On Saturday, Miami native Danell Leyva
took first place at the Olympic gymnastic trials in San Jose, California. That makes
him the first Cuban-American to represent Team USA, which is expected
to compete for a gold medal in the all around category for the first
time since 1984. The 20-year-old Leyva edged out his long-time rival
John Orozco from the Bronx by less than a percentage point. The two
young gymnasts have been neck-and-neck since competing for the
national championship two weeks ago, which Orozco won. Leyva is the
2011 national champ and has been considered the favorite to lead Team
USA in London.
For Leyva, he's accomplished a life-long goal that started when he was three-and-half years old. Back then, his mother Maria Gonzalez - a former member of the Cuban national team and gymnastics instructor - didn't believe her son had the physical attributes to compete at a high level.
"My arms too long, my hands are too big and my feet are flat," Leyva told New Times before leaving for San Jose. "And I had asthma as a little kid. But I had a lot of determination and heart. My hard training has paid off for me."
In San Jose, the competition was intense from the moment the men's trials began last Thursday. Leyva opened with a slight case of the jitters, messing up his landing on the floor routine. But by the end of the day's competition, he held a slim lead over Orozco, a 19-year-old nicknamed the "silent ninja" because he sneaks up on his opponents.
However, unlike the Visa National Championships, Leyva managed to hold back Orozco during his final routine, the parallel bars, where Leyva won the USA's first gold medal in 8 years during a world gymnastics competition in 2011. He pulled off a near-flawless routine that propelled him to first place.
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After every routine, Leyva was mobbed by his mom and his stepfather/coach Yin Alvarez, who pumped his fists and jumped up and down each time his prodigy nailed a difficult sequence. The couple fought back tears when Leyva and Orozco were announced as the first two members of Team USA. They spent their childhood and early adult hood competing for Cuba, but Alvarez, Gonzalez, and their old teammates never had a chance to compete at the Olympics.
Leyva is not only carrying hope for the United States, but for all the former Cuban gymnasts who are rooting for him here in south Florida.
"I've seen the sacrifices Danell has made to excel in our sport," says Alyssa Sanchez, a former Cuban gymnast who competed in the Pan American Games. "My dream is to go to London to watch him take the gold."