Danell Leyva wasn’t a child who seemed destined for the Olympics. When he was just 2 years old, he was forced to defect from his native Cuba with his parents because of the lack of medical care for his severe asthma. And yet, he was a world champion in gymnastics in the parallel bars in 2011, an all-around national men’s champion at the Visa Championships that same year, and is the United States’ best hope for a medal in men’s gymnastics going into the 2012 Olympic Games in London.
Both Leyva’s mother and stepfather, Yin Alvarez, were members of Cuba’s national gymnastics team as teenagers, and Alvarez opened his own gym in Miami when Leyva was just a child. He’s been Leyva’s coach ever since. Leyva learned the love of the sport from his parents, but he also learned a love of dogs.
Leyva remembers his first impression of his first dog. “My dad picked me up from school one day when I was in first grade, and I remember seeing my father’s silhouette in the car, but it looked like he had these strange big ears,” he recalls. “I remember thinking, ‘Why does my father have big ears?’ Then I saw that he had a German Shepherd in the car! We named her Venus.” About a year later, a coach at school told Leyva he had something to give him. “I went over to his car, and he pulled out a very small black-and-brown German Shepherd puppy,” Leyva says. Zeus grew to be the biggest German Shepherd Dog Leyva has ever seen.
Years later, Leyva and his father got a small, female, all-white American Bulldog. “She was so beautiful,” Leyva says. They named the puppy Jade, pronounced like “ha-day” in Spanish. Later the family added two more American Bulldogs, Hercules and Pirata.
Although the family has had other dogs as well, including a Poodle–Maltese mix named Dolly and two Toy Poodles named Lulu and Lily, Leyva remains an ardent fan of the American Bulldog. Jade turns 11 this year, and Leyva calls her his “old lady.” Hercules is 6 years old, and Pirata is 3. “We used to bring them to the gym all the time,” he says. “They would run around and play with the kids, lie on the floor, lie on top of the kids. But once we had so many and they all grew up, it got to be too much. Jade weighs about 95 pounds, Hercules weighs 120 pounds, and Pirata weighs 100 pounds. So they don’t come to the gym anymore.”
Leyva, not yet 21 years old, looks forward to the day when he moves out of his parents’ house and can have a dog all his own. “No matter what happens, no matter what you’re going through, they feel you,’’ Leyva says. “If you have a bad day, hug your dog and you’ll feel better. If you have a great day, play with your dog and you’ll still feel better. No matter what you do, your dog will agree. He’s ready. He’ll say, ‘Let’s do it!’ And that’s why I love them.”