By Michael E. Miller
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Even as Leyva's abilities have improved, he has never possessed the perfect personality for a star, his mom says. He has a stubborn streak and gets easily frustrated, yet that same attitude can morph into iron determination. "He loses his patience easily," she says. "But when he wants to do something, he won't stop until he accomplishes it."
Gonzalez believes her son's drive is fueled by what she and Alvarez had to endure to escape Cuba. "He's seen firsthand how hard we've had to work to build up Universal Gymnastics," she says. "He knows things don't come easy in life."
She and Alvarez at times have struggled to separate the athletic rigor from family life. At home, Alvarez did his best to be a dad rather than a coach. "He would give Danell quality dad time," Gonzalez says. "Yin would take Danell to ride his bicycle or play baseball... He made sure to show Danell love outside the gym."
The young gymnast admits his parents never made it easy. "They would always tell us: 'If you want a Nintendo or a car or a house, then you have to struggle and fight to get it,'" Leyva says.
Like any teenager, Leyva moped whenever he had to pass up parties or turn down dates because he had to concentrate on his training, his mom adds. "Sometimes he would cry because he couldn't go out," Gonzalez says.
By 2006, their strategy began to pay off. That year, Leyva competed in the junior division of the U.S. national championships (known as the Visa Championships), where he placed first in the all-around, floor exercise, and high bar, and tied for second on the parallel bars.
Two years later, Leyva was one of three gymnasts coached by Alvarez named to the U.S. junior national team. Leyva won titles in the all-around, high bar, parallel bars, and pommel horse. He also took first place on the high bar at the 2008 Pan American Gymnastics Championships in Argentina.
Later that year, he helped the U.S. team win gold at the Pacific Rim Championships while individually earning gold in the all-around and bronze on the parallel bars.
In 2009, at the age of 17, Leyva finished second at the Winter Cup and became the youngest men's gymnast selected to the U.S. national team. His career really took off in 2011, when he beat reigning champ and world bronze medalist Jonathan Horton to win his first U.S. national all-around championship at the senior level. He also helped anchor the U.S. men's team that took bronze at the 2011 World Artistic Gymnastics Championships in Tokyo.
That competition in particular showed Leyva's resilience. He had qualified for the all-around final, but during his last rotation, he smashed his chin on the high bar. He couldn't finish his routine and scored a paltry 6.466, good for 24th place. "It was like getting decked by an uppercut," Leyva says.
Afterward, he cried in his hotel room as his mother tried to comfort him. Then he got hold of the video footage and spent the night watching it over and over. Two days later, he won gold on the parallel bars.
Leyva has always been hard on himself. "I have this one skill on the high bar I keep messing up," he explains. "I can't leave the gym until I practice it for at least two hours. Not because anyone tells me to. I just keep doing it over and over because I hate messing up."
Outside this obsessive training routine in the runup to the Olympic trials, Leyva leads a normal, if sleepy, life. He watches television, finger-paints, and composes songs on the keyboard, which he taught himself to play. Between practice sessions, he croons Gotye's "Somebody That I Used to Know" for his mother. Leyva's deep baritone cracks when he tries to hit the high notes.
When his gymnastics career is over, he wants to be an entertainer. He dreams of adding Oscar, Emmy, Grammy, and Tony awards to his gymnastics prizes. He's a big Twitter user, sharing the minutiae of his life with 13,292 followers. He tweets about the food he eats, the music he listens to, the shoes he buys.
More recently, he's been enjoying the perks that come with being an Olympic hopeful, such as a sponsorship from Citibank and a photo spread in the summer fashion issue of GQ. All the homeschooling and ten-hour days at the gym are paying dividends.
"It is a little overwhelming," Leyva affirms. "But this is when all my hard training is going to pay off."
As he watches Leyva perfect his routine in the gym less than two weeks before the finals in San Jose, Alvarez sees only one possible conclusion to his son's quest.
"He's not just going to make the Olympics," Alvarez boasts. "He is going to win at the Olympics."
As he prepares for his final parallel bars routine in San Jose — trailing Orozco by that fraction of a point — Leyva can't help but think back on what has led to this moment during his two-day competition to earn a ticket to London.
danell you make me proud to be my cousin. I remember you when you were a small child when your paraents and grandparents used to visit my parents house. I see that you also inherited your great grandmother my (Tia Hilda) aunt the love for the piano and music. I wish you the best in everythingyou do.
@drakemallard he has two more chances to win gold.
@JoseDuran Japan's Kohei Uchimura bet Danell
@JoseDuran No Medal For Danell Leyva in Horizontal Bar
@drakemallard and he still has a final chance tuesday when he competes for gold for the high bar.