From the outside, Universal Gymnastics looks like a clone of the other warehouses on its soulless dead-end drive.
Inside, it’s a three-ring circus. Without safety nets.
Danell Leyva practices his show-stopping routine on the high bar. When he swings off the bar and propels himself three stories into the air, he is flying.
And then, on this particular afternoon, he is crashing. Gravity demands payback.
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Leyva misses his catch and plunges into a face-plant on the mat.
He tries again, spinning, releasing, soaring, falling, grazing the bar with his fingertips. Thunk. He sounds like a boxer hitting the canvas.
Once more he rises toward the roof, descends, and his parachute malfunctions. This time, it’s a belly flop.
But on his fourth try, he finds his rhythm. His rotation velocity accelerates. When Leyva performs this spectacle at the London Olympics, spectators will gasp at the daring beauty of it. They always do.
He sequences through four intricate catch-and-release manuevers. His hands move in a dexterous blur on the bar, like a pianist’s on the keyboard after thousands of repetitions. He circles into a handstand. His legs extend into a midair split, then jackknife together. Around he goes, faster. He launches. His arms spread wide like wings.
On the ground, another captivating performance takes place. Leyva’s stepfather and coach, Yin Alvarez, is doing the routine simultaneously in his mind. He is bending, hopping, swaying, extending a pointed toe, windmilling his arms. He’s speaking the gymnast’s body language. Through Leyva, his son and protégé, he’s flying, too.
Leyva flips off the bar into his double twisting dismount. His feet spear the mat.
“Yesso!” Alvarez cries in his trademark cheer, a combination of “Yes!” in English and “ Eso!” [That’s it!] in Spanish. Beaming, he runs up to Leyva, high-fives his palm, punches him in the shoulder. “Yesso!”
After countless hours in the hothouse gym on the edge of the Everglades in West Kendall, Leyva is taking his show to the biggest stage.
He’s also taking his parents to the Olympics, which begin Friday. In another life, they might have been Olympians. But they gave it up to be reincarnated in Miami. Now Leyva is fulfilling his dream, and theirs.
He has become one of the world’s most acclaimed young gymnasts: World champion on parallel bars; U.S. national champion in all-around, parallel bars and high bar; Olympic Trials champion.
In the small subculture of small people with outsized fearlessness, Leyva, 20, is looking like the next big thing. He and the U.S. men’s team, typically overshadowed by the pixies in leotards, are out to prove they can win medals. They may not be as cute as the girls, but their tricks and personalities deserve equal attention.
The judges ought to award Leyva extra hundredths of points for his sideshow, Alvarez, who expends as much energy as the athletes and delights the crowd with his theatrics.
Japan’s Kohei Uchimura, three-time world champ, is the favorite, as is China’s men’s team, but Leyva and his teammates, bronze medalists at the 2011 worlds, say they are not intimidated.
“The difference between Dani and most guys is he doesn’t want to make it to the Olympics,” Alvarez said. “He wants to win the Olympics.”
That irrepressible confidence is what made Leyva, Leyva’s mother Maria Gonzalez, and her husband Alvarez into Miami’s first family of gymnastics.
Since defecting from Cuba’s gymnastics team 19 years ago, the gregarious, excitable Alvarez and the soothing, meticulous Gonzalez have built a gym where the shelves bow under the weight of trophies. They coach 150 gymnasts, including Jessica Gil of Colombia and a group of up-and-comers that could make South Florida a hub of the sport. They have spun gold out of nothing.
“My goal is to have three different Olympic champions,” Alvarez said. “One is maybe luck. Three is not luck.”
For 12 hours a day, he and Gonzalez supervise and critique, moving from one apparatus to another, spotting a vaulter, demonstrating a floor exercise, adjusting the rings. They do video reviews of routines.
“I can see everything,” Alvarez said. “Plus, I got cameras in my eyes.”
He is constantly chattering, clapping, correcting.
“Quick, tighter, it’s all in the swing,” he said while using his broad shoulders to hoist a little boy up to the bar.
The petite Gonzalez is calm, reflective.
“I’m in my own world,” she said. “I used to play alone as a child, using my imagination. I sing to myself. Dani got some of that.”
They live with Leyva in a new townhouse in Homestead. Despite all the time they spend together, they seem to genuinely enjoy each other’s company.
“Yin — that’s me — and yang,” Alvarez said, his mischievous smile widening above his gray-flecked goatee. “We fight, we forget about it.”
Goal lists are hand-printed on the gym’s walls. Alvarez and Leyva have checked the ones achieved.
