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Proper values help shape Danell Leyva

Danell Leyva’s earliest gymnastics memory is an instructive one. “My first competition was when I was 5 or 6 and I didn’t place on anything,’’ he said. “I got a last-place medal on high bar and I was crying. And Yin said, ‘See? If you want to be something in this world, you have to work for it.’”

Yin is Leyva’s stepfather and coach, Yin Alvarez. And if “You have to work for it’’ seems like a harsh instruction for a disappointed, sobbing 5-year-old, well, perhaps that’s also how you raise champions. Leyva won the U.S. all-around championship in August and will head a strong American team into the world championships this weekend in Tokyo.<./p>

“We’re looking really good,” Leyva said. “We have a really good chance, not only in doing well but also winning gold.”

“The goal is to win the team gold medal,” U.S. men’s team coordinator Kevin Mazeika said. “I think our chances are very good. The team is well-prepared, in the right frame of mind and balanced over six events. It’s one of the strongest teams we’ve ever fielded.’’

Leyva was born in Cuba in 1991, but his mother, Maria Gonzalez, was able to bring him to the United States when he was 2 years old. She reunited in Miami with Yin, whom she had met when they were both top gymnasts in Cuba, and the two eventually married. “Both my parents were part of the Cuba national team for like 10 years,’’ Leyva said. “They brought some [gymnastics] videos over when I was really young and I got super interested. At first, my mom didn’t want me to get in it, but Yin pushed and made her believe I could make it.’’

Yin had defected to the U.S. in 1992 and opened his Universal Gymnastics gym in Miami. He is famous for his wildly animated enthusiasm while watching his gymnasts during competitions. “He is my gymnastics; he is my life,’’ Leyva said. “He’s given me everything I know, everything I am. Even as a human being. He and my mom both have made a great structure for me.’’

This will be the second trip to Tokyo in several months for the U.S. team, which finished second to Japan at the Japan Cup in July. It won the pommel horse competition at Japan, a discipline that has long challenged the U.S. team.

“We’ve all been to Japan; we’ve all competed there, so the real confidence-builder is we know what we’re getting into,” said Jonathan Horton, the 2009-10 U.S. champion and a silver medalist in the 2008 Olympics. “It’s a very humble confidence how good our team is. We know we’re a great team. The competition at Japan Cup was great and we know we can be better. We know what the country is like and that really helps.’’

Horton, 25, and Leyva are good friends but it was the younger Leyva -- still technically a teenager until he turns 20 on Oct. 30 -- who upset the two-time defending champ at nationals in St. Paul in August (Horton fell on the pommel horse). After Leyva clinched the all-around competition, he hugged his demonstrative stepfather and lifted him off the ground in joyous celebration.

“To be completely honest, I feel no different [as national champ],” Leyva said this week. “I know it’s weird, but I think it’s because I looked at [the U.S. championships] as one of the higher priorities of my career, but at the same time, I looked at the world championships as higher. It will be after worlds when everything is going to hit me.’’