Danell Leyva more than just gymnast

Danell Leyva won the all-around event at the U.S. nationals in 2011. Lintao Zhang/Getty Images

MIAMI -- Danell Leyva dreams of flying, and when he releases the high bar and swings into space during his routine, he comes close. Suspended in midtwist or midflip, he's a skydiver savoring the split second before he pulls the rip cord.

Leyva knows exactly where he is in the air from instinct and from thousands of makes and misses, but the crowd tells him, too. There's a collective intake of breath the first time he lets go, an almost harsh yelp of relief when he catches the bar. Another inhale for his next trick and then a louder, happier cheer when he grabs hold again. When he sticks his double-twisting, double-flipping dismount, planting his feet on the mat in a cloud of chalk dust and spreading his arms wide for balance, hearing the chorus in the stands voice its appreciation "is the best feeling ever," Leyva says, his tone lowering reverently.

He listens for it. Always. He may be judged on decimal points, but Leyva competes for the love of an audience. Could he nail a near-flawless high bar routine -- like the one that helped him win the American Cup at Madison Square Garden in March -- in an empty hall? "Oh yeah," he says confidently. "It would have probably actually been better. Which is no fun at all. At the end of the day, regardless of how serious this is and how important it is, we're really just entertaining people."

The 20-year-old Leyva is one of the world's best on the high bar, although some fans were introduced to him through a spectacular fall from the apparatus at last year's world championships. He may be even stronger on the parallel bars; his mount is one of the most difficult in the world, and his precise yet fluid routine earned him an individual gold at worlds. Leyva, the 2011 U.S. champion, was edged out for that title by John Orozco earlier this month. Leyva is aiming to peak twice in the next six weeks -- once at the upcoming Olympic trials and again for the London Summer Games, where he figures to be a key part of the U.S. men's medal bid.

U.S. men's Olympic coach Kevin Mazeika thinks Leyva's most outstanding asset is his will. "As a younger athlete, he was very aggressive, which is a great attribute,'' he said in a recent phone interview. "What I've seen is, he's been able to balance that with an ability to compete in a very centered and calculated way and still have that aggression."

All gymnasts love to perform, and many of them hope to win Olympic medals, but Leyva may be the only one who aspires to collect Oscar, Emmy, Grammy and Tony awards. Yes, all four. Fourteen people have done it, counting special lifetime achievement recognitions. "I saw the list recently," Leyva says toward the end of lunch with his parents at a Cuban-American restaurant near the family's gym in southwest Miami. He ticks off a few members of the club: Audrey Hepburn, Whoopi Goldberg, Barbra Streisand.

Leyva's vision may sound naive or grandiose, but considering where he came from and where he's landed, it might be perilous to bet against him. He entered life without a parachute. Born in Cuba, where kids are selected early for sports academies, Leyva was a chubby, asthmatic toddler who wouldn't have been anyone's pick.

It's easy to see where he got his conviction that anything is possible. Leyva's stepfather and coach, Yin Alvarez, defected on a trip to Mexico in 1992, stripping and swimming across the Rio Grande River with his clothes in a plastic bag. A year later, Leyva's mother, Maria Gonzalez, decided she had to get her sickly child out of Cuba and spirited Danell and his older sister to the United States alone via Peru and Venezuela. The two childhood friends and former gymnasts married in 2001 after working together in Florida.

"My goals for afterward, they're really big," Leyva says of life after gymnastics. "Very lofty. I've never said, 'Oh, I want to.' I've always said, 'Oh, I'm going to.'"

As dishes are cleared from the lunch table, Gonzalez, a petite, vivacious woman with cropped blonde hair and a contagious laugh that ends with a squeak, turns to her son and speaks rapidly in Spanish, asking him to translate.

"What she doesn't like -- and I don't like it either -- we don't like arrogant people," Leyva says. "But now I say, 'I'm sorry I have to say it this way, but' -- I have to envision myself making my goal."

'A freak of nature'

Monday is normally Leyva's day off, but earlier this spring, he spent most of a Monday at a shoot for a Citi campaign that includes several prominent past and present Olympians. It's one of the perks of Leyva's higher profile since last fall. Having never met a camera he didn't like, he's happy to oblige.

But he is dragging Tuesday morning at Universal Gymnastics, where he's scheduled for a two-a-day. "You'll have to excuse me," he said apologetically, carrying a chair over for a visitor. "I'm moving a little slowly."

Leyva has expressive brown eyes, olive skin, wide, sculpted sideburns, a beard that begins to darken his jaw again as soon as he shaves it, and a warm, open manner. His looks, panache and recent success landed him photo spreads in the July issues of GQ and Men's Fitness. Yet he has a bigger frame and a bulkier build than most of the men in his sport.

"I always tell people that Danell is a freak of nature who shouldn't be able to do what he does," Jonathan Horton, the 2008 Olympic high bar silver medalist and one of Leyva's best pals on the national team, told reporters in Dallas last month. "I make fun of him all the time, because he doesn't look like a gymnast.

