Nearly two decades ago, gymnast Yin Alvarez fled Cuba for a better life in America. Here's how he built a business training Olympic gymnasts to live their dreams.
Yin Alvarez (center), with son and gymnast Danell Leyva (right)
Yin Alvarez, a former gymnast for the Cuban national team, fled Cuba in 1992 with his teammate-turned-spouse, Maria Gonzalez, and her infant son. The two decided to put their extensive knowledge of the sport to practical use and opened Universal Gymnastics in Miami three years later. Today, the gym has more than 300 students including Danell Leyva, Gonzalez’s son and a Summer Games hopeful.
How long have you wanted to open your own gym?
Forever. When I was a gymnast in Cuba, I had always dreamed of having my own gym. It’s something that everybody knows is impossible in my country, which is not a free country. Everything over there is owned by the government.
So when did you decide to leave Cuba?
I moved to Miami in January 1992. I had three different jobs and was coaching at somebody else’s gym, so I learned about the business side a little bit. Then, I moved into my own gym in 1995, and started from scratch. I didn’t want to look unprofessional and ask students to follow me because I know how hard the business is. I figured that if some people really liked me, they’d find out where I went and come. But I didn’t want to force anyone.
Wasn’t that risky?
After I left, I think a few people learned that I wouldn’t be coaching at the other place and they started asking around. Since I didn’t hand out flyers or tell anybody I was opening my own gym, I was nervous. We had our first class at 4:30 p.m. on opening day and I assumed nobody would be there, but one by one, fourteen people came.
Where was Universal Gymnastics’ first location?
We looked at many, many different places and finally saw this building on 142nd Street. It wasn’t a good facility for gymnastics. It was very small--5,000 square feet including the boys’ and girls’ bathrooms--and it had very little equipment. But I talked to the owner, signed the papers, and decided to rent it out. We bought some stuff from Home Depot, painted and cleaned the gym, specially ordered new mats and put in new carpeting, and made everything beautiful. We were there for nine years and got a little more space next door. Then we kept on growing and moved into a new building where we’ve been for eight years. Now we have 18,000 square feet and hundreds of students.
What was it like to start a business without having a background in business?
I still don’t feel like a great “businessman”; I feel like I’m just doing what I love. It’s like a big ship in the middle of the ocean: Sometimes the ocean is good or still, and sometimes the ocean is moving. But when you love something you just keep going.
At what point did you have to just keep going?
I was in a hard situation, like everybody else, three or four years ago when the housing market collapsed. We live in Miami where most people’s business is real estate, so we lost about 50 percent of our students. We looked at the students who were really good in gymnastics but whose parents were struggling now, and told them to pay us whatever they could each week: If you can pay 20 bucks, pay me 20 bucks. If you can pay 10 bucks, pay 10 bucks. And when things get better, we’ll go back to normal and you don’t have to pay me what you owe me; we’ll just start over.
That must have been a pretty big hit to your business.
We’re talking about people who were close to being elite or were in the middle of their careers. Were they just going to quit and come back two years later when the family had a better situation? For what? You would have lost two years of gymnastics. It was a good decision because I haven’t lost any of those guys.
Is it hard to find a balance between training a high-level gymnast like Danell and running the gym?
You know, it would be like telling you that I do this by myself. And that would be a lie. I have a group, a team of people who help me do this. We have an office manager and a group of coaches working with us. My wife, Maria Gonzalez is head of the girls' team and most of the coaches have been here since we started. Both of us travel a lot, but that means we’re doing good. At junior nationals somebody said to me, “Oh my god, you must be tired. You’re traveling with your juniors, your seniors… You must be dying out there.” But I’m happy.
How do you feel as you head to the Olympics?
I’m starting to see all the work pay off and this is the opportunity to show me that we can do it. It gives me a lot of motivation to keep going. I have three guys competing at the senior level, and this is amazing in the USA. This is a big country and competition at the elite level is not something everybody can do. So I feel very motivated. Gymnastics is one of the hardest sports in the world. And I think that we are proud of what we do because we not only create gymnasts and Olympians, but we create people with good hearts, we create hardworking people who know not to be afraid to lose and not to be afraid of defeat. So I really don’t have a fear of not being successful--I have a fear of not trying.
JUDITH OHIKUARE is a reporter for Inc. magazine. She was a features intern for Seventeen magazine, where she covered health and wellness, and her work has been also been published in Marie Claire. Judith is from Brooklyn, New York. @ohikuare