LONDON – Yin Alvarez doesn't ever think the game is over.
Even when it's the bottom of the ninth inning, down by 11 runs, two outs and two strikes – "and the guy who's batting is the pitcher" – he lives and dies by that famous Yogi Berra line no matter how crazy you think he is, no matter how impossible the predicament.
"My wife gets mad at me," Alvarez said. "She says, 'It's impossible to win.' I say, 'We're going to win.' "
At the Olympic men's gymnastics all-around final on Wednesday, Alvarez watched his stepson and prized pupil Danell Leyva, America's top medal hopeful, fall into what figured to be an insurmountable deficit. Leyva lost his strength on his pommel-horse dismount, and the price for his suddenly weakened arms resulted in a nine-tenths deduction and a score of 13.500 – a disastrous result for someone hoping to challenge for the gold medal.
What followed was the most unexpected of comebacks. Saddled in 17th place after that pommel routine, Leyva rallied in the final four rotations to shoot up to second place. Germany's Marcel Nguyen did just enough on his final routine to win silver, but incredibly, the 20-year-old Leyva found himself standing on the podium with a bronze medal around his neck.
"I knew that my strongest events were last," Leyva said. "I just had to do what I do every day in training."
Every day, even back when Leyva was a 5-year-old at AAU meets, Alvarez stood behind him giving him words of encouragement. But what gets the most attention is the cheerleading of Alvarez, who is renowned in gymnastics circles for his emotional punctuations of every Leyva routine with a fist pump that Tiger Woods could appreciate.
The sight of overly enthusiastic parents rooting for children is nothing new. But Alvarez's antics have to be seen to be believed (think Fireman Ed meets Clipper Darrell with an all-access pass). Some may think it's embarrassing, but not Leyva.
"I've always said that the reaction he has regardless of how I do always keeps me motivated, always keeps pushing me forward," Leyva said. "I was excited and I showed it tonight after parallel bars and high bar, but there's no way I can top this guy."
Alvarez was unusually subdued after Leyva scored so low on the pommel horse. But when Leyva slowly walked back to his chair and sat hunched over with his lucky green towel over his head allowing doubt to creep in, Alvarez patted him on the back and offered a prediction.
"I told him he was going to medal," Alvarez said.
Leyva quietly began his comeback with respectable scores on rings (14.733) and vault (15.566) to elevate him to 11th. With his strongest events remaining, Leyva showed his old fire, clapping his hands after scoring 15.833 in the parallel bars to put him in sixth place.
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Remarkably, a medal was realistically within reach. To add to the drama, next up was high bar – the same apparatus where Leyva viciously slammed his chin at last year's world championships.
"I kind of used it like a little kick in the butt, a little motivation," said Leyva, whose soaring routine on the high bar resulted in a medal-guaranteeing 15.700. "Just coming back and relaxing – trying to show off and just doing the best routines that I know I can do on parallel bars and high bar. Just have fun with it."
Twenty years ago, Alvarez defected from Cuba on a trip to Mexico, but his definition of a better life had nothing to do with economic gain. Sure, he wanted to pursue his passion of gymnastics, but more importantly, he wanted to be able to live freely.
"The country where I used to live, there's no freedom," he said. "You may be the most poor man in the world [in the United States], but I can say, 'I don't like this, I don't like that.' So, for me, this here is already a winning game."
The come-from-behind, walk-off type.
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