April 16, 2016
Finding Themselves Through Fitness
By Brittney Saline
Haley Adams and Vincent Ramirez talk about finding confidence and community through CrossFit.
Haley Adams and Vincent Ramirez talk about finding confidence and community through CrossFit.

Haley Adams walked through the congested hallways of her high school, clutching her textbooks as students streamed around her. She heard a low snicker to the side, and braced herself. A group of male students shot a string of questions her way.

“Do you even lift?”

“Are you going to the CrossFit Games?”

“They don’t mean it in a nice way, either,” Adams said.

One boy grabbed Adams’ bicep in mock awe.

“Girls aren’t supposed to have muscles,” he said.

Adams shrugged him off. The constant taunts about her chiseled arms and devotion to training at College Hill CrossFit in Greensboro, North Carolina, used to bother her. But not since she won the Teenage Girls 14-15 division of the 2016 Reebok CrossFit Games Open. After 10 months of CrossFit, she earned her spot in Carson, California, with two first-place finishes, never placing outside the top seven worldwide.

“Now that I’ve actually got that spot, (the insults) don’t matter anymore,” she said.

It never occurred to Adams that girls shouldn’t have muscles.

“I've always been athletic and I always wanted to be strong,” the former gymnast said.

She began gymnastics at age 10, finding a role model in fellow gymnast Allison Weiss, who did CrossFit when she wasn’t tumbling in the studio (Weiss would eventually quit gymnastics to focus exclusively on CrossFit, going on to take third in the Teenage Girls 16-17 division at the 2015 Reebok CrossFit Games).

Months before the pair became friends, Adams studied Weiss’ Instagram videos with admiration, watching her lift heavy weight.

“I wanted to do that so bad,” Adams recounted. When her older brother got a rack, barbell and weights for Christmas in 2014, she used the gift more than he did.

“I would go home every day after gymnastics and bench press and squat,” she said.

That spring, she joined College Hill CrossFit. Immediately, she felt more drawn to the sport of fitness than gymnastics.

“It’s the feeling that keeps me wanting more,” she said. “I’ve never felt this way about something … (After gymnastics practice) I would come home bored, dreading the next day of practice, while I look forward to coming to (CrossFit) every day because it’s something new every day.”

Three months after she started training, she could snatch 70 lb., clean and jerk 90 lb. and perform ring muscle-ups. She spent the last weekend in July glued to her computer screen, watching in awe as girls her age sprinted, cycled muscle-ups, snatched and more in the Teenage division at the Games last year.

“I thought, ‘I'm not that good, but I want that so bad. I want to be out there,’” she said.

After the 2015 Games, she quit gymnastics, spending four hours each day after school at College Hill CrossFit while her friends went to parties and movies. On the weekends, she trained from morning until night. But as her body strengthened, so did the unwanted attention.

“All the boys in my school made fun of me,” she said.

Though their snubs stung, PRs were more important to her. By January, she could clean and jerk 165 lb.—35 lb. more than she weighed—and back squat 210 lb. After taking third place in a local throwdown where she was the only female teenager, qualifying for the CrossFit Games no longer seemed so far-fetched.

“I was definitely getting stronger, and everything just started clicking,” she said. “I knew the Open was coming up and I wanted to be top 10 so bad.”

What support she lacked at school she found in the gym, training each day with Weiss and Tracy Shuford, a two-time Games athlete in the Masters Women 40-44 division. At College Hill CrossFit, strength was celebrated, and the trio bonded tightly over a common goal: to get to Carson.

“I've met so many new people that support me, and they're just so nice and they want the same thing as I do,” Adams said.

It was her newfound fitness family that kept her going in her first Open workout. The 20-minute AMRAP of overhead walking lunges, burpees and chest-to-bar pull-ups was painful enough to bring her to tears.

“I wanted to stop so bad,” she said.

Her coaches and training partners would have none of that, pointing at the barbell and asking, “How bad do you want this?”

The reminder saw her through all five Open workouts and beyond, a mental check whenever the pain—be it from a workout or from jealous schoolboys’ taunts—became overwhelming.

“That’s the thing that’s kept me going,” she said. “That always plays back into my head. ‘How bad do I want this?’”

In three months, she will take her spot on the field in Carson among the teenagers she looked up to so much just one year ago. If all goes well, Weiss—who finished the Open in seventh place in the 16-17 division—and Shuford will be at her side.

