By NANCY ARMOUR, Associated Press
MIAMI (AP) — On her own with a sickly toddler and his 12-year-old sister, Maria Gonzalez was petrified as she prepared to leave her native Cuba nearly 20 years ago.
Their route to the United States would require a detour of several months in Peru, a country they had never visited and where they knew no one, as well as a brief stop in Venezuela. The only guarantee awaiting them in Miami was more uncertainty.
But there was no other choice. The rest of Gonzalez's family had already fled Fidel Castro's communist regime, and the privileges she'd enjoyed as a gymnast on Cuba's national team had dwindled. It was getting painfully difficult to find the medicine needed to treat her son's asthma, to say nothing of the money it cost.
"A few people said I was crazy because I was alone with two kids," Gonzalez recalled. "In my mind, I kept thinking, 'I hope what I'm doing today is the right thing.'"
Gonzalez can smile when she retells the story now. She and her children made it safely to Miami, where they reunited with her parents and sister. She reconnected with Yin Alvarez, a former Cuban teammate who is now her husband, and together they own and operate a gym — something they consider an impossibility had they remained in Cuba.
And that asthmatic 18-month-old? He is Danell Leyva, the reigning U.S. gymnastics champion and a multi-medal threat at this summer's London Olympics. Coached by his stepfather, the 20-year-old helped the Americans to the bronze medal at the world championships last fall and then added a gold on parallel bars, the first world title by a U.S. man since 2003.
"I do have a lot of thanks and appreciation to give to the USA," Leyva said. "I'm not from here originally and they've accepted me with such a heartwarming embrace. It's great to be able to give back by representing them."
Leyva was too young to remember Cuba, and he adapted to his new home so easily he actually forgot his Spanish one summer a few years after arriving. But his mother and stepfather's memories of their homeland are vivid, and he is keenly aware of how great their sacrifices have been — and how different his life might be had they not dared to leave.
Cuban children with exceptional athletic ability are singled out at early ages, spending most of their childhoods at national training centers and away from their families. Alvarez, who was 7 when he went to Cuba's gymnastics school, jokes that he entered wearing "short pants and little boots" and came out shaving.
In return, children have advantages ordinary Cubans do not. There are no food shortages for them, and they don't have to worry about lighting fires or candles when the power goes out. But freedom and opportunity aren't part of the package.
"I was telling my mom I was going to have my own gym and she'd say, 'No one in this country can own anything,'" Alvarez said.
Alvarez remained part of the country's sports system as a coach after his competitive career ended, but he chafed at the restrictions. On Jan. 16, 1992, he stole away while performing with a gymnastics group in Mexico City. He made his way to the Rio Grande and swam across it to the United States.
"It was cold, so cold," he said. "I was naked because they said you have to put your clothes in a bag."
He eventually reached Miami and was soon juggling several jobs. Before long, he'd saved enough to make a down payment on his dream, purchasing a few pieces of gymnastics equipment.
Back in Cuba, life was getting increasingly desperate for Gonzalez. Leyva's asthma was aggravated by the pollution from fires that provided light during blackouts, and Gonzalez had to take him to the hospital two, sometimes three, times a month for treatment.
So she fled, with help from her parents, and a month after finally rejoining them in Miami, Gonzalez ran into her old friend Alvarez, whom she married in 2001.
"He said, 'You want to see my gym?'" Gonzalez said. "He took me to one of those storage facilities and it was so skinny! He opened the door and I can see the beam and the bars. I said, 'You have everything, let's go.'"