"So what if my barbell is rusty and bent, or my medicine ball is nothing more than a basketball filled with sand?"
On a sleepy little island just north of Venezuela lies one of the largest and most well-known Caribbean medical schools and the country's only official CrossFit affiliate, CrossFit True Blue.
In 1976, St. George's University was founded on the island of Grenada to provide both American and international students a chance to study medicine. Since then, St. George's University has produced more than 11,000 physicians who practice all around the world from Zambia to South Korea, Ecuador to Canada. However, life on the island for me and the other budding physicians was incomplete since without a CrossFit box.
I packed my bags in the fall of 2011, and left the United States for the sunny shores of Grenada to pursue my dream of becoming a physician. I had my Level 1 certificate and had spent time as a trainer at CrossFit East Bay. I wished to continue my CrossFit training while in school. Unfortunately, Grenada is a poor nation still trying to recover from Hurricane Ivan, which destroyed many of the buildings on the island in 2004. Resources, especially gym equipment, were very limited on the island. Our school's gym is reminiscent of a classic, 1980s bodybuilding gym. Of the four barbells in the school's gym, none had spinning sleeves (they had been welded) and half were visibly bent. All the plates were iron, as well, leaving little room for dynamic barbell movements. Many dumbbells were also missing their twin. Needless to say, the gym’s state was less than desirable for someone who wanted to continue doing CrossFit.
Undeterred by the state of the equipment, I kept true to my CrossFit roots and my desire to train others. I applied for non-profit status through the CrossFit affiliate program and began holding classes in the gym’s aerobics room on Sunday mornings using mainly bodyweight movements and, when available, dumbbells. In the beginning attendance was low, but as more people saw CrossFit True Blue’s intense workouts every Sunday, word spread and attendance rose. Before long, we were past capacity. I had to add another class on Sunday evening to accommodate the large influx of medical and veterinary students. While space always seemed to be an issue, the lack of proper equipment—even just decent barbells—limited my programming. One can only do so many burpees.
In the spring of 2013, I decided CrossFit True Blue should participate in the Open despite the limited equipment.
The biggest challenge we faced during the Open came with 13.3: a 12-minute AMRAP of 150 wall-ball shots, 90 double-unders and 30 muscle-ups. No one on the island had a medicine ball, let alone a 20-lb. ball for the men and a 14-lb. ball for the women.
In true CrossFit fashion, we constructed two medicine balls from old basketballs that were going to be thrown out by the school. After borrowing some sand from the beach near campus using old gas cans, and weighing the sand on a scale at another gym on the island, we carefully funneled it into the tiny holes we cut into the two basketballs. The local tire repairman sealed the cuts with basic rubber patches.
While the DIY medicine balls weren’t as nice as the Dynamax balls at CrossFit East Bay, they did the trick. You could even say that the small, hard balls that didn’t bounce back off the wall better tested the fitness of CrossFit True Blue athletes.
The only place to hang the gymnastics rings was on the balcony above the wall-ball targets, which was also outside one of our classrooms. Since medical school classes were held from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. each day, and the only access to the balcony was through a set of doors behind the lecture stand, CrossFit True Blue athletes had to do the workout during the break between classes.
Kristen Sandefer and Jason Cummings raced through the classroom, through the doors, and hung the rings without disrupting class. They got a few hundred curious looks from the medical students as they took their seats for the next class.
Cummings, a medical student in the class of 2017, has done the Open at a well-equipped box in Daytona, Fla., and my bare basics box in Grenada. To his surprise, the limited equipment didn’t significantly change the experience.
“So what if my barbell is rusty and bent, or my medicine ball is nothing more than a basketball filled with sand?” he said. “The weight on that barbell is exactly the same as the weight on tens of thousands of other barbells around the world, and that wall-ball target is the same height as everyone else’s, although I can guarantee no one has a wall ball quite like ours.”
“The anticipation for the (Open workouts) to be released, the feeling of grinding out the last couple of reps of a grueling chipper, screaming at your friends to push themselves just as they did for you, those experiences are the same everywhere in the world,” Cummings added.
Sanderfer, a third-year medical student, was less than a year into CrossFit when the 2013 Open rolled around. Taking part in the Open tested how far she had come.
“With less than a year of training, I was very nervous entering the competition, but soon discovered that I had no one to beat but myself,” Sandefer said.
“I knew my performance wouldn't be earth-shattering. I just wanted to see how far I had come in the last eight months,” she said. “It came as a great surprise to me, that in the middle of the most difficult semester of medical school, I found myself in the best shape of my life.”
After the initial doubtful looks and hesitation, both St. George's University students and Grenadians have begun to embrace the spirit of CrossFit.
Medical school students, who are notoriously competitive, have really taken off in CrossFit. The Open gave a few people, including second-year medical student Mike Traub, his first competitive outlet outside of academics in years.
“I stopped playing hockey competitively several years before, so needless to say I was a little anxious heading into the (Open),” he said. “But it didn't take long for me to fall back into old habits of pushing my limits, sticking to my pre-game schedule, and always looking toward the next workout. I loved it.”
Open Workout 13.1, 17 minutes of snatches and burpees, proved to be a challenge.
“I first learned how to snatch a short week-and-a-half before last year’s first Open workout, which conveniently turned out to be a snatch ladder,” he said.
He survived, and he’s looking forward to 2014.
“Whether or not I would compete in this year’s Open was never a question,” Truab said. “So last April, after a celebratory weekend, training for this year began … and definitely another shot at wall balls: my new arch enemy.”
Over the last year, CrossFit True Blue has expanded to include more experienced CrossFit athletes who are new to the island as well as a good number of rookies. More people tried CrossFit when they went home over winter break, and we have new students who brought their CrossFit training from home.
“Joe built a strong and supportive community for us to draw from, and I'm glad just to be a part of it,” Truab said. “I look forward to seeing what we're capable of.”
Equipment insufficiencies still remain an issue in Grenada, but, in the true spirit of CrossFit Games, CrossFit True Blue's athletes will always find a way. CrossFit True Blue doesn’t have any plans to acquire new equipment for the Open this year. If there is something we need, we will make it. That’s the great thing about the Open. It only requires dedication and hard work to make it come together.