Ask Danell Leyva what his life would look like without gymnastics, and he responds without hesitation.
"I’d probably be some fat kid sitting on the couch, eating a lot of food, doing absolutely nothing and getting in lots of trouble," the 20-year-old says.
It's a well-rehearsed answer to what one can assume is an oft-asked question, but the line still hums with an undeniable authenticity. Especially when you consider Leyva's journey.
Born in Cuba, Leyva defected to South Florida with his sister and mother while still in diapers. Upon arrival, his stepfather—a fellow defector who'd made his escape separately by swimming naked across the Rio Grande—opened a gym in Miami under the seemingly quixotic notion that it would someday produce Olympic champions.
Two decades later, Leyva is at the pinnacle of American gymnastics. Not only is he primed to challenge for multiple individual medals, he's the best all-around athlete on a U.S. men's team that could be the deepest ever.
Leyva's life has been an all-or-nothing gambit. And the fictional delinquent in his stock answer isn't simply a comic device—he's the almost realized outcome of a journey fraught with peril and flamboyant risks. Leyva knows he could have been that kid.
To pass some of his good fortune along, he's teamed up with Citi and its Every Step of the Way Program to support "USA Gymnastics Future Stars," one of the youth programs that helped usher Leyva from immigrant dreamer to London-bound Olympian.
Check out the program here, and check out our pre-London interview with Leyva below.
1.) We see you so often with a towel over your head between routines. What’s going through your mind under that towel?
That towel is basically like my lucky towel. But at the same time it keeps me very focused—in the zone while I’m competing. I’m someone who gets very distracted very easily. So that just helps me stay in the moment.
2.) Your stepfather is known for his exuberance at meets. Was there ever a point when you were younger were you just wanted to be like “Dad, please stop?”
Yeah…I’m pretty sure there was, like when I was 12 or 13. But the thing is—he’s literally been doing that since I started the sport. And not only with me, with every single one of the gymnasts.
And I’m used to it. Now I kind of need it when I compete. I feel like it keeps me motivated, it keeps me in good spirits. When I finish my routine there’s a huge cheer right next to me—not only from the crowd, but one that’s literally in my face.
3.) You have a family member who once held the world record for holding one's breath under water. Sounds like risk taking is in your blood. Besides that crazy high bar routine you do, any big adrenaline rush things you’d like to try?
Uh, yes. [Laughs] I really want to go skydiving afterwards. I want to go skydiving enough times that I can go by myself. And I want to do the Flying Squirrel suit thing. You know what I’m talking about?
Like the cliff divers?
And that doesn’t scare you at all?
It sure does. But that’s what makes it so fun.
4.) You were born in Cuba but obviously grew up here. Have you ever had a chance to go back?
No I haven’t actually. I would love to go back, though. That’s my roots, you know?
What’s the first thing you’d want to do if you ever had a chance to go back?
Go to the beach. For sure.
5.) You're from Miami, city of champions thanks to the Heat. If you could be any one of the Big Three for a month, who would you choose?
Ooooo…I don’t know. That’s a tough one. Good question.
I want to meet Dwyane [Wade] really badly. Dwyane has been with us for a while, so I really want to meet him.
But to be one? That’s tough.
Whichever one gets more girls.