After his knees have had enough, Leyva’s goal is a career in entertainment.
“Did you know only 14 people have won an Oscar, an Emmy, a Tony and a Grammy?” Leyva said. “I want to be on that list.”
He has his stepfather’s open, welcoming nature, and his mother’s empathy and expressive eyes. At pressurized meets where judges deduct for the slightest slip, Alvarez winds him up, Gonzalez calms him down.
He’s an artist; his fantastic, colorful paintings hang in an upstairs room and at home. He’s a musician who plays guitar and piano. He’s an aspiring actor; he’s been appearing on a Channel 41 comedy show. He watches DVDs of Jack Benny and Jackie Gleason to study what made their acts funny.
“What Dani wants more than anything is to be host of Saturday Night Live,” said U.S. teammate Jonathan Horton during a workout at the gym when he was visiting Miami for a sponsor’s engagement. “I mean, he shouldn’t be a gymnast. Not with his body type, which is bigger than the typical gymnast. He’s like a freak of nature. But his work ethic is incredible. He never gives up until he gets it right.”
No, Leyva was not supposed to be a gymnast. His mother, a member of Cuba’s national team, didn’t really want him to pursue the sport. Besides, he was a chubby kid.
“My arms were too long, my butt was too big, my feet were flat, my knees didn’t come together properly,” he said.
Leyva was born in Cuba. He has never met his father, Johann Leyva, who now lives in Spain, but they talk regularly on the phone. It was Alvarez who made him curious about gymnastics, when he showed Dani old videos of the Olympics.
Chalk dust — that was another reason Leyva was not likely to follow in his mother’s footsteps. Chalk is to a gymnast what flour is to a baker. Their hands are covered with it. Particles of it drift onto everything in the gym, like a light snowfall.
On parallel bars, to improve grip, gymnasts apply honey, corn syrup, saltwater or spit — depending on their secret formula — then more chalk from the bucket.
Leyva was an asthmatic baby, so the last place Gonzalez wanted to take him was the gym. Nor could she acquire the medicine he needed. In crumbling Havana, she was accustomed to deprivation, whether it was a lack of electricity or food. But when her son’s health became another sacrifice to be made for the revolution, she had to get out.
She sent her father in Miami a telegram with the message he had told her to write when she was ready to leave: “Everything is perfectly fine.”
He helped her, Danell and his sister get to Peru, where they waited for six months before moving to Miami in 1993.
Yin Alvarez was performing for Cuba’s gymnastics troupe in Mexico when he decided to flee in 1992. Like Gonzalez, his athletic career had faded, and Cuba’s government-run sports programs, weakened by the end of Soviet subsidization, were only going to decline. Alvarez wrapped his clothes in a plastic bag and swam across the Rio Grande.
In Cuba, Alvarez had been one of Fidel Castro’s “pets,” as people referred to privileged athletes. In Miami, he washed dishes, cleaned bathrooms, sold cemetery plots — and squirreled away money.
Through the grapevine, he reconnected with Maria Gonzalez in Miami. They had known each other since they were 7 years old and slotted into the sports school for gymnasts.
“We were so different,” said Alvarez, 46. “She was perfect. I called her group the monjas [nuns]. My group was funny, crazy, socio. I was talkative, a bad influence. I wanted to show the world I was different.”
Interjected Leyva, rolling his eyes: “And he hasn’t changed.”
Gonzalez, 44, recalled how Alvarez sprayed fire extinguisher foam all over class in the middle of the national anthem.
“I’m the exact middle of them. I follow the rules, but I ask why,” Leyva said.
They talked while making dinner together at home. Their three huge American bulldogs — Jade, Hercules and Pirata — barked on the patio. They discussed their belief in Santeria, how prayers help when nerves are taut.
Leyva was a toddler when Gonzalez and Alvarez met again. Alvarez told her of his grand plan to open his own gym and produce American champions. He was sweet but deluded, she said.
“Do you want to see my gym?” he asked.
“You have a gym already?” she said.
He drove her to a storage unit. Stuffed inside was a balance beam, pommel horse, vaults, mats.
“He was so organized with all his receipts,” she said. “I said, ‘You pretend you are crazy and irresponsible, but you are not.’ That’s when I fell in love with him.”
They married in 2001. They moved from their first small gym to Universal in 2004. Their disillusionment with life in Cuba transformed into a no-regrets outlook in America.
“People here complain about paying their bills,” Alvarez said. “In Cuba, you have no electricity, you can’t afford a car or have a mortgage. So I am happy to pay my bills! People here are looking for the golden egg and don’t realize they are holding the chicken.”
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.