Danell Leyva competing in the American Ninja Warrior National Finals on Aug. 23, 2019 in Las Vegas.
The “American Ninja Warrior” finish line was tantalizingly near for retired U.S. Olympic gymnastics medalist Danell Leyva. He had enthralled the Las Vegas crowd for more than three minutes with his dynamic jumping, swinging, sprinting and hanging to conquer the difficult obstacles.
And then … the cruel end.
Leyva, in his first season of competing in the popular NBC show, reached the national final but hit the water after losing his grip on a cargo net he needed to scale at the end of stage one. He still could see the finish line, but this time it was as a failed, wet ninja.
The crowd sighed. The announcers empathized, praising Leyva for his brave and dramatic performance.
“It felt a lot like I was competing again in gym, as there were the elements of a lot of waiting around and then competing, and this being a very individual thing,” Leyva, 27, told TeamUSA.org. “But where it was so different was we were outside doing this in the middle of the night, and the dust from being in the desert of Vegas. They really do their best to keep the obstacles clean and safe as possible. It was really cool, and I have no regrets. I did my best.”
Leyva retired from competitive gymnastics three years ago, after winning silver medals at the Olympic Games Rio 2016 on parallel bars and high bar. He had a stellar career that also included an Olympic bronze medal in the all-around in 2012, as well as five world championships medals.
That success carried over into ANW, where Leyva hit the buzzer in city qualifying and finished fourth in the city finals to make the national finals in Las Vegas.
Leyva is the latest U.S. Olympic gymnast to take on ANW, with Jonathan Horton leading the way after first taking part in 2015. Leyva said he asked his 2012 Olympic teammate for some advice, and he also leaned on veteran Ninja Josh Levin. Both were quite helpful, Leyva said, as there is more going on than the viewers know.
Competitors need to bring their own chairs and snacks to best pass the downtime between runs, for example, and a comfortable blanket helps stay warm at night in the desert. The right shoes are crucial, too.
Levin hopes to join Leyva and Horton as a member of Team USA, as he is an elite rock climber. Climbing makes its Olympic debut in 2020 in Tokyo.
“I’m rooting for Josh,” Leyva said.
Leyva’s path now lies in the creative world, as he is building an acting career, launching a new podcast on Instagram, writing a webisode series to star in and working on other projects in Hollywood. He is also keeping a hand in gymnastics, doing commentary for the Olympic Channel and actively planning clinics around the country.
He helped his mom, Maria Gonzalez, open Leyva Gymnastics Academy in 2017 in West Kendall, Florida. He said the gym is starting to turn out promising prospects. His touring clinic plan is to emphasize the opportunity and positivity of gymnastics.
“I knew when I retired that I needed time to separate myself from gym and be happy with what I did. It was time to focus what I wanted to do,” he said. “Doing the gym with my mom, and now the clinics, is how I am thinking about the best way to give back. With the clinics, I want to focus on the mental health aspect and opportunities. You can be in the circus, be a stuntman, go compete in the NCAAs, other opportunities. It’s not all about just the Olympics.”
Mental health is a major priority for Leyva, too.
“I want to make mental health like a rotation in gymnastics —are you checking in on yourself and the people around you?” he said. “I want to reintroduce the fun, the positive of the sport. I want to help people.”
Leyva is undecided on his ANW future, as he feels unable to dedicate the necessary training time right now. The show’s stars train year-round. He said he did the 2019 ANW for fun, didn’t get hurt and now wants to maximize the exposure from being back in the public eye as an elite athlete.
The ANW experience gave him a starring role. His Vegas run went viral, thanks to the dramatic save where he slipped off a portion of the diving board obstacle and swung under the structure. He used his balance and strong arms to save himself, and then got his body back up to keep going. Veteran Ninja Flip Rodriguez competed before Leyva and slipped and crashed out in the same spot.
It was a dramatic moment in an electric run, but Leyva insists he simply operated on athletic instinct and his rich trove of muscle memory.
“I think gymnastics side helped me a lot,” Leyva said. “But growing up, I did way more than gym. I was into parkour on my own, I stopped at 17, 18 when my gymnastics got serious. I also love to play soccer, I still do that a lot today, so I think all of that gave me the agility on top of my gymnastics skills.”
Joanne C. Gerstner has covered two Olympic Games and writes regularly for the New York Times and other outlets about sports. She has written for TeamUSA.org since 2009 as a freelance contributor on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.