News Column

Miami Gymnast on Verge of Olympic Stardom

July 27, 2012

Michael Cohen, Sun Sentinel

In the parking lot outside a small Italian restaurant, Danell Leyva the entertainer is in rare form. Unlike the large crowds he'll face leading the U.S. men's gymnastics team in London, this particular audience is a boy about to celebrate his fourth birthday.

Leyva tells his agent's nephew, Shane, to put his hands on the hood of a sleek black Chevy Camaro and asks him to think about the car turning on.

"You have to try harder," Leyva says. "Focus really hard."

Suddenly, the engine starts. It's a low and powerful roar. Shane smiles with amazement, unaware that Leyva is concealing the automatic starter in the palm of his hand.

Leyva, whose mother brought him to Miami from Cuba as an infant in 1993, is a consummate performer longing to put on a show. It's the perfect makeup for an Olympic gymnast, whose daring aerial skills routinely pull an audience to the edge of its collective seat. So whether the audience is a 4-year old boy or the millions who will watch him compete for the United States in London, the goal is the same: leave them wanting more.

"You're really doing it for the crowd," said Leyva, who begins competition on Saturday. "You're performing to land and hear everyone cheering for you."

There was perhaps no bigger roar than the one in appreciation of his flawless high bar routine at the U.S. Olympic trials last month, which Leyva won to earn his spot in London.

At 5-feet-7-inches, Leyva is taller than most gymnasts and his wingspan is above average as well. It allows him to generate incredible speed and power on his rotations, meaning more hang time. More flying.

His routine included a skill called a Kovacs, which is a double back flip over the high bar that required a 63-second explanation from Leyva. Arguably the most daring portion of his routine, it drew a gasp and subsequent applause at trials. The routine ended with a stuck landing, and Leyva called it one of his favorite moments in gymnastics to date.

"Just outstanding," said Kevin Mazeika, coach of the U.S. gymnastics team. " ... At the Olympic trials, under that intense pressure and he hits one of the best sets of his life. That's what we need going into these Olympic Games."

Leyva also won the 2011 World Championship on the parallel bars, and he is the two-time reigning national champion on both the high bar and parallel bars.

His road to London began in Mantanzas, Cuba, where Leyva was born to Maria Gonzalez in 1991. To provide a better life for her two children, Gonzalez, a former gymnast, brought Leyva and his sister to the United States through Peru and Venezuela less than two years later.

Already in Miami was Yin Alvarez, who had defected from Cuba the year before and swam across the Rio Grande to start fresh in a new country.

He started a business called Universal Gymnastics in 1995 with the goal of training gymnasts who compete on the international level.

It's an objective embodied by Leyva, who became his protege and pupil once Gonzalez began working at the gym. Alvarez and Gonzalez later married, making him Leyva's stepfather in addition to his coach.

They've spent nearly every day together since Leyva was a little boy. Leyva was homeschooled since the second grade and taught himself from seventh grade onward. Then he chose not to attend college -- he was considering Oklahoma University -- to continue his training with Alvarez.

"We are a team," Alvarez said. "He can say I'm the best coach for him, and I can say he's the best gymnast for me. We motivate each other."

During Leyva's routines, Alvarez gives his own performances. His gyrations and theatrics in reaction to his stepson have become part of the show. It's worth watching Leyva's routines twice, once for the gymnast and once for the coach, as they entertain together.

Leyva said he's glad he is unable to see Alvarez's antics during competition but often laughs watching the replays afterwards.

"I feel like in the beginning of my routines the crowd is yelling with me," Leyva said. "Then in the middle they are laughing with Yin."

And if Leyva can capture a gold medal in London -- he has the best chance in the high bar, parallel bars and in the all-around in addition to the team competition -- it will undoubtedly be Alvarez with the more exuberant reaction.

Like the time Leyva overshot a handstand on parallel bars at the Olympic trials and was forced to improvise his entire routine. He mixed and matched his skills flawlessly on the fly, even though he said thinking ahead is a death sentence for gymnasts. But he was forced to, and he was brilliant at it to the delight of Alvarez and Mazeika.

"It was utterly amazing," Mazeika said. "That just shows a true mastery of gymnastics."

A gold medal in London, though, is arguably the second most difficult item to cross off Leyva's personal checklist. His post-gymnastic goals are incredibly lofty, and No. 1 on the list is winning an Oscar, an Emmy, a Tony and a Grammy.

All four.

It's a feat accomplished by just 14 people if you include honorary winners, whereas dozens have won Olympic gold.

"It would be awesome," Leyva said.

And right after the Olympics, he is dying for a chance to host Saturday Night Live. He's watched it for years.

Until then, Leyva toys with the beatmaker program on his cellphone and dabbles at the piano. He tries to write song lyrics, but rap verses come more easily to him so he writes those instead. He'll sing a little bit too, though he questions his talent with a sheepish smile.

His tastes in music demonstrate his respect for artists with a unique skill set. He loves the way each of Drake's songs tells a story. And he likens Andre 3000, a rapper known for his intelligent wordplay, to a poet.

What music is to them, gymnastics is to him: art.

"It's called artistic gymnastics, and when you're young you don't really understand why," Leyva said. "But now that I'm older I can see it."

He is a typical 20-year old attempting to come to grips with the fact that his life could change completely after the Olympic Games. Surreal is the word he repeats when trying to describe what it's like to be on the verge of potential stardom.

Leyva's certainly ready, there's no denying that. The groundwork has been paid to potentially win multiple gold medals.

He's earned the opportunity to put on the show of a lifetime. And chances are he won't disappoint.

Said Mazeika: "He's exciting to watch. He's an incredible gymnast."



Source: (c)2012 the Sun Sentinel (Fort Lauderdale, Fla.) Distributed by MCT Information Services


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