, Gonzalez left the team. "I felt I was too old to compete," she says. "I went to work as a ballet choreographer." She enrolled at the Manuel Fajardo Higher Institute of Physical Education and, after graduating in 1983, took a job as a gymnastics instructor.
Alvarez, on the other hand, became a coach for the national team after his competing days ended in 1984. Four years later, he quit. By then, he'd become disillusioned by the regime. The team no longer lived better than the rest of Cuba. With the economy in a tailspin, there was no money for equipment or regular travel.
In early December 1991, Alvarez's troupe was sent on a rare trip to Mexico City for a two-week Christmas-themed show. "It was the best opportunity to defect," he says. "A couple of my friends had already done it that way."
After sneaking out of the hotel, he caught a bus that took him to the border, where he made his frigid, successful swim. On December 25, safely in Texas, Alvarez called his father, who was already in Miami. With money from his dad, Alvarez made it to the Magic City by New Year's Day. Within weeks, he landed a job teaching gymnastics in West Miami.
Gonzalez, meanwhile, remained in Havana, where she met her son's biological father, an engineering professor named Johan Leyva, in 1990. Gonzalez broke up with him before Danell was born a year later, on October 30. (She also has an older daughter, Dayanis, from a previous relationship.) Leyva has never met Johan, who now lives in Spain.
When Danell was 5 months old, he developed severe asthma and respiratory allergies. By early 1993, Gonzalez struggled to get medicine. Sometimes she'd have only Tiger Balm to rub on the toddler's belly when he had spasms during asthma attacks.
"Every few weeks, I was rushing him to the hospital," she says. "Since I had no transportation, I would have to run or ride a bicycle while holding Danell every time. It was a horrible way to live."
She sent her parents, who had defected to Miami in '92, a telegram with a coded message in Spanish reading "We're perfectly fine," which actually meant she was fleeing Cuba. Gonzalez took Danell and his older sister to Peru, where they defected. Six months later, they arrived in the States, staying in a Miami Beach apartment owned by her sister, who had come to Miami in the 1980 Mariel boatlift.
The gymnast's first jobs were cleaning houses and delivering newspapers. "I used to get scared driving around Miami," she says. "It was late at night, and I really didn't know places. I would get lost."
One day, a mutual friend told Gonzalez that Alvarez, her old pal from the gymnastics team, was also in Miami. She tracked him down, and he helped her get a job coaching at the gym where he worked.
"I was very happy to see someone whom I had grown up with," Gonzalez says. "After reconnecting in Miami, we became supergood friends."
In 1995, Alvarez asked Gonzalez to join him at his own training center, which became Universal Gymnastics in Kendall. The ceiling was too low and the space was cramped, but the two were thrilled to have their own gym. "We had 20 kids then, and it looked like the gym was packed," he says.
As they honed their coaching, their personal chemistry grew. "The more we were around each other, the more I felt myself drawn to him," she says.
In 1996, they moved in together. In 2001, they tied the knot, with Leyva's blessing. "He is not my biological son, but I am his father," Alvarez says. "The only difference is blood. Everything else, we are very similar in every way."
Alvarez and Gonzalez's coaching prowess, meanwhile, grew as their partnership strengthened. Hundreds of kids passed through their gym, including a litany of recent champions: Ari Barrera, who won the national championship on the still rings in 2001, when he was 12; Rocky Kaller, who captured a 2003 Florida Gymnastics Championship when he was 11; and Jorge Giraldo, who won a gold medal for Colombia at the 2012 Pacific Rim Championships. Jessica Gil Ortiz, a former student of Gonzalez's, will represent her native Colombia in this summer's Olympics.
But one prodigy — a formerly asthmatic kid who just happened to be Gonzalez's son — would be their greatest project of all.
It's shortly after 11 a.m. on June 19 inside Universal Gymnastics. The training center is packed with kids in a summer camp program. The musky scent of sweat fills the space. While Gonzalez teaches a small group of girls the proper way to spin on the uneven bars, Alvarez watches his stepson stretch for a practice run on the vault.
Dressed in a white T-shirt and shorts, Leyva ignores Alvarez's gaze. The 20-year-old stands five feet seven inches and has freakishly long arms and large hands. He also has a bigger frame and a bulkier build than most of the men in his sport.
Running full speed, Leyva catapults himself into the air. He does a double-twist, double-flip before landing on a pile of foam squares. Alvarez points out a minor mistake when Leyva's hands hit the vault. "You are not coming down straight when you land," the coach scolds. "You need to concentrate harder."
Leyva rolls his eyes and sulks away. "I know, Yin," he hisses.
Alvarez shoots back, "Well, if you know, let's get it right."
