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Thursday, July 19, 2018

A Family’s Olympic leap

Facing the struggles of an average Cuban,Danell Leyva’s over-the-top family sticks together to fight,cheer and dream the Olympic dream

Written by New York Times | Published: July 31, 2012 2:56:00 am

In the aisle behind the lower bowl of the gymnastics venue,running around like an over-caffeinated madman shouting,“Vamos!” and “That’s my boy!” is a man who helped Danell Leyva become one of the medal favourites.

While Leyva competed in qualifying last Saturday,even when hiding under his lucky green towel to shut himself off from the world,he could hear that man cry out,“You’re the best,baby!”

And those words,as usual,made Leyva believe it.

“Everybody thinks it’s an embarrassment because he acts so crazy,but it’s a big help,” Leyva said of his stepfather and coach,Yin Alvarez. “I love hearing him. I love his energy. It definitely makes me better.”

Leyva,20,came to the US from Cuba as a toddler. He led qualifying in the all-around event and also helped pull the US men’s team to the top of the standings.

Alvarez said he first dreamed of opening a gym and coaching an Olympian when he was a young boy in Cuba. “That was my dream but there’s no room for them in Cuba,” Alvarez said. “Though Dani’s not my biological kid,we dream the same.”

The seeds of their Olympic hopes were planted when Alvarez and Leyva’s mother,Maria Gonzalez,attended a Cuban sports school together. When their gymnastics careers ended,their lives diverged. Alvarez joined a gymnastics troupe. Gonzalez coached in Cuba and had two children.

Alvarez could not shake those pesky Olympic dreams from his head. So on a trip to Mexico,on Jan. 15,1992,at about 4:30 a.m.,he stole out of his hotel and headed for the Rio Grande. He stuffed his clothes in a plastic bag and braved the freezing water to swim to the US. “I always wanted to have my own gym,” Alvarez said. “So that was pushing me to swim faster and faster.”

Back home,Gonzalez was facing the struggles of an average Cuban. And Danell’s asthma was a major concern. She often couldn’t obtain medicine for him because the hospitals were out of it.

“I was so sad and frightened because Dani got sick so many,many times I thought he would die,” she said. “I knew I had to leave Cuba.”

Her father had fled to Miami two years earlier and had told her to send him a telegram saying,“Everything is perfect,” if she wanted to leave Cuba. So she took the leap. Because Gonzalez was a respected gymnastics coach,she was able to take Danell and his sister Dayanis to Peru to coach there. When Danell was barely 2 years old,she boarded a plane bound for Miami.

When she and Alvarez finally reconnected,he had already saved money by washing dishes,cleaning bathrooms and selling cemetery plots to buy gymnastics equipment. Gonzalez never married Leyva’s biological father,Johann Leyva,who remained in Cuba,so Alvarez stepped in for him. He visited Danell often,once bringing gymnastics videos for him to watch.

His training led Leyva to a national title in the all-around and a world title on parallel bars. All along,Alvarez,who married Gonzelez in 2001,has been at his side.

When Leyva performs,Alvarez shadows his routines on the sidelines. He sways as if using an invisible hula hoop and flails his arms as if shooing a fly. Whether Leyva has performed spectacularly or spectacularly badly,Alvarez always leaps for joy and spins around,then sprints backward while pumping his fist. On Saturday he yelled,“That’s it,” in Spanish—from the stands,and it echoed throughout the arena.

Leyva joked that Alvarez might just be the loudest Cuban ever. He insisted,though,that he is just as much of a showman. “I want to do musicals,” Leyva said.

After Leyva nailed a daring high bar routine on Saturday,Alvarez stormed down the stairs of the stands,shouting,“I love you,baby!”

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