That irrepressible confidence is what made Leyva, Leyva’s mother Maria Gonzalez, and her husband Alvarez into Miami’s first family of gymnastics.
Since defecting from Cuba’s gymnastics team 19 years ago, the gregarious, excitable Alvarez and the soothing, meticulous Gonzalez have built a gym where the shelves bow under the weight of trophies. They coach 150 gymnasts, including Jessica Gil of Colombia and a group of up-and-comers that could make South Florida a hub of the sport. They have spun gold out of nothing.
“My goal is to have three different Olympic champions,” Alvarez said. “One is maybe luck. Three is not luck.”
For 12 hours a day, he and Gonzalez supervise and critique, moving from one apparatus to another, spotting a vaulter, demonstrating a floor exercise, adjusting the rings. They do video reviews of routines.
“I can see everything,” Alvarez said. “Plus, I got cameras in my eyes.”
He is constantly chattering, clapping, correcting.
“Quick, tighter, it’s all in the swing,” he said while using his broad shoulders to hoist a little boy up to the bar.
The petite Gonzalez is calm, reflective.
“I’m in my own world,” she said. “I used to play alone as a child, using my imagination. I sing to myself. Dani got some of that.”
They live with Leyva in a new townhouse in Homestead. Despite all the time they spend together, they seem to genuinely enjoy each other’s company.
“Yin — that’s me — and yang,” Alvarez said, his mischievous smile widening above his gray-flecked goatee. “We fight, we forget about it.”
Goal lists are hand-printed on the gym’s walls. Alvarez and Leyva have checked the ones achieved.
After his knees have had enough, Leyva’s goal is a career in entertainment.
“Did you know only 14 people have won an Oscar, an Emmy, a Tony and a Grammy?” Leyva said. “I want to be on that list.”
He has his stepfather’s open, welcoming nature, and his mother’s empathy and expressive eyes. At pressurized meets where judges deduct for the slightest slip, Alvarez winds him up, Gonzalez calms him down.
He’s an artist; his fantastic, colorful paintings hang in an upstairs room and at home. He’s a musician who plays guitar and piano. He’s an aspiring actor; he’s been appearing on a Channel 41 comedy show. He watches DVDs of Jack Benny and Jackie Gleason to study what made their acts funny.
“What Dani wants more than anything is to be host of Saturday Night Live,” said U.S. teammate Jonathan Horton during a workout at the gym when he was visiting Miami for a sponsor’s engagement. “I mean, he shouldn’t be a gymnast. Not with his body type, which is bigger than the typical gymnast. He’s like a freak of nature. But his work ethic is incredible. He never gives up until he gets it right.”
No, Leyva was not supposed to be a gymnast. His mother, a member of Cuba’s national team, didn’t really want him to pursue the sport. Besides, he was a chubby kid.
“My arms were too long, my butt was too big, my feet were flat, my knees didn’t come together properly,” he said.
Leyva was born in Cuba. He has never met his father, Johann Leyva, who now lives in Spain, but they talk regularly on the phone. It was Alvarez who made him curious about gymnastics, when he showed Dani old videos of the Olympics.