August 3, 2012

Team: USA

Age: 20

Event: Men’s Gymnastics

Hometown: Miami, Fla.

I know, I know. At this point, what could you possibly not know about the American gymnast Danell Leyva? After all those NBC spotlights on him, it would be easy to feel like you’ve gone so up close and personal that you’re practically living in his right nostril. But, you know, it’s a pretty nice nostril.

What I really mean by that is that Leyva’s story is a genuinely compelling one. Some personal stories are thin, don’t resonate, get chased out of the mind immediately after you hear them. Not Leyva’s.

His mother, a gymnast named María González, left Cuba when Danell was a sickly infant. He had breathing problems, which turned out to be asthma, and allergies, and she had to take him to the hospital regularly because she couldn’t get any medicines for him. In Havana in the years immediately following the collapse of the Soviet Union, shortage was the norm.

González’s father had left for Miami years before, telling her that when she was ready to leave Cuba, she should send him a telegram saying, “Everything is perfectly fine.” She did, and he helped arrange for María’s defection, along with the one-year-old Dani and his older sister, in Nicaragua. It took six months before the three of them were able to move—for good—to south Florida.

In Miami, González reconnected with another alum of the Cuban gymnastics system, Yin Alvárez—who had been salting away money from washing dishes, cleaning bathrooms, and selling cemetery plots in South Florida for a few years—and together they raised her children by another man, a Spaniard named Johan Leyva, whom Danell has never met but who supposedly talks to him on the telephone regularly.

Leyva’s asthma got better and grew into a chubby kid. When he was only 3, Alvárez played him old videos of Olympic gymnastics. Leyva remembers pointing at the screen and saying, “That’s what I want to do.”

González remembers that moment too, but for her it isn’t an entirely happy memory. Her son had flat feet, his arms were too long, he had breathing issues, he had a hard time jumping and ran with a funny-looking gait; in Cuba, she thought to herself, he would never have made the cut. “I didn’t see in him the talent,” González told the Washington Post. “Gymnastics is so hard, and he was not coordinated and a little fat … You have to be fast, strong, flexible. You have to be quick for gymnastics.”

What she couldn’t measure was his determination.

The family opened a gym in West Kendall, and Leyva practically grew up there, developing the skills that would carry him to the 2011 world championships, where he won gold medal in the parallel bars, and to Olympic qualifying.

His performance so far in London has been spectacular, with the exception of two glitches, both on the pommel horse. The first came during the team event, when he lost his grip on the horse and dropped to the ground. That mistake, along with John Orozco’s fall on the same device, doomed Team USA’s to a fifth-place finish.

Then, during the individual all-around competition, he got back into the saddle of the pommel horse and was only seconds away from taming the beast when it bucked him again. This time, it was a hesitation, a mere momentary glitch on the upward momentum of his dismount, but it was enough to drop him to 17th after three of six exercises. Everything was not perfectly fine.

But Leyva reached into that reserve of determination his mother wasn’t able to plumb many years before and closed out the competition registering the two top scores of any gymnast on the parallel bars and the horizontal bar to secure a bronze medal. Not the type of medal Leyva came to London hoping to get. He will have one last shot at something a little more golden in the individual horizontal bar competition on August 7.

One other thing needs to be mentioned: Somewhere along the way, Leyva and Alvárez have developed some deeply annoying habits, with Alvárez rubbing Leyva’s ears as a pre-performance ritual and exclaiming “Yesso!”—a combination of “yes” and “eso”—after every routine his stepson performs. Some people are really impressed by their relationship, but if Alvárez were my stepfather, I would tell him to back way the hell off. Maybe all the way to Miami. But Leyva seems to respond to Alvárez’s performances. Depend on them, even.

And it isn’t like Leyva doesn’t have quirks of his own. At last count, his lucky towel had nearly 12,300 followers on Twitter. Late on the evening of August 2, it tweeted a picture of itself on the shoulders of the new women’s all-around champion, Gabby Douglas

Whatever works.

“Danell Leyva González,” by Bill Vourvoulias.

From “Good Sports,” the August 3, 2012, issue of V as in Victor.

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