For years and years I would open emails from former USA Olympic gymnastics coach Yoichi Tomita and read about Angel Leon.
“He won the Level 5 state championship,” it would say. “He is the next superstar.”
Angel Leon was, what, 8?
A year or two later came another message: “Angel won the Level 7 regional championship. He is on to the Junior Olympics. He could win it all.”
And then: “Angel is going to be a superstar. He is only 13, but he going to sit out a year with a shoulder injury. It will be good for his future.”
How good? Upon his return, Leon became a Level 10 gymnast, a state and regional champion, a two-time National Junior Olympics champion.
A year ago, Tomita’s email contained the worst news: “Angel tore his ACL and required major knee surgery. He will miss the state, regional and national finals. It could be devastating.”
Angel Leon, who was then 17, didn’t buy the “devastating” part. He had surgery and missed two weeks, and then returned to Tomita’s Gymnastics World training facility. He couldn’t run, jump, do a somersault, execute a landing from the parallel bars, or 80 percent of what a world-class gymnast must do.
“I’ve always trained hard,” he was saying Tuesday. “So I devoted myself to my physical therapy sessions. That was my way back.”
All the right people noticed.
Penn State coach Randy Jepson, who has coached the Nittany Lions to three NCAA championships, flew Leon to State College, Pennsylvania, for a recruiting weekend and offered him a full scholarship.
Ohio State coach Rustam Sharipov, a two-time Olympic gold medalist whose Buckeyes are ranked No. 3 nationally, flew Leon to Columbus, Ohio, for a recruiting weekend.
Those scholarships, over four years, are worth close to $300,000.
Even though Leon had not competed for six months, he was ranked the No. 4 overall recruit in men’s gymnastics. He chose to be a Buckeye and once he signed a letter of intent, Sharipov said, “Angel’s the top recruit in this class and he was coveted by a lot of universities. We can’t wait until he gets on campus.”
Bit by bit, as Leon’s knee responded to therapy, he and Tomita began to believe he would have a chance to win the 2018 National Junior Olympics All-Around competition, or at least be in the hunt. Staying off the knee for an extended period enabled Leon to work on his one weakness — the pommel horse.
Last weekend, at the USA Gymnastics Regional finals in Chandler, Leon won the pommel horse championship. Tomita rushed onto the mat and embraced the Saint Augustine High School senior.
“I never do that in a meet,” said Tomita, who opened Gymnastics World in 1981 and has coached on national and international levels for three decades. “But this was so special. The pommel horse had been Angel’s nemesis. Now he has a shot.”
In mid-May, Leon and Tomita will travel to Oklahoma City for that shot — the 2018 National Junior Olympics. That’ll give Leon’s knee another month to respond to therapy. It’ll give him another month to regain total mobility and strength.
What has already been the comeback of the year could get even better.
The Leon/Tomita relationship has been going on for 37 years, which is odd because Angel is only 18. His father, Tucson High grad Jose Leon, was himself a winning gymnast as Tomita rose to prominence as a gymnastics coach in Tucson and nationally.
Unfortunately, Jose Leon didn’t have the resources to stay with gymnastics beyond high school. But once Angel was 5, Jose returned to Gymnastics World, first as a part-time instructor and, ultimately, as a full-time coach.
Angel works out six days a week with Tomita and with his father. They’ve gone from doing push-ups and sit-ups at home and working out on a backyard trampoline to a scholarship at one of the NCAA’s leading men’s gymnastics programs.
“Sometimes the path doesn’t go all the way to the top, and for Jose, that was the case,” Tomita says. “Jose was very good; he was at Level 10. Angel is working a different path. The next four years are very important: if he continues to improve, he can make the USA national team. After that, it’s the Olympics. No one will work harder than Angel.”
Angel’s routine is exhausting. He goes to school. He drives across town to the gym. He drives home, completes his schoolwork. Lights out.
“I take one week (of) vacation every year. I take Sundays off,” he says. “I didn’t ever get involved in another sport like soccer or basketball. I’ve been doing this for 13 years. This is what I do.”
After the Junior Olympics finals, Leon will enroll at Ohio State in June. After that, let your imagination roll.