Cuban-American gymnast Danell Leyva sets sights on more Olympic medals
When Danell Leyva’s two American bulldogs got into a fight, his mother stepped in to try to break it up. Then he intervened to protect her. That’s when things got really gruesome.
One dog clamped his jaws on Leyva’s leg. Leyva tried to pry his mouth open and the dog bit his fingers. When the dogs resumed biting each other, Leyva was able to back away.
“I almost fainted and my mom freaked out,” Leyva said. “There was so much blood, from the dogs and from my leg.”
Seven weeks later, the puncture wounds on Leyva’s left calf are still visible but have healed, although he has lost a little feeling in part of his ankle. He’s put the agony and sorrow — both dogs had to be euthanized — behind him and is ready for the U.S. Olympic Men’s Gymnastics Trials in St. Louis on Thursday and Saturday.
“He’s tough,” said Leyva’s mother, Maria Gonzalez. “He’s a gymnast so he can handle pain.”
Only five men will be chosen for the team that goes to the Rio de Janeiro Olympics in August, and Leyva plans to be among them even though the leg and hand injuries set him back two weeks in training and led to a sub-par 16th-place finish at the national championships in Hartford, Connecticut, earlier this month.
Leyva, 24, was the top U.S. finisher at the 2012 London Games when his come-from-behind performance in the all-around — capped by a spectacular high bar routine — earned him the bronze medal.
“I feel a lot more solid, prepared and confident because we’ve been adding numbers — more repetitions, more difficult skills,” he said. “I didn’t get the results I wanted in Hartford but I did enough to get to trials.”
Leyva, who lives in Homestead, trains at his parents’ Universal Gymnastics gym. His stepfather, Yin Alvarez, is his coach. Both his mother and stepfather were gymnasts in Cuba who defected and built their business from scratch.
Alvarez has been making Leyva’s routines cleaner. Leyva has improved on vault and pommel horse and added some “extravagant high flipping” to his floor exercise routine. He’s known for his breathtaking maneuvers on bars, where he has the highest start values for difficulty — 17.4 on high bar and 17.0 on parallel bars.
“The crowd will be great, so it becomes a performance,” he said. “I like being on stage.”
Leyva said in the past four years, his mindset has changed.
“I’m more mature, and able to not put so much pressure on myself,” he said. “For awhile I was overthinking things.”
His relationship with Alvarez is thriving. Alvarez is a fan favorite for his partial mimicking of Leyva’s moves during routines and his effusive cheering and bear hugs afterward.
“I’m the type of person who is curious to know the answer — why, why? But I’ve found it’s easier to shut up and listen,” Leyva said. “When I land, his excitement helps me feel like I did well.”
Leyva has been receiving therapy and doing exercises to cope with chronic shoulder injuries that include small tears in the rotator cuff, labrum and supraspinatus.
“I work around it, on it, with it and against it,” Leyva said, smiling. “It’s part of gymnastics, you know.”
The harrowing attack by his dogs, Pirata and Hercules, left blood all over the floor (Leyva has a photo) and deep wounds in his leg that were treated with Viscopaste zinc bandages. Leyva has a video of a doctor stuffing a piece of gauze into “one of the holes in my leg.”
Leyva, five-time world medalist and 2011 U.S. champ, knows the Olympic selection committee will have a difficult task given the men’s depth. But he’s feeling good.
“We had a training camp in Rio and I felt at home,” he said. “I can’t wait to go back.”
He wants to get new dogs, maybe a Husky and a Dalmatian, but, he said, “not until after the Olympics.”