London next stop on journey for Cuban-born gymnast

Associated Press + More

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.'"

It wasn't so easy, of course. By scraping and working whatever jobs they could, however, Alvarez was able to open a gym in 1995. It was modest, so small it didn't even have the foam pit that is standard issue at every gym.

But it was theirs.

"I was calling it my second chance," Alvarez said. "I was a gymnast and I wanted so bad to be an Olympic champion and a world champion. It never happened. So now that's my dream. I want to create champions. World champions, Olympic champions."

That Leyva would be the first, well, that was something even the eternally optimistic Alvarez couldn't foresee.

Now muscular and with the quiet elegance of a dancer, Leyva was pudgy as a child. In an early picture, his arms are thick and dimpled, his face round. He didn't seem particularly coordinated, either.

So when Leyva became mesmerized by a gymnastics video and wanted to try it, Gonzalez wasn't exactly convinced.

"It's so funny, but I really did think he had no talent," she said.

But Alvarez convinced her to at least let the boy try, and it quickly became clear Leyva had a passion for the sport. He would work on skills for hours, and beg his parents to let him stay longer at the gym. When Alvarez would take Leyva to the park to play baseball or soccer, Leyva would pout until Alvarez let him go play on the rings and monkey bars.

(Leyva refers to Alvarez interchangeably as his dad, his stepfather or, simply, Yin. He has never met his biological father, but the two do have contact.)

As Leyva grew, his natural talent emerged. Though he has the gravity-defying acrobatic skills to be the envy of the X Games set — he loves high bar — it's his polish and technique that have won the judges' approval. His routines are filled with intricate combinations, yet he does them with the precision of an artist and the rhythm of a musician.

And his results last year showed that an Olympic medal, one of goals he posted at the gym, was well within reach.

Leyva was dazzling in winning his first U.S. title, and he followed it with the third-best score in qualifying at the world championships. Though a nasty fall off high bar spoiled his chances in the all-around, he rebounded with a gold-medal performance on parallel bars.

The gold was the first at worlds by a U.S. man since Paul Hamm won the all-around and floor titles in 2003.

"I always said I can," Leyva said, "but now it was actually possible."

Leyva's past, present and what he hopes will be his future are on full display at Universal Gymnastics, the warehouse-like facility on the city's southwest side where his parents moved when they outgrew the original gym eight years ago. U.S. and Cuban flags hang from the ceiling, and the back wall is draped with a large banner featuring the Olympic rings.

"Danell feels the USA is his own country," Gonzalez said. "He knows from us he was born in Cuba, but he loves the USA. We have an opportunity because of the USA."

Leyva trains with a half-dozen other elite-level gymnasts, and the atmosphere is loose and relaxed. The gym has close to 500 gymnasts of various ages and abilities, and Leyva often finds himself working next to a group of 7-year-olds. During one break, he plopped down next to the kids and teased one with the oldest trick there is, tapping the boy on the ear and shoulder and then quickly looking away, trying to stifle a grin as the other boys laughed.

Alvarez handles most of Leyva's training, and the two have a warm, easy rapport. Like everyone in the gym, they speak a mixture of Spanish and English — or "Yinglish," as Alvarez calls it — and Alvarez shows the same exuberance during practice that's become his trademark on the competition floor. His cheers and applause can be heard over the drone of the fans, and he brings the rest of the gym to a stop when someone does a new or noteworthy routine.

When Leyva is ready to test out a difficult, new, high bar routine, Alvarez kisses him on top of the head and makes the sign of the cross. He looks as if he's doing the routine right along with his stepson, pacing, waving his arms and giving little kicks of his feet.

As Leyva's feet hit the mat with a resounding thud, Alvarez races toward him, clapping his hands and yelling, "That's my boy!"

"I've always had a huge amount of support, especially by my parents. They're my coaches and they taught me everything," Leyva said. "I just can't wait to fulfill their work. Because I'm just a product of their work."

To say nothing of their courage and dreams.

Leyva hasn't been back to Cuba since he left as a baby, but he hopes to someday.

"I'm very proud of being born in Cuba," he said. "But I'm always going to be proud to be an American."

___

Follow Nancy Armour at www.twitter.com/nrarmour

Copyright 2012 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.