The U.S. gymnast, whose mother and stepfather fled Cuba, talks about the sacrifices his family made in order for him to fulfill his Olympic dream.
Posted in , Jul 25, 2016
When Olympic gymnast Danell Leyva steps onto the mat at the 2016 Summer Olympic Games in Brazil this month, he’ll be thinking of one thing: his family.
The 24 year-old athlete’s roots in the sport run deep. Both his mother and stepfather were gymnasts in Cuba who fled the country and who faced impossible odds in order to give Leyva a chance at competing in the sport they love. It’s their stories, their legacy, the young athlete will be trying to honor in Rio.
“That’s definitely shaped who I am and that’s probably a big source of my motivation,” Leyva tells Guideposts.org. “That’s where I get my drive from.”
Leyva was just a year old when his mother – a gymnast for the Cuban National Team – fled her homeland with her son and 12 year-old daughter for a chance at a better life in America. The young mother, who was a gymnastics instructor at the time, traveled from Cuba to Peru and eventually settled in Miami, Florida with her parents who were already living in the States.
Around that same time, Leyva’s stepfather, Yin Alvarez, was fleeing a hotel room in Mexico City where the Cuban gymnastics team was putting on a set of Christmas performances. He traveled close to 600 miles before finally making it to the Mexican border, ripping his clothes off, stuffing them in a plastic bag and swimming through the frigid waters of the Rio Grande, eventually making it to Miami by New Year’s Day.
Alvarez got a job, coaching gymnastics at a local gym where he reunited with Leyva’s mother – the two first met while serving on Cuba’s national team as teenagers. The pair would go on to coach together, opening their own gym and guiding Leyva to the sport as well.
“They went through it all to look for better opportunities for themselves, for the family,” he says of his parents’ struggle. “I’m trying to make them proud.”
Leyva has gone through his own struggles in order to make it to this year’s Olympic Games. Growing up, the young athlete suffered with asthma and other breathing problems. Bigger, bulkier and sporting longer arms than other kids his age, Leyva didn’t have the body of a typical gymnast either. His parents didn’t intend for him to take up the sport, but when Leyva was just three-years-old he saw a gymnastics video at his stepfather’s house and knew that’s what he wanted to do.
Leyva says dealing with the naysayers has only made him more determined to do what he loves and do it well.
“I have to tell myself that I’m going to win because if I don’t believe it then no one else is going to,” the gymnast explains.
In 2009, at the age of 17, Leyva became the youngest men's gymnast on the U.S. national team. Two years later he won his first U.S. national all-around championship at the senior level. When he competed for the U.S. Men’s Gymnastics team at the 2012 Olympics in London, he was the first ever Cuban-American to wear red, white and blue on the mat. He won bronze in the all-around but in Rio, Leyva hopes to bring home a different medal.
After qualifying as an alternate on the men’s 2016 team, Leyva learned he’d be competing in Rio, in place of friend and fellow Olympian John Orozco, who tore his ACL during a practice floor routine. The news came as a shock to fans and the gymnast himself, who took to social media to express his condolences to Orozco.
“I’m incredibly honored to be chosen for the team, “ Leyva said in a video posted to Instagram. “But I’m equally devastated for John. Having seen how much he’s battled for his spot makes these circumstances even harder.”
Still, Leyva is focused on doing his best in Rio, not only to make his friend and teammate proud, but to finish a journey his own parents began so many years ago.
“The goal has always been to be an Olympic champion,” Leyva says. “I want to give this competition my all. I want to give it everything.”