From the outside, Universal Gymnastics looks like a clone of the other warehouses on its soulless dead-end drive.
Inside, it’s a three-ring circus. Without safety nets.
Danell Leyva practices his show-stopping routine on the high bar. When he swings off the bar and propels himself three stories into the air, he is flying.
And then, on this particular afternoon, he is crashing. Gravity demands payback.
Leyva misses his catch and plunges into a face-plant on the mat.
He tries again, spinning, releasing, soaring, falling, grazing the bar with his fingertips. Thunk. He sounds like a boxer hitting the canvas.
Once more he rises toward the roof, descends, and his parachute malfunctions. This time, it’s a belly flop.
But on his fourth try, he finds his rhythm. His rotation velocity accelerates. When Leyva performs this spectacle at the London Olympics, spectators will gasp at the daring beauty of it. They always do.
He sequences through four intricate catch-and-release manuevers. His hands move in a dexterous blur on the bar, like a pianist’s on the keyboard after thousands of repetitions. He circles into a handstand. His legs extend into a midair split, then jackknife together. Around he goes, faster. He launches. His arms spread wide like wings.
On the ground, another captivating performance takes place. Leyva’s stepfather and coach, Yin Alvarez, is doing the routine simultaneously in his mind. He is bending, hopping, swaying, extending a pointed toe, windmilling his arms. He’s speaking the gymnast’s body language. Through Leyva, his son and protégé, he’s flying, too.
Leyva flips off the bar into his double twisting dismount. His feet spear the mat.
“Yesso!” Alvarez cries in his trademark cheer, a combination of “Yes!” in English and “ Eso!” [That’s it!] in Spanish. Beaming, he runs up to Leyva, high-fives his palm, punches him in the shoulder. “Yesso!”
After countless hours in the hothouse gym on the edge of the Everglades in West Kendall, Leyva is taking his show to the biggest stage.
He’s also taking his parents to the Olympics, which begin Friday. In another life, they might have been Olympians. But they gave it up to be reincarnated in Miami. Now Leyva is fulfilling his dream, and theirs.
He has become one of the world’s most acclaimed young gymnasts: World champion on parallel bars; U.S. national champion in all-around, parallel bars and high bar; Olympic Trials champion.
In the small subculture of small people with outsized fearlessness, Leyva, 20, is looking like the next big thing. He and the U.S. men’s team, typically overshadowed by the pixies in leotards, are out to prove they can win medals. They may not be as cute as the girls, but their tricks and personalities deserve equal attention.
The judges ought to award Leyva extra hundredths of points for his sideshow, Alvarez, who expends as much energy as the athletes and delights the crowd with his theatrics.
Japan’s Kohei Uchimura, three-time world champ, is the favorite, as is China’s men’s team, but Leyva and his teammates, bronze medalists at the 2011 worlds, say they are not intimidated.
“The difference between Dani and most guys is he doesn’t want to make it to the Olympics,” Alvarez said. “He wants to win the Olympics.”