It's been ten days since Leyva lost the 2012 men's national title by .05 percentage points to John Orozco, all because of little mistakes just like the one Alvarez caught. Without grueling daily practice, gymnasts lose their flexibility, rhythm, and sense of space. The slightest error means the difference between first and second place in a competition. With an Olympic berth on the line, Leyva can't afford to slip up even a centimeter.
The journey that took Leyva to this level of precision began when he was just 3 years old, while watching a gymnastics video at Alvarez's house. "I pointed at the TV and said, 'That's what I want to do,' " Leyva recollects.
His mother had no intention of turning him on to gymnastics. She didn't think his health or his body would allow him to excel. With proper medication in Miami, his asthma was finally under control, but she fretted that the chalk used in the sport would trigger his allergies. Leyva was also flat-footed and clumsy, and his long arms put him at a disadvantage for the pure strength required on the still rings.
"A gymnast has to be strong, coordinated, and have the right type of physique," Gonzalez says. "I thought it would be too difficult for him."
Alvarez also tried to make Leyva forget about gymnastics. "Yin would take me to the park to play baseball," Leyva says. "But I would get bored."
Finally, Alvarez persuaded Gonzalez to let him train the boy when he turned 4. At first, Leyva was awful. "I was very, very bad," he says. "I'll never forget at my first competition, when I was 5, I got a last-place medal. That moment shaped me. I realized what I had to do to get where I wanted to be."
Gonzalez was soon amazed by her son's unrelenting spirit. "When he was a kid, he would endlessly watch video of great gymnasts on the parallel bars so he could learn from them," she says. "He would even mimic the techniques with his action figures."
Alvarez also employed a little subliminal motivation. In 1996, when Leyva was 5, Alvarez bought him a commemorative Olympic medal featuring Bugs Bunny, Danell's favorite character. On the back, Yin had the trinket inscribed: "Danell, Future Olympian."
By the time Leyva was in the first grade, he was committed to the sport full-time. His parents pulled him out of public school, but he was far from alone — Alvarez and Gonzalez also offered homeschooling to roughly 25 boys and girls who were training to compete for state and national championships. The group included their top gymnasts, Barrera, Kaller, and Ortiz.
Leyva's days had a steady routine: training from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m., followed by late afternoons and early evenings with a tutor. Wednesdays were off for field trips. "We'd take the kids to the beach or to the movies," Gonzalez says. "The kids also got an hour and a half for lunch. But instead of going out, they usually stayed at the gym."
Like his parents and their comrades at the Cuban gymnastics school, Leyva and his peers at Universal Gymnastics have formed close friendships. His best friends are Barrera and his brother Alex, who both started at Universal in 1995. Last year, when one of Leyva's own dogs bit him in the face while his parents were out of town, the first person he called was Alex. "It is a friendship that is going to last their entire lives," Gonzalez says.
Even as Leyva's abilities have improved, he has never possessed the perfect personality for a star, his mom says. He has a stubborn streak and gets easily frustrated, yet that same attitude can morph into iron determination. "He loses his patience easily," she says. "But when he wants to do something, he won't stop until he accomplishes it."
Gonzalez believes her son's drive is fueled by what she and Alvarez had to endure to escape Cuba. "He's seen firsthand how hard we've had to work to build up Universal Gymnastics," she says. "He knows things don't come easy in life."
She and Alvarez at times have struggled to separate the athletic rigor from family life. At home, Alvarez did his best to be a dad rather than a coach. "He would give Danell quality dad time," Gonzalez says. "Yin would take Danell to ride his bicycle or play baseball... He made sure to show Danell love outside the gym."
The young gymnast admits his parents never made it easy. "They would always tell us: 'If you want a Nintendo or a car or a house, then you have to struggle and fight to get it,' " Leyva says.
Like any teenager, Leyva moped whenever he had to pass up parties or turn down dates because he had to concentrate on his training, his mom adds. "Sometimes he would cry because he couldn't go out," Gonzalez says.
By 2006, their strategy began to pay off. That year, Leyva competed in the junior division of the U.S. national championships (known as the Visa Championships), where he placed first in the all-around, floor exercise, and high bar and tied for second on the parallel bars.
Two years later, Leyva was one of three gymnasts coached by Alvarez named to the U.S. junior national team. Leyva won titles in the all-around, high bar, parallel bars, and pommel horse. He also took first place on the high bar at the 2008 Pan American Gymnastics Championships in Argentina.
Later that year, he helped the U.S. team win gold at the Pacific Rim Championships while individually earning gold in the all-around and bronze on the parallel bars.
In 2009, at age 17, Leyva finished second at the Winter Cup and became the youngest men's gymnast selected to the U.S. national team. His career really took off in 2011, when he beat reigning champ and world bronze medalist Jonathan Horton to win his first U.S. national all-around championship at the senior level. He also helped anchor the U.S. men's team that took bronze at the 2011 World Artistic Gymnastics Championships in Tokyo.
