Anyone who watched Cuban-American gymnast Danell Leyva compete at last summer’s London Olympics was struck by his affectionate relationship with Yin Alvarez, his coach and stepfather.
A worldwide television audience saw Alvarez’s effusive hugs, happy tears and whispered encouragement, and his ritual of rubbing Leyva’s ears and kissing his forehead for luck.
What the cameras could not capture as Leyva leapt triumphantly from the horizontal bar, winning a bronze medal in the men’s all-around, was the balancing act Alvarez had undertaken after he became part of the then-4-year-old’s life.
“I wanted him to feel that I was his father and to know that I wasn’t his father. There would be no secrets between us,” Alvarez says. “I made a clear decision that, if someday I became a stepfather, I would not reenact with the boy the story of my own life.”
That story began in the city of Diez de Octubre in Havana province in the early 1970s, when young Yin realized he had five grandparents. He required orthopedic shoes, and at the orthopedist’s office, he was addressed as Yin Dantón. At gym class, he was called by his mother’s surname, Alvarez. But the man he thought was his father was named Antonio Suárez.
“I felt something was wrong,” says Alvarez, 47.
When he was 6, his mother told him Suárez was not his father, and Yin’s world stopped. If only his real father were with him, he told himself, everything would be different.
The boy began to think that Suárez was doing him and his mother a favor by raising him.
“I was never brave enough to say to him, ‘You’re not my dad,’ because I didn’t want him to feel bad. And he was never brave enough to say to me ‘I know that you know that I’m not your dad,’ “ says Alvarez, choking back tears. “He gave me affection, but not a father’s physical affection. He was a very dry person.”
Despite their poverty, Suárez was a good provider, but Yin felt a growing emotional distance between them. When he was 15, his stepfather suffered a heart attack. Soon after, the couple separated.
By then, after years of intense training at the National School of Gymnastics, Yin Alvarez had become an accomplished gymnast. Later, he got a degree in Physical Culture.
After retiring from the Cuban national gymnastics team at 23, he turned to acrobatics and showmanship, and even worked in a circus. There, he met a comedian who worked with his son.
“He was a father who scolded his son, but at the same time he was a friend who could understand the boy,” Alvarez said. “That’s the relationship I wanted to have.”
During a trip to Mexico in 1991, Alvarez defected. He made contact with his biological father, José Dantón, who had left the island for political reasons and was living in Miami. In the lobby of a hotel in Ixtapa, Mexico, they embraced for the first time. Alvarez was 26.
Alvarez crossed the border through the Río Grande and settled in Miami, where he got by selling cemetery plots, working at a gas station and as a gym trainer. With money he won performing on the Univision show Buscando una estrella (“Looking for a Star”), he bought equipment that eventually became part of his Universal Gymnastics in West Kendall.
In 1993, he received a phone call from a former gym-school colleague from Cuba who had just come to the United States. María González was looking for work. She had two children, Dayanis, 12, and Danell, 3, who had different fathers.
“I chose not to talk [to Danell] about his father. I had already been divorced once. I didn’t want him to get confused because his father and I had never married,” says González, 49, who works at the West Kendall gym, where about 500 children and adults now train.
Although he and González were just friends at first, Alvarez quickly developed an emotional bond with Danell, emerging as the father figure the boy lacked.
“From the first moment, we had an immediate connection,” says Leyva, 21.
In 1996, after his short-lived first marriage ended, Alvarez proposed to González that they move in together. He also urged her to tell Danell about his biological father. (Since then, Leyva has stayed in contact via telephone with his father, who lives in Cuba and Spain, but they have not met in person.)
When he was 10, Danell unexpectedly interrupted Alvarez during a casual conversation and warned him: “You’re not going to be my dad until you marry my mother.”
The couple wed in March 2001, cementing the family ties.
Alvarez has maintained contact with his birth father in Miami, but has lost all contact with his Cuban stepfather, and assumes he has died. He weeps recalling his childhood, and feels especially pained that he didn’t thank Antonio Suárez for helping to raise him.
“I would like to tell him that he was my father, not my stepfather,” he says.