Youth Sports

Kendall gymnast, 17, overcomes her fear, wins gold medal at games

Bianca Leon, who in July won a gold medal representing Puerto Rico in the Central American and Caribbean Games, practices on the uneven bars at Leyva Gymnastics in Kendall on Wednesday, Aug. 15, 2018.
Bianca Leon, who in July won a gold medal representing Puerto Rico in the Central American and Caribbean Games, practices on the uneven bars at Leyva Gymnastics in Kendall on Wednesday, Aug. 15, 2018. rkoltun@miamiherald.com

Miami native Bianca Leon lives much of her life four feet off the ground.

Her personal work space is just four inches wide and just over 16 feet long, but she makes the best of the cramped quarters by twisting, turning, leaping and contorting her five-foot, 125-pound body, 90 seconds at a time.

If you haven’t guessed by now, Bianca is a gymnast who specializes on the balance beam. She won a gold medal on July 24 in Barranquilla, Colombia, at the Central American and Caribbean Games, held once every four years.

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Bianca Leon, who in July won a gold medal representing Puerto Rico in the Central American and Caribbean Games, practices at Leyva Gymnastics in Kendall on Wednesday, Aug. 15, 2018. Her specialty is the balance beam. Roberto Koltun rkoltun@miamiherald.com

But while she is now a certified success on the balance beam — she represented Puerto Rico and became the first female gymnastics gold medalist in that nation’s history — that apparatus has at times felt like her personal torture chamber.

“I was an awful competitor,” said the 17-year-old Bianca, who lives in Kendall with her Puerto Rican-born parents, Osvaldo Leon and Yanira Sanabria. “I couldn’t control my nerves, and I would fall [off the beam] a lot.

“When I was 15, I stopped training for 18 months. I wasn’t really improving. My mental state wasn’t the best. I was kind of stuck.”

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Bianca Leon, who in July won a gold medal representing Puerto Rico in the Central American and Caribbean Games, practices on the uneven bars at Leyva Gymnastics in Kendall on Wednesday, Aug. 15, 2018. Roberto Koltun rkoltun@miamiherald.com

She isn’t stuck anymore.

On Sept. 10, Bianca will be in Lima, Peru, where she will represent Puerto Rico in an effort to qualify for the Pan American Games, which will be held July 26 to Aug. 11, 2019, also in Lima.

How Bianca liberated her mind is a story we will tell in a minute, but, first, it’s important to understand how she became a gymnast even though her parents had zero training in the sport.

At age 4, Bianca’s preschool took a field trip to a gymnastics center. It was there that she met coach Octavio Dominguez.

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Bianca Leon, who in July won a gold medal representing Puerto Rico in the Central American and Caribbean Games, practices at Leyva Gymnastics in Kendall on Wednesday, Aug. 15, 2018. Her specialty is the balance beam. Roberto Koltun rkoltun@miamiherald.com

“I was doing stretches and tumbling, and the coaches liked everything I was doing,” Bianca said. “They talked to my parents and insisted that I started taking gymnastics lessons.

“At first, I was confused because I had never seen gymnastics before. I thought it was cool … but what was this?”

Bianca started taking lessons once a week and kept going back until she was at the gym every day.

“We saw talent in her — coordination, flexibility, strength,” said Dominguez, a former gymnast on the Cuban national team. “We knew she had potential to be an elite gymnast.”

By the fifth grade, Bianca and her family decided she would be home-schooled so she could practice gymnastics upward of seven hours per day.

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Bianca Leon, who in July won a gold medal representing Puerto Rico in the Central American and Caribbean Games, practices at Leyva Gymnastics in Kendall on Wednesday, Aug. 15, 2018. Her specialty is the balance beam. Roberto Koltun rkoltun@miamiherald.com

Since the 10th grade, Bianca has been studying online in a Miami Dade College dual-enrollment program that will allow her to finish high school with a two-year associate’s degree from MDC.

Attending classes at Florida International University could be in her future, but gymnastics is at the forefront of her life at the moment.

Since she was 13, Bianca has worked with Gil Gonzalez, a human-performance specialist with a background in sports psychology.

In fact, even after she left gymnastics for those 18 months, Bianca still kept working with Gonzalez at his Elite Athletes Performances sports lab in South Miami.

“We worked on her concentration skills and her ability to handle stress in the most relaxed fashion,” said Gonzalez, who works with Bianca for about three hours per week. “Gymnastics has a lot to do with eye-hand-foot coordination. To me, it’s essential that a gymnast has this type of [mental] training to improve focus.”

Dominguez, who worked with Bianca from age 4 to 15, has never met Gonzalez but believes he did indeed help her.

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Bianca Leon, who in July won a gold medal representing Puerto Rico in the Central American and Caribbean Games, practices on the uneven bars at Leyva Gymnastics in Kendall on Wednesday, Aug. 15, 2018. Roberto Koltun rkoltun@miamiherald.com

The problem, Dominguez said, is that there is a significant risk of serious injury for gymnasts. The dismounts, in which competitors soar through the air while twisting and turning before landing, can be particularly harrowing.

One fall can lead to another and another due to a nosedive in confidence.

“Bianca started developing fears of hurting herself, and that fear grows,” Dominguez said in Spanish. “It’s common at all levels. The difference is how you handle it, and Bianca had started to regress because the fear took over.”

After Bianca took her break, she returned with a new coach, Maria Gonzalez, who was also a gymnast and a member of the Cuban national team from 1973 to 1980.

Gonzalez — along with her ex-husband Yin Alvarez — also raised a three-time Olympic medalist in gymnastics, Danell Leyva, who won a bronze medal at the 2012 Games in London and earned two silvers in the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro.

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Bianca Leon, left, who in July won a gold medal representing Puerto Rico in the Central American and Caribbean Games, works with her trainer Maria Gonzalez at Leyva Gymnastics in Kendall on Wednesday, Aug. 15, 2018. Roberto Koltun rkoltun@miamiherald.com

Although Alvarez was Leyva’s main coach, Gonzalez, as his mother and a former gymnast, made significant contributions, especially on the psychological side.

So, when Bianca showed up at her gym, Gonzalez (no relation to Gil) knew exactly what to do to get her back to peak performance.

“Physically, Bianca is talented and flexible,” Gonzalez said. “The foundation she built with my friend [Dominguez] was very good. Her skills are clean — I just changed some of her routines to make them more suited to her talents.

“Bianca comes from an experience of many falls, but we worked on that weakness. She has matured so much and learned determination.”

Gonzalez and Dominguez agree that qualifying for the Pan American Games will be much tougher for Bianca than winning the competition in Colombia. The U.S., Canada and Argentina are among the teams that will be in Peru that weren’t in Colombia.

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Bianca Leon, left, who in July won a gold medal representing Puerto Rico in the Central American and Caribbean Games, works with her trainer Maria Gonzalez at Leyva Gymnastics in Kendall on Wednesday, Aug. 15, 2018. Roberto Koltun rkoltun@miamiherald.com

Bianca is also training for the other events in gymnastics — vault, parallel bars and floor. But the balance beam is her specialty — it’s where she lives hour after hour every week.

Looking back, Bianca is happy she returned to gymnastics, fighting against her fears.

“I just thought, ‘I don’t want to stop like this.’ I wanted to give it one more shot,” Bianca said.

“Now, when I compete, I calm my nerves and collect myself. When I’m at a big event, I just tell myself it’s just like practice, and if you fall, you fall.

“I don’t see the crowd. I just see the beam.”

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