Who is... Danell Leyva
Now 24 years old, gymnast Danell Leyva is looking to add to his Olympic bronze medal from the all-around at the London Games. Leyva has continued to be a stand-out performer on the parallel bars and horizontal bar, wowing fans with his gutsy and flair-filled routines.
"Man, I didn't know what it was, I just saw like, people like flying and just doing amazing things and I felt like that's what I wanted to do."
Danell Leyva was just two years old when he was introduced to the sport of gymnastics in the form of a VHS tape. His mother didn’t think he was paying attention to the gymnastics playing on the TV, but Leyva was transfixed. “I just fell in love,” Leyva told NBC Olympics. “I felt like that’s what I needed to do.”
His mother Maria Gonzalez, a former gymnast who defected from Cuba to Miami with a toddler Leyva and his sister, soon put him in his first gymnastics class.
“I did one class, and the coach came up to my mom, and he goes, ‘Please don’t bring him back.’ Apparently I was so bad at focusing and paying attention, I was just all over the place… So, that was like a good indicator to my mom that, she was like, ‘Maybe he’s not gonna be a gymnast.’”
But their family friend Yin Alvarez saw something else. Also a former Cuban gymnast who defected to Miami, Alvarez had competed alongside Leyva’s mother on the Cuban National Team. He became young Leyva’s coach, and as he grew closer to Gonzalez took on a new role as well: Leyva’s stepfather.
After making his world championships debut in 2010 and winning the all-around national title in the summer of 2011, Leyva was poised to be one of the stars of the 2011 World Championships. The then-19-year-old started the combination strong, earning the third-highest all-around score in qualification and then helping the U.S. men earn a bronze medal in the team final.
In the all-around final, Leyva had gotten through five out of six routines cleanly when he went up on his last apparatus, the horizontal bar. After just a few skills, Leyva let go too early when doing a release over the bar, and came down too soon. His chin violently smacked into the bar and he crumbled to the floor. Unable to finish his routine, Leyva finished the all-around in 24th place.
But he still had one event left, the apparatus final for the parallel bars, and a few days to recover. Making the most of his second chance for individual glory, Leyva was nearly flawless on the bars—and won gold by just 0.100 points.
Leyva earned an automatic berth to the U.S. men’s Olympic gymnastics team, and no small amount of media attention, after finishing first in the all-around at the 2012 U.S. Olympic Trials.
In London, he got his Olympic competition off to a strong start, qualifying first both individually to the all-around final and with the U.S. men to the team final. He also earned a spot in the horizontal bar final.
But the pommel horse, long considered the worst event for the U.S. men’s team, stood between Leyva and an Olympic medal. In the team final, Leyva fell off the pommel horse while his teammates made their own mistakes, and the U.S. men finished fifth.
In the all-around final, Leyva lost control again on pommel horse, botching his dismount. The low score sent him down in 19th place, but he was far from giving up. He slowly worked his way back up the standings, and on the last two events, parallel bars and high bar, posted two top scores. It was enough to push him into third place, behind Japan’s Kohei Uchimura and Germany’s Marcel Nguyen.
Leyva’s all-around bronze medal was the only medal won by the U.S. male gymnasts at the London Olympics.
"If you compete all-around, that's like what you do. You expect the best out of yourself. You expect that like you're gonna win and you say that to yourself: 'I'm gonna win this.' Regardless of who is on the floor. If you don't think that, then you're not gonna have your best competition. And it's very important. You're always hopeful for the best, but at the same time you kind of have to expect it out of yourself. So, I went in and I went in wanting to win and even in all-around finals, after the mess up, I was telling myself that I wanted to win and that I was going to win, and luckily, it helped me get to that third place, and it felt like a win, because it was amazing."
"So Yin is a guy who is very bland, very boring. You know, when we're competing he just â he kind of just â yeah, right... no. He's the complete opposite. He's like the human embodiment of what passion and excitement actually is."
A middle-aged Cuban man with a goatee and salt and pepper hair is probably not the first thing that comes to mind when you hear the word “cheerleader.” But Alvarez has become a fixture at Leyva’s gymnastics competitions, always out-screaming the crowd to make sure his stepson hears his words of encouragement or signature cheer of “Yesssooooo!” Before each of Leyva's routines, Alvarez will kiss him on the forehead, make the sign of the cross and then throw his hands into the air.
Leyva says that Alvarez’s over-the-top enthusiasm help his performance.
"It really fuels me. When I'm up there, I can feel his energy, I can feel him you know, just like pushing for me to do well, even though he has absolutely no control over it, but I can feel his energy and I can feel him down there and all those cheers – and when I land, that’s just like the exclamation mark."
Leyva’s other signature accessory on the competition floor is much more muted—an old blue towel with stars that’s become his lucky charm. He can often be seen using it to wipe away sweat or draping it over his head to block out distractions. During the all-around final at the Olympics, he was often seen hiding underneath the towel during rotations—leading fans to wonder what exactly was going on under there.
The towel became so famous that it earned its own Twitter account, @LeyvasTowel, and attracted nearly 10,000 followers before the end of the London Olympics.
The famous piece of fabric entered Leyva’s life serendipitously. In 2007, he asked his aunts to buy him a towel. The two women went shopping separately but came back with the exact same blue and grey towel with stars. One of the towels fell apart quickly, but the other one lasted—and it was a fixture in Leyva's gym bag until it was stolen out of his car in 2016.
Leyva was just the third U.S. male gymnast ever to win an all-around medal at the Olympics, after Peter Vidmar (gold in 1984) and Paul Hamm (gold in 2004).
"I think the biggest obstacle I ever had was myself. Man, when I was younger, I always thought I was a little better than what it was, which is good, because you need that, but at the same time, it was perfect to have both my parents kind of like put everything into perspective and realizing that I needed to I guess understand how everything actually worked was hard, because I was young, but it was necessary. And now it’s a lot different. Now I can appreciate everything a lot more, I enjoy everything a lot more, and I’m excited."
"I still don’t feel like I actually went to the Olympics. It’s still like really hard to put everything in perspective. It’s like very surreal. But you know, you’ve just gotta keep pushing forward and hopefully 2016 will be yet another dream come true."
Outside the Gym
A long-time lover of performing arts, music, painting and drawing, Leyva hopes to pursue a creative career after he’s done competing in gymnastics. He’s mentioned being a comic book artist or actor as possible goals, and has also taught himself how to play piano.
You can watch Danell Leyva at the 2016 Rio Olympics starting Saturday, August 6th at 1:30pm ET in the men’s qualification session.
The team final will take place on Monday, August 8th at 3pm ET.
If Leyva qualifies for the all-around final, he will compete on Wednesday, August 10th at 3pm ET.
If Leyva qualifies for the event finals, the men’s floor and pommel horse finals will be held on Sunday, August 14th at 1pm ET, the men's rings and vault finals will be held on Monday, August 15th and the men's parallel bars and horizontal bars finals will be held on Tuesday, August 16th.