"It has everything to do with his mentality. Danell is one of the hardest workers I've ever known. He makes us go a little harder, like, 'OK, keep up with Danell today.' The things he does with his body type, it's just phenomenal to watch."

With a typical gymnast's perfectionism, Leyva sees flaws every time he looks in the mirror. "My arms are too long, my butt is too big, my feet are too flat," he says. The length of his arms in proportion to his lower body puts him at a disadvantage for the pure strength required on the still rings, he says. Ever in motion, easily distractible, Leyva is also sure he has attention deficit disorder, although it's never been formally diagnosed.

"Yin saw that I had something further, what I needed, which wasn't something physical," Leyva says. "It was the heart and the determination inside. I don't know how, but he sees it still."

At the gym, Leyva and a couple of other men his age start doing strength moves on the pommel horse, leaning on it and chatting in between. Boys in T-shirts and shorts -- stick-figure versions of the older gymnasts, with wrist braces thicker than their biceps -- buzz around them, pulling mats into place, practicing skills on the various apparatuses. The little boys clearly admire to Leyva, but they aren't in awe of him. There's a lot of easy banter, hair-tousling and teasing.

On the other side of the big warehouse, girls in pale blue and navy leotards stretch under Gonzalez's supervision. Jessica Gil Ortiz, 21, who will compete for Colombia in London, is among them.

Alvarez, a compact man with a neatly trimmed salt-and-pepper goatee, appears and strides around purposefully, pointing and talking. "You can follow me," he says to the observer. "But you'll be tired."

The boys and men abruptly stop what they're doing and line up from shortest to tallest, facing Alvarez with serious expressions. At 5-foot-7, Leyva is right in the middle. They clap twice and call out, "Uni-versal."

This is the 18,000-square-foot house that Yin built -- the most recent home for a business he began in 1995 in a much smaller location -- and this is the way Leyva has started his day since he was a youngster. He had childhood birthday parties here and has known some of the guys in that soldierly rank since before he can remember. Edward Mesa, who competed at nationals earlier this month, is a year older than Leyva, but Mesa says he has always looked up to the younger gymnast.

A room full of gymnastics equipment can resemble a playground, but there's no doubt that this place is an office. Alvarez has written his goals on the wall in big red letters. Leyva's are hand-printed on a piece of poster paper taped to the wall.

Ari Barrera, 23, says his old friend and training partner has always been equal parts happy-go-lucky and focused. What made him stand out was sheer, unwavering perseverance.

"When he's working on a new skill, he won't give up on it until he gets it," Barrera says. "So he won't give up on it."

That championship-quality stubbornness manifests itself in different ways. Leyva is convinced his eyesight improved after he stopped using corrective lenses years ago, and he wears wraps or support braces only if he's in serious pain. "I feel like, you start using that stuff, your body starts getting dependent on it," he says.

He learns better from visual cues and experience than verbal instruction. Leyva disregarded his stepfather's advice to stay out of the play-fights between the family's American bulldogs last February and paid for it with a gash on his face that required 80 stitches by a plastic surgeon to repair.

Outside the gym, Leyva delights in teaching himself rather than being taught. He writes song lyrics and picks out melodies on a portable keyboard; he is saving up for a grand piano. He paints fanciful portraits and abstracts with his hands, slathering bold colors on the canvas and using a brush to tweak the details. He insisted on cooking dinner for an out-of-town visitor and assembled his own version of chicken Monte Carlo, with rice on the side.

Twitter may as well have been invented for Leyva, who loves to share the minutiae of his life: what he's eating, what music he's listening to, his texting exchanges, his new shoes. He posted a video when he shaved his own head, commenting, "My hair is like steel wool ... I'm gonna go use this to scrub my pots and pans now."

He maintains a constant stream of digital conversation with friends, including rhythmic gymnast Julie Zetlin, the only U.S. athlete in her discipline who will compete in London. They met at nationals in 2009 and gravitated toward each other because of similar "eccentric but chill" personalities, as she put it. Leyva has watched Zetlin's routines on YouTube and sends encouraging notes that she finds priceless. "It made me feel pretty good -- I guess I'm national champion for a reason," she said in a phone interview.

Leyva has some tastes to be expected of a 20-year-old. He drives a black Camaro that he keeps spotlessly clean and loves the music of Drake. But he also owns a DVD set of the "Dean Martin Celebrity Roast" series and likes to study the timing of classic comedic riffs by Jackie Gleason, Jack Benny and Jerry Lewis. He'll often crack a joke, wait a beat as if he's on stage doing stand-up comedy, and then slap his knee to add a rim shot.