That competition in particular showed Leyva's resilience. He had qualified for the all-around final, but during his last rotation, he smashed his chin on the high bar. He couldn't finish his routine and scored a paltry 6.466, good for 24th place. "It was like getting decked by an uppercut," Leyva says.
Afterward, he cried in his hotel room as his mother tried to comfort him. Then he got a hold of the video footage and spent the night watching it over and over. Two days later, he won gold on the parallel bars.
Leyva has always been hard on himself. "I have this one skill on the high bar I keep messing up," he explains. "I can't leave the gym until I practice it for at least two hours. Not because anyone tells me to. I just keep doing it over and over because I hate messing up."
Outside this obsessive training routine in the run-up to the Olympic trials, Leyva leads a normal, if sleepy, life. He watches television, finger-paints, and composes songs on the keyboard, which he taught himself to play. Between practice sessions, he croons Gotye's "Somebody That I Used to Know" for his mother. Leyva's deep baritone cracks when he tries to hit the high notes.
When his gymnastics career is over, he wants to be an entertainer. He dreams of adding Oscar, Emmy, Grammy, and Tony awards to his gymnastics prizes. He's a big Twitter user, sharing the minutiae of his life with 13,292 followers. He tweets about the food he eats, the music he listens to, the shoes he buys.
More recently, he's been enjoying the perks that come with being an Olympic hopeful, such as a sponsorship from Citibank and a photo spread in the summer fashion issue of GQ. All the homeschooling and ten-hour days at the gym are paying dividends.
"It is a little overwhelming," Leyva affirms. "But this is when all my hard training is going to pay off."
As he watches Leyva perfect his routine in the gym less than two weeks before the finals in San Jose, Alvarez sees only one possible conclusion to his son's quest.
"He's not just going to make the Olympics," Alvarez boasts. "He is going to win at the Olympics."
As he prepares for his final parallel bars routine in San Jose — trailing Orozco by that fraction of a point — Leyva can't help but think back on what has led to this moment during his two-day competition to earn a ticket to London.
The first day of the Olympic trials, June 28, began badly. As the top contender, he was the first to show off his skills. Visibly wired, he approached the mat, his eyes darting around the packed house as cameras flashed and clicked away. Off to the side, Alvarez pumped his fists and did a slow clap mimicked by spectators.
Leyva started his floor routine strongly, tumbling and flipping effortlessly across the mat. But he botched the landing, stumbling instead of landing upright. Groans and gasps echoed through the HP Pavilion.
NBC's announcer, former Olympic gold medalist Tim Daggett, lamented the error to hundreds of thousands of viewers watching live. "Not good," he said. "Obviously, Danell is very amped. You never know what being here is going to feel like."
Although everyone in the stands assumes Leyva is an Olympic shoe-in, only the top two finishers are guaranteed a place on the men's team. In addition to Orozco, Leyva must face Horton, the vet who won a silver medal on the high bar in Beijing; and Sam Mikulak, the 2011 NCAA champ from the University of Michigan.
"These guys will not give you anything," USA Gymnastics' Steve Penny says. "They want it just as bad as Danell."
After the first four routines, Leyva trailed Orozco by two-tenths of a point. While he waited his next turn, Leyva, as usual, covered his head under a blue beach towel decorated with crescent moons and stars. Ever since he began competing, wearing the towel like a cloak has become a ritual, helping him tune out the noise of the crowd and sometimes the antics of his stepdad coach.
"Everyone knows not to bother him when he is under the towel," Penny says.
Adds Leyva: "I put that over myself to just breathe and relax."
For the final routine of the first day of competition, Leyva was on the pommel horse. He worked like a break dancer, swiftly kicking his legs around the apparatus while moving back and forth with his arms. He swung one last time and landed perfectly, arms extended into a stiff T. The HP Pavilion roared to life. Alvarez clapped his hands and rushed over. He screamed, "You are the best, baby!"
At the end of the first day, Leyva held the top spot. But Orozco trailed by only 1.3 points. At a news conference after the meet, Leyva panted like a hyperactive French bulldog to demonstrate his early jitters. "It's nerve-racking," he said. "I guess I put too much juice [at the end of the first routine]. But I feel like I had a really good day."
Before going to sleep, Leyva watched a video of the 1996 Olympics men's gymnastics competition. Team USA finished fifth that year, the best showing for the squad since 1984. "Everyone had a huge amount of heart and passion for the sport," Leyva said. "It was amazing."
After a one-day break, the trials resumed Saturday, June 30. As the day wore on, Leyva and Orozco changed leads three times. Horton followed closely after four routines. Leyva pulled off a near-flawless set on the pommel horse and looked like Spider-Man flying through Manhattan on the rings. "Oh, my God!" Alvarez yelled as he stuck the landing. The crowd went wild.
