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Hispanic Athletes Had A Major Impact For Team USA In Rio

By Chrös McDougall | Oct. 13, 2016, 5:46 p.m. (ET)

(L-R) Weightlifter Sarah Robles, gymnast Danell Leyva and taekwondo athlete Jackie Galloway are three of many athletes of Hispanic heritage that represented Team USA at the Rio 2016 Olympic Games.

When Danell Leyva floats off the high bar, spins and flips through the air and then latches back onto the bar in one perfectly fluid movement, his coach and stepfather Yin Alvarez is invariably nearby with a gyrating howl.

The sideline theatrics continue throughout the routine as Leyva, a two-time U.S. Olympian in men’s gymnastics, works toward his dismount. When it finally ends with Levya’s feet stuck firmly to the mat, it’s as if Alvarez never could have seen it coming.

Head back, arms raised to the heavens, the coach lets out one more primal whoop before wrapping up the gymnast in an earnest hug.

For gymnastics fans, this “Yinsanity” has become a popular sideshow whenever Leyva competes. For Leyva, though, “Yinsanity” doesn’t feel so unique to his routines.

“He’s like that with everybody,” Leyva said.

“Yinsanity,” Leyva explained, is just part of their heritage as Cuban-Americans.

“We’re all very affectionate,” he said. “My mom is same way with her gymnasts, too.”

Cuban culture has been prominent throughout Leyva’s life. Born on the island nation, he defected to the United States as a toddler, along with his mother Maria Gonzalez and older sister Dayanis. The young family traveled through Peru, Venezuela, Ecuador and Nicaragua before ending up in Florida, where they met up with Alvarez, who had come to the United States via Mexico one year earlier.

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Gonzalez and Alvarez knew each other from their time as standout gymnasts in Cuba, and they made a life together in south Florida. Alvarez opened a gym, Universal Gymnastics in Homestead, where Leyva trained. In 2001, Gonzalez and Alvarez married.

Hispanic culture of all backgrounds was ubiquitous throughout Leyva’s childhood in Miami, and Cuban culture was ever-present at home and in the gym. Whether it was his mom’s homemade picadillo, his stepdad’s openly affectionate “Yinsanity” or the distinctively loyal family atmosphere at the gym, Leyva credits the culture of his homeland for its deep impact on the American citizen — and U.S. Olympian — he is today.

“My parents helped me understand the importance of being proud of who you are and where you came from,” said Leyva, who won silver medals on the high bar and parallel bars in Rio, adding to his all-around bronze from London four years prior. “Representing not only our country but our entire heritage has always been a very important part of who I was.”

Hispanic Influence Runs Deep On Team USA

Leyva is hardly alone among Americans with Hispanic backgrounds, meaning they trace their roots to a Spanish-speaking country. The U.S. Census Bureau estimates that 56.6 million Americans — or 17.6 percent of the nation’s population — were of Hispanic descent as of July 2015, and that number is growing.

Since 1989, the United States has celebrated National Hispanic Heritage Month each year from Sept. 15 to Oct. 15. This year’s that includes celebrating the feats of Leyva and nine other U.S. athletes who won medals at the Rio de Janeiro 2016 Olympic Games.

Mexico represents the origin for 63 percent of Hispanic Americans, including Nico Hernandez (boxing), Jackie Galloway (taekwondo) and Sarah Robles (weightlifting), who all won bronze medals in Rio.

Three Olympic gold medalists from Team USA are of Puerto Rican descent: basketball player Carmelo Anthony, gymnast Laurie Hernandez and water polo captain Maggie Steffens.

Four-time Olympic champion basketball player Diana Taurasi and four-time 2016 Olympic swimming medalist Maya DiRado each have a parent who was born in Argentina. Meanwhile, Ryan Lochte, who won his 12th career Olympic swimming medal in Rio, is the son of a Cuba-born mom.

“The USA is a mixed bag of cultures, peoples and beliefs, each being as unique and lovely as the next,” Robles, who became the first American to win an Olympic weightlifting medal since 2000, said in an email. “My Hispanic heritage is rich and interesting, and I hope I do my family and country proud by representing them.”

Representing The Past And Present

Each Hispanic-American Olympian brought a unique background and perspective to the U.S. Olympic Team, but even among them Galloway’s experience stood out.

Born and raised in Texas, Galloway has dual citizenship through her mother, whose parents were born in Mexico, and so at age 14 she was invited to move to Mexico City and join the country’s national taekwondo team. Over two years in Mexico she learned to speak Spanish and became the alternate on Mexico’s 2012 Olympic team, but later that year she decided to come back to Texas and try to make Team USA.

Galloway indeed made the 2016 U.S. Olympic Team, and in Rio she won a bronze medal. Representing Team USA in the Olympic Games was her dream since childhood, she said, but the opportunity to represent Mexico was also powerful.

“I’m really grateful to have had the chance to represent Mexico, because that’s where my family came from,” she said. “Being able to represent that side of myself and learn the culture and learn the language was an irreplaceable experience for me.”

Other Hispanic-American Olympians shared similar sentiments about representing both their country and their heritage.

“The idea of knowing who I am and where I’m from is very important to me,” Robles said. “I love to do ancestry work to find out more about the people who helped pave the path for me and my career.

“Mexican culture is lively, colorful, hard working, creative and don’t forget delicious. My papa said that (when) you leave the house, you represent God and your family. I take that seriously as I go out for the day or put my Team USA gear on.”

Setting An Example For Future Generations

Leyva spoke Spanish before he learned English, and when he’s on the road he still perks up if he hears his native language — something his teammates like to tease him about.

“If I notice somebody speaks Spanish, I immediately go up and talk to them,” Leyva said. “They’re like, ‘Dude you always go up and speak Spanish,’ and I’m like, ‘I know, we have something in common!’”

That common bond especially brings Hispanics together at an event like the Olympic Games, Leyva said.

“Honestly, I felt so happy and so proud to be a part of the amount of Hispanics who were at the Olympics competing for the U.S.,” Leyva said. “It was amazing to see how many of us were actually there. And then when we were in Rio, it was amazing to see the Hispanics competing for other countries.

“And the fact that it was the first Olympics to ever be held in South America was huge. To know that I was part of that history was very humbling.”

As part of that history made in Rio, Galloway noted, all U.S. Olympians are also part of the future. As the United States grows more diverse, Galloway said she takes pride in the example she was able to set as a Hispanic athlete on the U.S. Olympic Team.

“With the growing of America and the colors of the world, anyone in the United States can look at the U.S. team and see someone to look up to,” she said. “Hopefully a young girl can look up and I can be an inspiration to her.”

Chrös McDougall has covered the Olympic Movement for TeamUSA.org since 2009, including the gymnastics national championships and Olympic trials every year since 2011, on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc. He is based in Minneapolis-St. Paul.

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