There are no second takes for gymnasts at major meets, however. At last year's world championships, Leyva misjudged one of his catch-and-release moves and banged his forearms and jaw on the high bar -- he likened it to getting an uppercut from an inanimate object -- and then hit the mat and sprawled there like a muscular rag doll. Alvarez rushed to his side. Leyva lay dazed for a couple of minutes, raised his head, spat out a morsel of chipped molar, then got up and staggered over to the chalk bucket, thinking he could resume his routine.

Once his head cleared, Leyva was angry and embarrassed. He cried in his hotel room as his mother tried to comfort him. Yet his performer's attitude -- the show must go on -- also helped him to detach and leave it behind.

He and Horton watched the video over and over that night. Leyva, a big "Looney Tunes" fan, pictured his groggy self on the mat with cartoon X's over his eyes and little birdies flying around his head. They laughed uproariously. Two days later, Leyva stuck the parallel bars routine that won him an individual gold medal.

'You can be a legend in this sport'

Leyva carries his biological father's middle name (Johan) and surname. They talk regularly on the phone -- Johan Leyva lives in Spain -- but have yet to meet face to face. Danell doesn't flinch when the inevitable questions arise. He doesn't feel like anything is missing in his life. He loves the father he's never met. He loves the stepfather with whom he spends almost every waking hour.

"My parents raised me to know the value of not only a dollar but of everything in life," Leyva says. "I've had the best childhood anyone could ask for."

At big competitions, the peripatetic Alvarez seems to get almost as much time on camera as his stepson. If he were a "Looney Tunes" character, he'd be a cheery version of the high-strung Tasmanian Devil. Alvarez crosses himself, cries out, pantomimes, whirls around the mats, kick-boxes, claps at certain predetermined points in Leyva's routines, and leaps high in the air when they're done. Some writers have dubbed it "Yinsanity."

Yet it would be a mistake to view Alvarez as a mere slapstick artist. "He's a very complete coach who covers all the details necessary," Mazeika said. "He's an incredible student of the sport. Knows his history. Very intuitive. It amazes me how much information he gathers at an event. He's very passionate about the process, always thinking about the plan, long-term and short-term."

There are no short conversations with Alvarez, and no such thing as ambivalence. Leyva sometimes rolls his eyes at the irresistible force of his stepfather's personality. "The Energizer Bunny has nothing on him," Leyva says at one point at the lunch table when Alvarez pauses for breath during a lengthy discourse. A video Leyva posted recently on his Twitter feed shows him noodling on his keyboard with his mother's soft praise in the background, only to be literally upstaged by Alvarez, who takes over, puts the instrument on autoplay and proceeds to ham it up.

"I tell him, 'I know what you want to be,'" Alvarez says, reprising a conversation he's had with Leyva more than once. "'You can be a legend in this sport. Then, I guarantee to you, you will be a great actor.'"

The three of them spend all the day at the gym and all evening at home. After dinner, they might watch a movie or play the Cuban dice game Cubilete or fall asleep on the couch in their gym clothes, as Leyva fondly documented one recent night. There is so much togetherness, so much ambition and, this year, so much attention and pressure built into the framework of this family's life, yet it seems to work for them. The secret may be simple, mutual appreciation.

Leyva has heard his mother tell the story many times: the nights she rubbed Tiger Balm on her baby boy's belly when he had spasms during his allergy attacks; the way she composed the telegram she sent her parents when she decided to leave Cuba, using the predetermined code words "Estamos perfectamente bien [We're perfectly fine];" the days she survived in hiding in South America, convincing hotel chambermaids to watch her kids so she could go out and earn a little money coaching.

"She's like what, 5-2 maybe, weighs like a buck-five?" Leyva says wonderingly of Gonzalez. "And she took me and my sister out of Cuba by herself. My grandparents were already here. They helped her, but she did it by herself."

Leyva knows Alvarez swam to freedom through freezing water. He recognizes that when his stepfather first put a sign on the gym that read "Home of Future Olympians," few took it seriously. He is too young to remember the first time they met. "He saw me and he started bringing me toys," Alvarez recalls. But Leyva grasps that his stepfather took that sweetly trusting child and built him into a man capable of doing extraordinary things.

He understands that, in some ways, his fearlessness doesn't approach that of his parents, and he's an athlete capable of doing what they couldn't because of love, loyalty and circumstance.

"There's a saying I like, and this is the truth," Leyva says after his mother and stepfather leave the lunch table. "'When you're little, you want to be like your dad. When you're a teenager, you want to know nothing of your dad. When you're an adult, you are your dad.' He's high-energy all the time. I'm more reserved. But we always had a connection, always."

Leyva gets back behind the wheel of his car and starts talking about a magazine shoot he'll be doing the next day. There will be a hydraulic lift to transport him to the roof of the gym and a full crew attending to him, a little taste of the entertainment world he wants to be part of someday.

"It's surreal," he says softly. But perhaps no more surreal than the notion that he can sail away from the bar and, in that delicious instant before gravity prevails again, be utterly certain he'll land safely.