But Orozco wouldn't fall back.
That's why, after two days — and decades of training and competition — it's all come down to this one moment on the parallel bars, a routine in which Leyva has been all but unbeatable in recent years.
Before grasping the bars, he runs through the order of the routine in his mind: a mount, a peach Diamidov (a move in which his body swings forward before one arm twists his form sideways while upside down), a peach full (in which he raises his legs to his stomach and swings up), a peach hot, a peach, a giant Diamidov with an extra half, a giant Diamidov, a giant Stutz, and a double pike.
Leyva leaps into his starting position and begins swinging. At the end of the first skill, he comes out wrong. Instead of going into the peach full, he goes into a giant peach. He winces but quickly ad-libs, shifting into a peach full, a peach, another peach, a giant Diamidov and a quarter, a giant Diamidov, a Stutz, and a double pike.
The final move rockets him straight onto the mat — a perfectly stuck landing. He puffs out his cheeks and then raises both arms. As he leaves the raised stage, he waves to the cheering masses.
Alvarez bows in front of Leyva like a meditating Tibetan monk. The young man scrunches his face and picks his stepdad up off the floor, tightly hugging him as his mom gives her son a warm hug and a kiss on his cheek. Throwing the towel back over his head, Leyva waits for the final tabulations.
After a brief wait, the scores flash on the screen. Leyva earns a solid 16.00 on the parallel bars, making the overall score:
While Leyva stoically watches the scores, Alvarez does the sign of the cross, points to the sky, and claps his hands.
Penny raises a microphone to his mouth. "These guys are one team with one dream, and that dream is to take the Red, White, and Blue and win gold at the 2012 Olympic Games," he announces. "Please welcome the first two members of the men's Olympic team: Mr. Danell Leyva and Mr. John Orozco."
In the hours after the meet, as the crowds filed home and Leyva's Olympic dream settled into reality, the Kendall-trained kid flashed a wide grin and told reporters, "Honestly, I don't know how I did it."
Alvarez knows how: "He trains that way all the time."
When team gymnastics began last week in London, Leyva and his teammates immediately turned heads by leading after the first day of competition. Their position gave them a chance to be the first U.S. team since 1984 — and the first ever in an Olympics that wasn't boycotted — to win an all-around team gold. On Monday, though, they fell short, finishing fifth overall.
Still, the first-day scores showed the world that the U.S. has entered a new realm of men's gymnastics.
"It's taken more than 20 years to let people know our program is back at the level it was in 1984," Penny says. "We are on the verge of another great era in men's gymnastics."
Leyva still has a chance to compete for all-around gold, a medal that was to be decided August 1 (after this issue went to press). He'll be the first American male to compete for individual all-around gold since Paul Hamm won it in Athens during the 2004 games. The Bleacher Report's David Daniels proclaimed, "If anyone could pull it off... it'd be Leyva because, again, no gymnast will enter the Olympics more prepared."
Leyva's path to all-around gold will be much tougher than his U.S. national victories, though. Standing in his way is a litany of international stars, including Japan's Kohei Uchimura, a 23-year-old phenom who won the silver in the all-around in 2008. Since 2009, Uchimura has won consecutive world all-around titles, and he's the prohibitive favorite to take that title in London.
But if Leyva pulls off an upset over the Japanese wunderkind, his star power might not have a limit. "There is nothing like Olympic hardware around your neck to validate your value," Penny says. "That medal validates you in the marketplace."
In fact, Leyva has already broken the mold for a male gymnast, with endorsement deals with Citibank and Hilton Hotels signed before he'd even earned a spot on the U.S. squad.
"In the past, it was nearly impossible to get an endorsement deal when you've never been to the Olympics," says Horton, the 2008 vet joining Leyva in London. "I didn't have a single sponsor until about a year ago."
The media interest in the Cuban-American sensation has peaked early as well. On July 20, American Idol personality, TV producer, and nationally syndicated radio host Ryan Seacrest spent a day with Alvarez and Leyva in Miami. Seacrest is doing a piece about Leyva for NBC Sports' Olympic coverage. Leyva has also been a guest on morning talk shows on Univision and Telemundo.
But as he leaves for England, Leyva has only one thing on his mind.
"After the team gets gold, I want to get all-around gold, P-bars gold, and then at least a silver on high bar," Leyva says. "It's a huge honor that I'm representing the United States in the 2012 Olympics, being born in Cuba. I have so much gratitude, and I feel so privileged to say that."
A journalist has one last question for the gymnast, though: Who's more excited about London, him or his stepdad?
"C'mon, is that really a question?" Leyva says with a laugh. "I'm very excited — but not nearly as excited as Yin."
Damin Esper contributed reporting to this article.
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