Gold medals are sweet but Miami gymnast Danell Leyva is seeking an honor more permanent than top perch on the podium. He wants to engrave his name on the history of his sport.
If all goes as planned, Leyva could be up there in the annals of creativity with Picasso, Tolstoy and Edison — at least on the parallel bars.
The high-flying gymnast and his hyperactive, crowd-pleasing stepfather and coach, Yin Alvarez, have been tinkering with an unprecedented maneuver that Leyva will showcase at the P&G national championships Thursday through Sunday in Indianapolis. A year out from the Rio de Janeiro Summer Olympics, Leyva is revving up all his routines — but he is most proud of his P bars set.
“No one has done this skill before, and if I hit it right, it’s really intricate and exciting,” Leyva said. “To me, a gymnastics meet is a performance. I like being in front of a crowd and I think the spectators are going to like this move.”
If a gymnast develops a unique element that is approved by the International Gymnastics Federation (FIG) and performs it successfully at the world championships or Olympics, it will be named after the athlete in the Code of Points. Dozens of skills are the namesakes of innovators: The Yurchenko vault, named after Natalia Yurchenko; the Tkachev release on bars, named after Aleksandr Tkachev; the Thomas flair on pommel horse and floor exercise and the Thomas salto on floor, named after former world champion and Olympian Kurt Thomas of Miami; the Onodi handspring on balance beam, named after Henrietta Onodi. There used to be a Korbut flip on uneven bars named after Olga Korbut, but it was later banned because it included standing on the high bar, which became illegal in the rule book.
“It’s the dream of all gymnasts to have their names in the book,” Alvarez said. “We’ve been working on this for six months. We’ve only seen one other guy try it and he almost killed himself. He said, ‘Dani, you are crazy!’ ”
The Leyva involves swinging into a rotation called a Giant beneath the bars and lifting up into a handstand on one rail.
“Over the top I do a full turn on one arm,” Leyva said. “Instead of grabbing the opposite bar I grab the bar the other hand is on and go into the handstand. Because I have to lean over I have to make sure I don’t overshoot the bar, and then I have to brake to a stop and hold a full handstand.”
The move requires a tricky combination of power and precision, upper body strength and sleight of hands. Leyva is known for his swinging technique and dynamic amplitude on P bars and horizontal bar.
“It was like composing a song to design this move,” Alvarez said. “Nobody can sing My Way like Frank Sinatra. Dani has a beautiful style that is all his own. When he does P bars he puts his signature on it.”
The Leyva, if approved at the world championships in Glasgow in the fall, would increase the start value of the routine from 16.9 to 17.1 points and the level from E to F. Leyva performed the skill at the Doha World Cup in the spring but was not given credit in his score by judges because he lacked control of the handstand.
“He’s turning on both axes and finishes in a handstand that he must hold for one second,” said Steve Butcher, president of the FIG men’s technical committee. “There is very little margin for error.”
Leyva, 23, won the all-around bronze medal at the 2012 London Olympics with a thrilling high bar routine that earned a standing ovation. He’s a four-time national champ in parallel bars, 2011 national all-around champ and four-time world medalist.
A native of Matanzas, Cuba, and the first Cuban-American to make the U.S. men’s national team, Leyva lives in Homestead with his stepfather and mother, Maria Gonzalez, who were both members of Cuba’s national gymnastics team before they defected. Alvarez worked in a circus in Mexico before coming to Miami in 1992, where he opened the Universal Gymnastics gym in southwest Miami-Dade with Gonzalez.
Alvarez is a show-stopper himself as he prepares Leyva for his routines with a variety of manic gesticulations, including signs of the cross, and exhortations, including kisses, and reacts with leaps, yelps, fist pumps, high fives and bear hugs.
“We feed off each other’s energy,” Alvarez said.
Said Leyva: “If he was calm I really wouldn’t know what to do.”
Leyva is ready for a big year in advance of the Olympics after overcoming a lingering left shoulder injury.
“I’m feeling solid and confident and much more mature,” Leyva said. “Instead of thinking, ‘I can’t fail and I’ve got to prove myself,’ I’m enjoying gymnastics. I was getting into my own head too much. I got tired of unnecessary nervousness during competition.”
Leyva said he has learned from world champ Simone Biles, the favorite for the U.S. women’s title. He takes breaks to pursue his hobby of painting and play pickup soccer.
“After the 2012 Olympics, everything was up and down but mostly down because of my high expectations,” Leyva said. “I’ve changed my mentality. I try to channel my inner Simone. I’m having more fun.”
Alvarez said his training plan for Leyva now emphasizes quality over quantity.
“Before, Dani was using his talent,” Alvarez said. “Now he’s using his talent and his brain.”
P&G Championships TV schedule
▪ Thursday (Women Day 1): 7:30 p.m., Universal Sports/UniversalSports.com
▪ Friday (Men Day 1): 8 p.m., Universal Sports/UniversalSports.com
▪ Saturday (Women Day 2): 8 p.m., NBC
▪ Sunday (Men Day 2): 3 p.m., NBC