These are not the stories you expect to come out of gymnastics.
These hardscrabble, up-from-the-bootstraps tales of athletes using their sport to vault themselves out of poverty or out of a rough neighborhood or out of a communist country where their family can’t get medicine for their sick infant? These are boxing stories. These are football stories. These are basketball stories. These are baseball stories.
These are most definitely not gymnastics stories.
Yet as the U.S. Olympic trials for men’s gymnastics came to an end Saturday, the top two finishers — and thus the two automatic qualifiers for the team that will head to the 2012 Summer Olympics in a month — were exactly those stories.
There was Danell Leyva, the 20-year-old Cuban-American and the top overall point-getter in the four meets that make up the Olympic selection process. He’s a crisp, powerful gymnast whose reserved attitude in competition is the opposite of his expressive Cuban stepfather and coach, Yin Alvarez. When he was 5 months old back in Cuba, he’d started having awful, wheezing asthma attacks. His mother, a petite gymnast on the Cuban national team named Maria Gonzalez, couldn’t get the right medicine for her baby. So she took him to Peru, country-hopped through Latin America and landed in Miami just before New Year’s Eve 1993. As if to justify her gut-wrenching decision to leave home, Danell had an asthma attack the day they landed.
And the second automatic qualifier on the team, finishing less than a point behind Leyva, was John Orozco, the 19-year-old Puerto Rican from a rough Bronx neighborhood that’s dominated by housing projects. He’s got a wispy mustache and a soft, polite voice that belies his powerful gymnastics and has earned him the nickname “Silent Ninja.” His father labored for the New York City sanitation department until he had to retire early after a stroke. Orozco got into the sport only because his father saw a flyer for free gymnastics classes, and only continued after he got into a subsidized program for gymnasts from poor families. As he progressed through the sport, Orozco dealt with the occasional racist remarks in the gym and the more frequent teasing by boys in school for being a gymnast.
No, these are surely not the stories you expect in American men’s gymnastics. But you better believe that, once the Olympic public-relations machine goes into full effect in London, the dramatic, powerful stories of Leyva and Orozco will be very, very good for this sport. Their legends will grow. Because the men’s team — and the women’s team, too, with the likely inclusion of African-American gymnast Gabrielle Douglas — looks a whole lot like America as melting pot, the old cliche that makes this country what it is.
“When I first started out (in gymnastics), I realized I’m the only one who looks like this out here,” Orozco said moments after he was officially named as a 2012 Olympian. “But the sport is progressing really well. There’s a lot more diversity this time around. That’s what makes the U.S. so great, is that we’re so diverse.”
It would be easy, after Orozco qualified for the Olympics, for him to spike the football. To give a rhetorical middle finger to all the boys in school who called gymnastics gay or to the people who gave him a funny look when the poor Puerto Rican kid walked into the gym.
Not a chance. Instead, Orozco just wiped the tears from his eyes and smiled.
“Nothing is better than this right now,” he said. “I’m not very vengeful at all. I just hope that they see I did it. This is it. I did it. I didn’t let their negativity crush my spirits. I just kept on trucking and going after my dream. And now it’s halfway done.”
The rest of the U.S. men’s team will be named on Sunday before the final day of the women’s trials, but the team has already started taking shape. Sam Mikulak, 19, who won an NCAA title as a freshman at Michigan, missed the second day of trials because of a sprained ankle. But he seems assured of a spot, especially after being the high scorer on Day 1. Jake Dalton, the top scorer at trials in floor and in vault, looks to be a shoo-in, as does Jonathan Horton, the 2008 Olympic silver medalist in the horizontal bar.
But leading into London, the hype will engulf Leyva and Orozco, the two inspiring American stories and the two gymnasts who went back and forth during trials in an epic battle for first place.
“We’re not just about stereotypes,” Leyva said. “We love each other for each other and because of what we do, not where we come from.”
Nearby stood Leyva’s excitable stepfather and coach. Yin Alvarez spent the trials jumping up and down, getting the crowd clapping at the end of Leyva’s routines, pantomiming his prize student’s movements like a golfer trying to will a shot left or right. Now, he was holding court before a group of reporters, his arms waving back and forth with that Cuban flair.
When Leyva first landed in the United States, his mother worked wherever she could find it: day care, cleaning houses, delivering the Miami Herald in the middle of the night, and then finally as a gymnastics coach. Now Leyva was heading to the world’s most glamorous sporting event for the American team. It’s a great story.
“America is big, and not because the land,” Alvarez said. “America is big because it’s the only country in the world that accepts everybody in the world. What is America? America is African-Americans. America is Germans. America is Brazilians, Cubans, Puerto Ricans, everybody in the world. That’s what makes America big, because this is the country that opens the door for everybody in the world.
“This is the story of America,” Alvarez said. You couldn’t tell if he was talking about immigration history or his own family’s story or this year’s men’s gymnastics team. But most likely all of it.
Follow Reid Forgrave on Twitter @reidforgrave or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.