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

Page 3 of 7

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."

KEEP NEW TIMES BROWARD-PALM BEACH FREE... Since we started New Times Broward-Palm Beach, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of South Florida, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
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.

Latest Stories