Alvarez treats Leyva like a son. He was not close to his own stepdad or his father, a magician in Cuba known as “Marconi” who now lives in Miami Beach. His harsh coaches made him resent gymnastics. With his athletes, he’s not afraid to be affectionate and forgiving. He saw himself in Leyva, a hyper, stubborn, dreamy kid.
“Me and Dani, we can’t sit still because we see things other people can’t see,” Alvarez said. “When we say we’re going to do something, believe it.”
Believe it because Alvarez is smarter than he lets on. He’s respected for his knowledge of the sport and his training methodology.
“He knows how to get inside your head and make you feel special,” said Charles Tamayo, a Cuban gymnast who defected in California in 2003. Alvarez gave him a job coaching. “It’s tough to be an athlete together with your parents 24/7. But that family has found a balance. I admire them.”
Leyva doesn’t seem to mind when Alvarez plays the ham and steals the limelight.
“Did you see his routine?” Leyva will say after a meet, practicing his comedic timing. “It was better than mine.”
They both got camera time once a week during El Show de Fernando Hidalgo, a variety show at Channel 41. One night’s performance opened with women wearing sequined outfits scooting around the floor on pieces of cloth. The producers scurried around encouraging the studio audience of mostly senior citizens to laugh and clap. When it was time for Fernando to talk, they put fingers to lips and said “Sssss!” The band played, a singer sang, more clapping followed by ssssing. Fernando did a funny bit as a prisoner trying to escape. “Ha-ha-ha,” mouthed the producers and the audience complied.
Later, Alvarez was interviewed and Leyva and his gym mates performed tumbling and balancing tricks. The audience needed no prompting.
The live TV experience has helped Leyva relax during competitions, where he’s taken to wearing a lucky towel over his head between events. At the recent Olympic trials in San Jose, Calif., he was on his game, hitting cleanly and staying ahead of John Orozco, the New Yorican who has become Leyva’s top U.S. rival.
Leyva flew through his high bar routine and nailed his vaults. On rings and horse, his weakest events, he did what he needed to do. After an uncharacteristic slip on floor — losing his balance on a simple strength pose — he had no room for error on parallel bars.
As Leyva applied chalk, Alvarez paced. He crossed himself. He signaled Leyva with a clap-clap, clap-clap-clap. He shouted, “ Vamos!” Leyva started by disguising a bobble on his first skill, then recovered by improvising the rest of his routine. He mixed the order of his Peach to Diamidovs, and giants, and fulls. Alvarez, doing his usual pantomime, grew perplexed and asked himself, “When will this be over, please?”
But Leyva didn’t miss a beat. He was smooth and strong as he swung between the bars, then spun into a perfect landing. He was the winner by a fraction. Alvarez leapt into the air, shouted “London, here we come!” He ran around the podium as if he’d just won the lottery. He bowed to Leyva, who picked him up in bear hug. Gonzalez bounded over and the three of them embraced, crying tears of joy.
“I’m feeling pretty emotional,” Leyva said. “Not as emotional as Yin, of course.”
Alvarez expressed gratitude “to America for opening its doors of opportunity.”
They couldn’t stop smiling — the kid with the flat feet, the coach whose first gym was inside a storage unit, the mother who left behind her medals. Leyva was going to the Olympics, and he was strong enough to take his parents with him.