“Tracy (Shuford) just has to do the (Masters Online) Qualifier,” Adams said. “It’s gonna be really cool if we all get to go the Games, all three of us.”

And now, when her classmates poke and prod, she feels pride instead of shame.

“Just this feeling right now, winning the Open, getting to go to the Games, makes it all worth it,” she said. “I want to succeed in this sport as bad as I want to breathe.”

. . . 

Last July, Vincent Ramirez stood on the soccer field at the StubHub Center in Carson, awaiting the buzzer signaling the start of the Triplet event–a mash-up of GHD sit-ups, bar muscle-ups and sandbag sprints–that kicked off the Teenage competition at the 2015 Reebok CrossFit Games.

The stands were filled with screaming fans, and the field was pocked with cameramen, their lenses just feet from Ramirez, broadcasting his every rep to viewers around the world.

“I was nervous for sure, but I was just having so much fun,” the 15-year-old said. “When I was in the arena I kind of forgot (about the spectators).”

Just a few years ago, an audience of 30 was enough to shake Ramirez’s confidence, let alone a stadium and a media fleet. After practicing karate for six years, at age 9, he faced his first public performance. Before a small crowd of students’ families, he was tasked with breaking a board with his fist.

Self-conscious and shy, the sea of faces made him sweat. He felt nauseated, and when he slammed his fist into the board, the only thing that broke was his confidence. He avoided public performances from then on.

Still, he diligently practiced karate three times per week. When he wasn’t at the studio, he trained at the powerlifting gym his uncles, Bobby and Lewis Opheim, owned in Oskaloosa, Iowa. By 11, he could deadlift around 225 lb., bench 135 lb. and back squat 185 lb.

Though his strength grew, his confidence did not. He never competed, and he preferred to lift alone.

“I would just sit behind my uncle … until it was my turn to go up,” he said.

But when the Opheims affiliated and morphed their gym into CrossFit OFC in 2012, Ramirez found himself forced out of his solitary comfort zone.

“When I powerlifted I didn't really talk to anyone, but in CrossFit, everyone goes up to you and introduces themselves,” he said.

Though Ramirez found the small talk uncomfortable, he loved the workouts.

“When I powerlifted, I didn't really sweat and I didn't feel like I got a good enough workout,” he said. “But when I did (CrossFit), I felt like I had accomplished something and became better.”

He soon noticed improvements in his karate performance, able to outlast his opponents in the intense 3- to 5-minute sparring matches.

“I could tell I had better endurance than the other kids,” he said.

As time went on, Ramirez became more comfortable working out in front of other people at CrossFit OFC. He felt good when other athletes cheered him on, and even found himself cheering for them in return. The gym became a social place as workouts wound down into hangouts, and in the spring of 2014, he entered his first local throwdown among adult competitors—and finished fifth.

“Just knowing I could keep up with them gave me a kind of a confidence boost,” Ramirez said.

By the time of the 2015 Open, he felt closer to his fellow athletes than ever; “everyone at this gym is my family,” he said.

He signed up for the Open that year just for fun, celebrating at post-workout dinners with his training partners each Friday. But when the Open closed in 2015, he exceeded his wildest expectations with a second-place finish and a ticket to Carson. He loved to compete, but could he handle the pressure of a crowd that large?

A few months later, Ramirez found himself in the athlete warm-up area at the StubHub Center, trying to shake off his nerves before his debut CrossFit Games performance. In the distance, he heard the clamour of the crowd as CrossFit fans filtered into the stadium.

He was jolted out of his reverie as a throng of adult athletes walked by—among them, four-time CrossFit Games champion Rich Froning and Mat Fraser, who took second to Froning in 2014. The veterans gave the teenagers a word of advice.

“‘It’s just another workout; you got this,’” Ramirez quoted them. “They just calmed us down a lot.”

Once the buzzer sounded, Ramirez forgot the crowd. All that mattered was the next rep, and the one after that. He took third in the Triplet, and after powering through seven events in three days, he finished in third place overall in his first Games appearance. Just a few months from now, he’ll return to Carson after taking the top spot in the 2016 Open in the 14-15 division, with one workout win and no finish outside of the top seven.

And though he never would have guessed it two years ago, the aspect of the Games he’s most looking forward to is hanging out with all the other teenage Games athletes he met last year and making new friends.

“CrossFit kind of opened up my shell,” he said. “It taught me to just be yourself around people.”

“It’s helped me make friends in life. I want to be a people person now.”