Cuban refugee earns spot on US Oympic gymnastics team

Cuban refugee achieves goal

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Coach Yin Alvarez (left) celebrates after Danell Leyva's performance on the horizontal bar. Leyva earned an automatic spot on the US Olympic team on Saturday.  GREGORY BULL/ASSOCIATED PRESS
GREGORY BULL/ASSOCIATED PRESS
Coach Yin Alvarez (left) celebrates after Danell Leyva's performance on the horizontal bar. Leyva earned an automatic spot on the US Olympic team on Saturday.

SAN JOSE, Calif. — From Cuban refugee to Olympian, Danell Leyva’s incredible journey is complete.

Leyva earned an automatic spot on the US Olympic team Saturday, almost 20 years after fleeing Cuba with his mother and sister. As he climbed off the podium after his last event, his stepfather and coach Yin Alvarez bowed to him several times, and Leyva responded by picking him up in a bearhug. Leyva’s mother then joined the two, and the family embraced.

Not a bad way to say thanks to their adoptive country.

“It’s very surreal,” Leyva said. “Super unbelievable.”

Leyva edged teammate John Orozco by almost a point. Because both finished in the top three in at least three events, they automatically qualified for the Olympic team. The remaining three members will be chosen by a selection committee, and the team will be announced today.

One of those spots is almost certain to go to Jonathon Horton, a double medalist at the Beijing Olympics and the backbone of the US squad. The other two spots are up for grabs after Samuel Mikulak, who began Saturday in third place in the combined standings from nationals and the first day of trials, was only able to compete on pommel horse after spraining his ankle Thursday.

Leyva’s mother and stepfather were both gymnasts in Cuba, but his mother never envisioned her son would follow in their footsteps. He was not exactly athletic as a baby and Alvarez had to talk her into letting the boy try gymnastics after he became enthralled watching a videotape as a toddler.

Leyva has developed into one of the world’s best gymnasts, combining difficult skills with breathtaking elegance and style. His rivalry with Orozco has made both that much better, and they will be a potent 1-2 force in London, where the Americans believe they have the goods to make a legitimate run at the gold medal for the first time since 1984.

Orozco got the better of Leyva earlier this month at the US championships, but Leyva took the lead in Thursday’s prelims and added to it in the first event Saturday, high bar.

His score of 16.3 opened a 1.3-point gap on Orozco.

But Leyva gave it right back with an uncharacteristically sloppy routine on floor exercise. Orozco’s 15.35 on rings moved him ahead of Leyva ever so slightly – 0.15 – and they went into the last event with Leyva trailing by about a half-point.

But Orozco struggled on parallel bars while Leyva dazzled and completed his triumph.


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