Three months ago Danell Leyva had wounds on his leg so gory he could stick a finger two knuckles deep into them. He had tried to break up a fight between his beloved American bulldogs Hercules and Pirata when one bit him.
Two months ago he was left off the U.S. Olympic gymnastics team. The selection committee didn’t think his scores were good enough. He was elevated to the team only after one of his best friends injured a knee.
Last week Leyva fell off the horizontal bar and crashed to the mat, a rare and humbling mistake for the bars expert.
Leyva did not seem to have much going in his favor Tuesday as he took a deep breath and stepped onto the platform. It was the last day of gymnastics competition at the Rio Olympics and Leyva didn’t want to go home to Miami empty-handed. He had two last chances to win medals in his best events, parallel bars and horizontal bar.
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But wasn’t his confidence shattered by now? Wouldn’t disaster be crouching in the back of his mind, ready to ambush him in midair?
No, the lesson here is to never underestimate Dani Leyva.
“Never doubt him,” said Leyva’s hyperactive stepfather and coach, Yin Alvarez, who performs his own wildly-gesticulating routines on the sidelines.
Leyva, the U.S. team’s clutch performer, whipped and flipped himself around the bars and won not one but two silver medals. Two medals in the span of two hours. Two medals as the first and final competitor of a tense afternoon. Not even Simone Biles won two medals in a day, although she did win gold on floor exercise with Aly Raisman right behind her to conclude her Olympics with four golds.
For Leyva, redemption and reward after an agonizing prelude. The first Cuban-American on the U.S. team will be returning to his family’s house in Homestead and their gym in west Miami-Dade with his second and third Olympic medals, having won bronze in all-around in 2012.
“Nobody has a perfect day in gymnastics but that was as close to perfect as I could come,” he said. “If you had told me I’d win two silvers, I probably would have argued and said, ‘I’m going to win gold,’ but I’m really happy. It’s a dream come true.”
Leyva couldn’t shake the memory of his high-bar mistake Aug. 8 during team competition, when he missed a catch and had to settle for a subpar score. It didn’t cost the U.S. a medal, but he blamed himself for the team’s second consecutive fifth-place finish.
“On the P-bars I was thinking about high bar,” he said. “Even on the medal podium I was looking at the high bar and thinking, ‘OK, I’m going to get you now, boy.’ ”
Inspired by his pal Biles, whose nearly perfect 15.966-point performance to samba music on floor roused the crowd into a clapping, stomping standing ovation, Leyva steeled himself for high bar, the apparatus on which his spectacular finale clinched a thrilling come-from-behind bronze in all-around in London.
Leyva knew he had to beat German Fabian Hambuechen’s score of 15.766. He came close on a 10-skill routine with the highest degree of difficulty at 7.3, soaring on his layout Kovacs and Kolman moves, but he had a slight slip on one catch, a small tilt on one handstand and a tiny hop on his double-twisting, double layout dismount to earn a 15.500.
Leyva clenched his fists and Alvarez jumped and jumped and jumped for joy. It was good enough for silver No. 2. Leyva hugged Hambuechen. Alvarez slapped Leyva on the back and helped him hold up an American flag.
Leyva saw his girlfriend and his mother, Maria Gonzalez, cheering and crying in the stands and he shed a tear, too. He knows what his parents endured to get him to two Olympics. Both former members of Cuba’s gymnastics team, they defected to the U.S. Alvarez was performing with a Cuban acrobatic circus act in Mexico when he decided to swim across the Rio Grande. He worked as a dish washer and grave digger to save enough money to open his own gym, Universal Gymnastics. He never made it to the Olympics, but he’s coached his stepson to three Olympic and three world medals.
Leyva, 24, was born in Cuba. His mother brought him to Miami when he was 2 years old.
As the first gymnast up on the first rotation Tuesday, Leyva capped his complex parallel-bars routine with a stuck double front dismount for 15.900. Alvarez went bonkers, leaping and punching the air and delivering a bear hug to Leyva. Then they had to wait. Ukraine’s Oleg Verniaiev claimed gold with a 16.041.
Alvarez said he always had a feeling Leyva would be in the Rio Games even after the dog bites and his 16th-place finish at nationals. When he returned from a meet in Michigan, he didn’t find out Leyva had tangled with the dogs until he arrived home.
“Dani has a leg this big and can’t even walk,” Alvarez said, holding hands wide as a refrigerator. “I think, four years of hard work are over. But he didn’t give up. Even when he was named alternate he had the courage to stay ready.”
Leyva was named to the team after John Orozco got hurt during training camp.
“It’s unfortunate how I made the team but these medals show I deserved to be on the team and they’re for him as much as for me,” Leyva said of Orozco.
Leyva said he never despaired, not when he was rejected for the team, not when he was standing in a puddle of blood in his kitchen.
“Even when the dog was clamped on my leg, I thought, ‘Really? Now?’ ” he said. “But as soon as I got home from the hospital I knew I’d be back in time. The doctor said I was the fastest healer he’d seen.”
The bulldogs had to be put down. The only pet left in the house is his mother’s little white cotton ball Maltese-poodle mix named Dolly.
But Leyva promised himself if he won a medal at the Olympics, he would get new dogs.
“Maybe a Dalmation and a Husky,” he said. “I like big dogs.”
But with the 2020 Tokyo Olympics coming sooner than he thinks, maybe goldfish would be a better choice.