When Danell Leyva dismounted from the pommel horse like a bow-legged cowboy instead of a graceful gymnast, his chances of winning a medal in his first Olympics seemed to have hit the mat with a thud.
But Leyva didn’t panic. He knew his two strongest events were yet to come in Wednesday’s all-around competition. He began methodically scaling the leader board with each routine, from 17th place to 11th to sixth.
As Leyva hooded his head with his lucky towel to prevent himself from looking at the standings and doing the math on his deficit, his stepfather and coach, Yin Alvarez, paced the floor like a caged lion. Alvarez kept telling Leyva to relax, yet behind him he was constantly making the sign of the cross, scratching his beard, calculating hundredths of points.
Alvarez, a former gymnast for Cuba, and Leyva, who grew up the son of exiles in Miami, were finally under the biggest big top of them all at the London Games and despite the dim outlook, they weren’t going to change their special symbiosis – the hyperactive Alvarez strutting and fretting like a Shakespearean actor, and the fiercely focused Leyva performing his acrobatic skills with flair.
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As the world’s best 24 gymnasts vaulted and spun and swiveled on six apparatuses, it all built to a climax for Leyva and Alvarez. Everything – the defection 20 years ago, starting from scratch in Little Havana, building a gym, training until the hands bled, holding fast to a vision – was coming down to the last routine.
Leyva nailed it. On horizontal bar, his favorite and most spectacular event, he wowed the crowd and the judges with his high-flying, high-risk show to earn the top score of the evening, a 15.700.
After Leyva landed with a tiny hop, he slapped his palms together, emitting a puff of chalk. As he punched the air and Alvarez jumped up and down like a human pogo stick, the scoreboard confirmed that Leyva had snatched the bronze medal, the first medal for the U.S. in men’s all-around since Paul Hamm won in 2004. Leyva lifted Alvarez in a bear hug.
Leyva, 20, who lives in Homestead and trains at his family’s Universal Gymnastics gym in West Kendall, scored 90.698 points to bump Ukraine’s Mykola Kuksenkov to fourth. Leyva scored highest on his last three events, vault, parallel bars and horizontal bar, also known as high bar. His best score of 15.833 was on P bars, where he completed his intricate combinations and one and a half giant Diamodov maneuver without a mistake, unlike the last three times he did it.
No one was good enough to displace three-time world champion Kohei Uchimura of Japan. The 5-3, mod-looking “Uchi” executed with airy precision to win gold. He was the only gymnast to score at least 15 points on each apparatus and his total of 92.690 beat Germany’s Marcel Nguyen by a substantial 1.659 margin.
“If I could speak Japanese, I would tell Uchimura he is the greatest gymnast who has ever lived – for now,” Leyva said, smiling.
Going into his finale, Leyva was .633 out of third place. Alvarez kissed him on the head, ran his fingers over his stepson’s ears and clapped.
“Vamos!” he said, before lifting Leyva onto the 9-foot-tall bar.
Leyva soared through a flawless routine, adding his usual dramatic touches to tricks with a 7.2-degree of difficulty – throwing his arms out like a hawk on one of his four releases, switching grips on his “dislocate jam,” and adding a twist to his Tchakev.
Spectators inside North Greenwich Arena gasped at the height when he peeled off the bar toward another orbit and when he caught the bar by his fingertips on the way down.
Alvarez put on his own show, performing the routine earthbound from his vantage point on the floor. He swayed, he straightened, he stuck out a foot, windmilled an arm.
When Leyva landed, he and Alvarez knew it was brilliant. Alvarez ran around like he was being chased by a bee.
“Yesso!” he yelled, his term for yes and eso.
All the toil had been worth it for this moment. Alvarez and Leyva’s mother, Maria Gonzalez, were members of Cuba’s gymnastics team who defected to Miami in 1992 and 1993. Alvarez worked odd jobs, saved money and sought donations to open his gym, which has grown to 150 pupils.
Even as an asthmatic toddler, Leyva wanted to do gymnastics. He won his first meet when he was five years old. He fell off the high bar, but convinced judges – behind Alvarez’s back – to let him get back on.
“Everything I owned when I crossed the river is better than anything I have now,” Alvarez said, referring to when he swam naked across the Rio Grande with only a plastic bag that contained his clothes. “I can be the poorest person in the world, but I can say I don’t like the president if I want to say it. It’s about freedom. This medal is a bonus.”
Alvarez said he didn’t doubt Leyva’s ability to get onto the podium, even after the lousy 13.5 on horse.
“It’s like my team is in the ninth inning, the other team has 11 runs and we have zero, two outs and everyone is leaving the stadium,” Alvarez said. “But I know we going to win. That’s how me and Dani think.”
Leyva uses his lucky towel, which now has its own Twitter account, to block out scores.
“I lie to him and say the horse score was great, the judges were nice to you,” Alvarez said.
Said Leyva: “That’s my dad. What else would he say? He knows how to motivate me. But I saw the score and I knew it was bad. So I put the towel over my head and went, ‘Grrrrrr!’ ”
His mother, watching from the stands, kept willing Leyva to be patient. She’s the calm counterbalance to the exuberant Alvarez.
“Dani gets so mad – I saw his face, like a baby, after horse,” she said. “But his P bars was amazing. Dani is like that – when he makes a mistake, he turns the page.”
His medal helped make up for a disappointing fifth place finish in the team competition Monday.
“This was redemption for the whole team,” Leyva said. “I’d like to dedicate my medal to my coach, my mom, my grandparents, my teammates and everyone back in Miami. But I’m not satisfied with bronze. I’ll come back in 2016 looking for gold.”
Leyva was asked what it was like trying to beat Uchimura, the so-called Michael Jordan of gymnastics.
“Yeah, but I’m Danell Leyva,” he said with a smile. “I’m not trying to copy him. I’m trying to perfect me.”
As Leyva stood on the medal podium, he took deep breaths and beamed as the theme from “Chariots of Fire” played. Alvarez wasn’t allowed on the floor, but if he had been, he would have been doing cartwheels.