Danell Leyva shows all-around body

U.S. all-around champion, USA Gymnastics

Updated: July 11, 2012, 10:48 AM ET
By Morty Ain | Photographs: Peter Hapak

tkPeter Hapak for ESPN The MagazineLeyva says he's pretty flexible for a male gymnast -- he can do the splits.

This is an extended interview from the 2012 ESPN The Magazine Body Issue. Subscribe to the Mag today!

If you could write the description of your Body Issue photo, what would it say?
DL: Hairy. That one word -- in bold capital letters.

Why do you want to be the best?
DL: I've always just loved the sport, and I want to be the best at the things I love. The constant pursuit of perfection is always in any athlete's head. It's never-ending.

Why do you love gymnastics?
DL: I love the adrenaline rush you get from being in a big arena with a huge crowd cheering for you. At the end of the day, I am an entertainer, so I love the fun of entertaining people.

Gymnastics is about grace and power, but at the same time the whole point is to make it look easy, when in fact it's not easy at all. It's really, really hard. That's how you become the best, when you make the hardest thing in the world look like a joke to a casual observer.

What's your practice schedule?
DL: Tuesday is our hard day. On Monday, Tuesday, Thursday and Friday we go from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m., and Wednesday and Saturday are 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. But how hard we train depends on whether we have a competition coming up. We're always focused on trying to hit the routine as cleanly as we can. As for conditioning, it's a lot of gymnastics-related stuff, on rings or bars, a lot of repetitions and intense skills. On rings we have to do sets of crosses in different positions, but sometimes we'll have straps on our arms, or we'll do it with some help so we can rep out for a longer period, or we'll add weights when we do dips on the high bar.

I have long arms and I can get pretty low. I think after I'm done with gymnastics I want to get into MMA.

What's the most unusual training you've ever done?
DL: Once a year we'll do the girls' conditioning, which is really hard because they use different areas of their bodies. Girls are stronger in their legs, and guys are mostly upper-body strength, so their conditioning requires more leg and core strength. We do it just to do something different and fun, and they like to watch us and see how much we struggle. We are constantly ripping on each other.

What do you tell yourself when you feel like you can't train any further?
DL: I think of my ultimate goal, which is to be an Olympic champion. Two images stay in my head: First, the whole team standing on the podium at the Olympic Games. And second, me standing on the Olympic podium. And when I get frustrated, I tell myself that it's okay to make mistakes; I just have to work through them.

What's the most impressive thing you can do with your body?
DL: On the high bar, I can do the Jam Hop. I put my legs in and when I bring them out I kind of hop out of the position and go into a handstand. It's in every high-bar routine of mine, and no one else in the world can really do that. I think it has a lot to do with flexibility and strength at the same time.

I'm also pretty flexible. As a male gymnast, you lose a lot of flexibility as you grow up, but I'm still pretty flexible. My shoulders are really flexible, which you need on the rings or you risk getting hurt. I'm able to get away with a lot of swing skills that not too many people can do. But I can still do splits -- that's kind of weird for a guy.

What's the workout you can't live without?
DL: Conditioning, because that's the base of gymnastics. There's a saying: "Gymnastics is 85% mental, 10% conditioning and 5% preparation." Conditioning is the strength portion of our workout -- trying to get stronger so we can pull off our routines. If I had my choice, I'd just build up my leg strength, back strength, ab strength and arm strength. If I had to pick an exercise, it would just be dips or pull-ups.

Was there any point when you thought this wasn't going to work out?
DL: No, I never thought that. I don't want to sound arrogant, but I've always been optimistic. Even when I fail, I let myself complain for a day or two, and then I go twice as hard. I use failure as motivation. My thinking is that it's good I failed because now I have to train harder. At the all-around final in the 2011 World Championships, I hit my chin on the bar and it knocked me out. I was mostly embarrassed. Two days later, I had an event final on the parallel bars. I wasn't expected to win, but I felt like I owed it to myself. I thought, All right, here we go, here's your chance to redeem yourself. And I did. I got first place.

Which body part do you work out for mostly aesthetic purposes?
DL: I don't think I do anything for aesthetics because I'm too tired. After I'm done training, all I want to do is eat a huge meal and go to bed. But maybe sometimes I think about trying to get my abs better. I never really had the best abs, but they are all right, I guess.

Describe what goes through your mind during a routine.
DL: It's step-by-step. You can't get ahead of yourself. You can't be thinking about a skill three ahead of where you are in your routine. So your thought process is, I'm doing this now ... I'm doing this now... I'm doing this now... Everything is regimented in your head, and that's how we train -- not letting your nerves overwhelm you but using them for adrenaline.

What other Olympic sport do you think you'd be successful in?
DL: Boxing. I have long arms and I can get pretty low. I've always been interested in martial arts, all that Kung Fu kind of stuff. I think after I'm done with gymnastics I want to get into MMA. MMA fighters are crazy and amazing, ridiculously strong and agile.

My feet are really flat. When a regular person makes a footprint, you see his toe, a bit of the outside and the heel. When I make a footprint, you can see my whole foot.

In which Olympic sport would you embarrass yourself the most?
DL: Probably basketball. I like to play, but I'm tiny and not at all good at shooting. I can jump really high -- I can grab the rim and I'm only 5'7" -- but I couldn't shoot a basket to save my life.

What about your body would surprise us?
DL: How flat my feet are. They used to be almost turned outside in. They are so flat that I actually have a bone that kind of sticks out on the inside. It doesn't affect me, but when a regular person makes a footprint, you see his toe, a bit of the outside and the heel. When I make a footprint, you can see my whole foot.

What's the biggest challenge you face with your body?
DL: I used to be kind of a loose gymnast. When I did a routine, my body would flap all around. It wouldn't look nice or tight like it's supposed to. I still have to work on being tighter and having a good line the entire time, but it's basically a result of not being strong enough to hold your body tight. I have a really big butt and thick legs, so I need to spend extra time working on my core and shoulders, doing a lot of abs and lower back work to compensate.

What are you looking forward to most once London is over?
DL: Going to the beach. I want to go to the beach so badly. I just want to spend three straight weeks there. This is ridiculous because the beach is only 25 minutes away from where I live. That's just unacceptable! You can't live in Miami and never go to the beach. And I'm in shape! I just want to lie down, meet some girls, have someone massage me & kidding!

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