Unique stories of Leyva, Orozco lead men's U.S. gymastics team
Danell Leyva qualified for his first Olympics by winning the U.S. Gymnastics Trials
His mother brought him to the United State from Cuba when he was 18-months old
John Orozco earned his first Olympic berth by finishing second at the trials
SAN JOSE -- The new face of USA Gymnastics could finally take a bow on Saturday. Danell Leyva, the Olympic trials champion this weekend, and No. 2 John Orozco were announced to the crowd after Saturday's events as the top two gymnasts for the five-man team that will be finalized on Sunday morning. On the floor, Leyva signaled a thumbs-up to Yin Alvarez, his stepfather and coach who came from Cuba when Danell was one-year old to make a new life for the family. The normally calm and controlled Orozco looked into the stands and found his parents, William and Damaris, who raised the African-American son in the sometimes unfriendly New York borough of the Bronx. The roles reversed. The often emotional Leyva was exhaling and calm. By his own admission, a teary Orozco was about to have "a mini-meltdown. You know, kid from the Bronx, it doesn't happen every day." They are the new melting pot that has graced the surging U.S. program with talent, diligence and two great stories. "Look at this team," the gregarious Alvarez said after Saturday's competition. "This is opportunity. This is America right here."
Two decades ago, Alvarez had swum across the Rio Grande to reach the States while his Cuban team was performing in Mexico City. His former gymnastics teammate and current wife, Maria Gonzalez, had fled Fidel Castro's Cuba looking for something better. Gonzalez made her way to Peru and Venezuela before she reached U.S. soil to try to help Danell, her 18-month old who was born in Cardenas, Metanzas, Cuba and was an asthmatic boy with more medical restrictions than physical prowess for anything when she came with him. The old teammates vowed to open a proper gym instead of the storage facility with broken equipment that Alvarez had found. They opened one in Miami several years later and married in 2001. Alvarez is always noticeable on the floor because of his exaggerated gyrations and silent, but joyful, celebrations, when his son competes. "I'm who I am because of my parents," Leyva said. "They believed they could do crazy things, so I never thought I couldn't."
Last year, Leyva won the world title on the parallel bars. In San Jose, Leyva sailed through the second day of trials until he reached parallel bars, his final event and the apparatus on which he is the reigning world champion. Uncharacteristically, he missed a skill early in his routine, taking himself too far forward and over in the wrong direction. While not technically a mistake, the miss forced him to make up much of his routine, compounding improvisation with improvisation, to get him righted for his dismount. "I'm always a fighter," he said. "We work on things like that in practice, so I know what to do when something goes awry." Leyva covered so well that he still received a score of 15.800, but he could not keep Alvarez from having what the coach called, "just a small heart attack." While a fall could not have kept him from the Olympic team, the mistake was, Leyva said, "a surreal way to end the weekend." Leyva said he spent the previous night in his hotel watching videos of the gymnastics competition from the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta. "Now I'm one of them," he said. "I'm very, very happy. Extremely happy. Almost unbelievably happy."
Orozco pulled into a strong second position Saturday, following up on his performance at the national championships in St. Louis earlier this month when he narrowly edged Leyva for the all-around crown. His tears were years in the making. "I'm not usually like that," he said. "Maybe when I'm by myself, but I couldn't hold it in." The context of his journey had done it to him. "We went from not being able to afford hotels, sleeping in the back of a minivan to me being an Olympian." Orozco's father, William, had been laid off as a supervisor in New York's sanitation department. While William's wife, Damaris, was in the same San Jose arena where John would win trials, her son captured his first national title in the U.S. junior division. William, who had stayed home to save money then, suffered a stroke during the meet. "I guess when you get through one thing," Orozco said, "it makes you stronger for the next. I don't know, it just always seemed like my parents found a way."
So did Orozco Saturday when he, too, began to have trouble on parallel bars, also his last event. In his case the issue wasn't so much a missed skill as a rip on his left hand that cut through the skin early in the routine. "I think I just grabbed it too tight," he said. "You know, I was one routine away from being an Olympian and it was hard to let go of the bar. The day was finally here, you know."