Danell Leyva, Miami's Cuban-American Olympic Prodigy, Goes for Gold | Feature | South Florida | Broward Palm Beach New Times | The Leading Independent News Source in Broward-Palm Beach, Florida


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.

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Francisco Alvarado was born in Nicaragua and grew up in Miami, giving him unique insight into the Magic City and all its dark corners. An investigative reporter with a knack for uncovering corruption, Alvarado made his bones as a staff writer at Miami New Times and remains in dogged pursuit of the next juicy story.

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