Danell Leyva aims to convert skeptics at world gymnastics championships
posted on 09/15/2011

© Scott Einius

By Amy Shipley - Washington Post

Danell Leyva watched a gymnastics video in his parents' Miami home when he was 3 years old and fell in love. Now 19,Leyva remembers pointing to the screen and telling his mother and stepfather, who had spent their childhoods in Cuba's national gymnastics academy, "That is what I want to do."

His mother recalls the moment, too; only she considered the plan utter foolishness. When her gymnastics career ended, she had coached in Havana, hand-picking the island nation's best young athletes, those with perfect gymnastics bodies.

Her son, whom she sneaked into the United States as a baby because he was in ill health, would never have made the cut. He had flat feet, too-long arms, breathing problems. He could not figure out how to jump and looked funny when he ran.

"I didn't see in him the talent," Maria Alvarez said. "I know gymnastics is so hard, and he was not coordinated and a little fat. . . . You have to be fast, strong, flexible. You have to be quick for gymnastics. Those things are most important, most necessary. . . . I said, 'He is going to have trouble.' "

She was right: He did have trouble. She was wrong, however, about everything else. Last month, Leyva won his first U.S. all-around title at the 2011 Visa Championships in St. Paul, Minn., topping two-time champion Jonathan Horton and positioning himself as a medal favorite not only for the Oct. 7-16 world championships in Tokyo, but also for next year's Olympic Games in London.

When he secured the victory, Leyva grabbed his coach and stepfather, Yin Alvarez, in a joyous bear hug and hoisted him several feet into the air. That moment perfectly captured Leyva's dogged pursuit of his youthful dream: Every step of the way, his surprising successes have swept his parents right off their feet.

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