Danell Leyva has been to this city only twice, but something about its beachfront, its fun-loving vibe, the breeze, the music and the many shades of skin makes him feel very much at home.
“I love the culture and the atmosphere here because it feels so much like Miami; Brazilians are like Cubans, it’s beautiful,” said Leyva, the Cuba-born U.S. Olympic gymnast from Homestead who on Saturday helped Team USA advance to Monday’s team final with outstanding performances on high bar and parallel bars in the qualifying round.
Leyva, 24, loves Brazil so much he learned to speak Portuguese in preparation for the Olympics. He charmed Brazilian reporters with his new language Saturday after he and his U.S. teammates turned in the second-highest point total of the day, trailing two-time defending champion China by a fraction of a point.
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China (270.461 points) topped the qualifiers, followed by the United States (270.405) and Russia (269.612). Japan, Great Britain, Brazil, Ukraine and Germany rounded out the eight-team final field.
Sam Mikulak (fourth place overall) and Chris Brooks (19th place) advanced to the 24-man, all-around final. Mikulak also qualified for event finals in high bar and floor exercise, where he had the top mark. Leyva advanced to finals in the high bar and parallel bar. Jacob Dalton made floor exercise finals, and Alexander Naddour made the pommel horse final.
Among the American fans at the Rio Olympic Arena on Saturday was U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, who congratulated the team afterward in a hallway and gave each gymnast a commemorative coin.
It was yet another Rio highlight for Team USA, which has been bonding from the moment it arrived. The gymnasts did not attend the Opening Ceremonies because they had to rest for Saturday’s competition, but they got decked out in their ceremony costumes and watched on TV from their apartment. They also have been starting each morning by picking an inspirational message out of a box given to them by a team physical therapist.
Although the U.S. women have won Olympic gold medals in recent years, the men’s team hasn’t won since 1984. This group is determined to end the drought, and they know that getting an impressive score in qualifying doesn’t mean a thing because four years ago at the London Olympics, they recorded the highest preliminary score and wound up finishing fifth after botching the pommel horse.
Leyva insists they are not using the London disappointment as a motivating tool.
“There’s no point in trying to remember something negative to obtain a positive outcome,” he said. “There’s nothing we can do about London anymore. We just have to get as ready as we can for Monday.”
Said Mikulak, a 23-year-old Californian: “[Saturday] is about setting a tone for the team final. We didn’t want to put out the best show that we’ve had in our lives. We wanted to make sure we got up on the equipment and got comfortable. We’re ready to improve on what we did [Saturday].”
For Leyva, just being here is satisfying considering he originally was not named to the team. He sustained deep bites to his left leg and hands trying to break up a fight between two family dogs a few months ago, fell just short in the Olympic qualifying events and was named an alternate.
Two and a half weeks after the team was named, John Orzco tore an ACL and meniscus for a second time. Leyva got the call. It wasn’t the way Leyva wanted to earn a spot, but it beats watching the Olympics from home in Miami.
He won the bronze all-around medal in London four years ago, the only U.S. male gymnast to medal. He has also won three World Championship medals in the past two years — a team bronze and parallel bars silver in 2014, and horizontal bar silver in 2015. He also won a 2011 World parallel bars gold medal.
At this Olympics, he will not have a chance to compete for an all-around medal, but he is relishing his role as an event specialist and veteran team leader.
“I’ve been waiting for the Olympics for four years now and it’s finally here,” Leyva said. “Anytime I was anxious, I took a deep breath and looked up at the [Olympic] rings. That made everything a lot easier for me.”
All the U.S. men stepped up when they had to Saturday. Naddour nailed his landing on pommel horse after Mikulak and Brooks fell off. Leyva scored 15.6 on parallel bars and had an electrifying routine on high bar. Mikulak (15.8) and Dalton (15.6) finished 1-2 in the floor exercise.
Leyva is soaking up every moment. His stepfather/coach Yin Alvarez, mother Maria, two cousins and his girlfriend — Ecuadorian UCLA gymnast Giulianna Pino — are here to support him. He also has enjoyed making new friends in the village, especially Cuban athletes. His stepfather and mother competed for Cuba before defecting to the United States.
“In the village, when I see any Cuban athlete, I always try to go up them and introduce myself and say, ‘What’s up?’ because those are my people,” he said “We come from the same place. I absolutely feel the connection.”