It’s 2:45 on a Friday afternoon at Lawrence High School in Massachusetts. Most students are surreptitiously packing their bags in the final moments of class, itching to escape to the weekend. But Eduardo Collado Rosario and Jeffrey Almanzar are not most students. Their Friday night plans include deadlifts, wall-ball shots, rowing and handstand push-ups.
Instead of bee-lining for the door after the bell, the two make their way deeper into the school to an old computer lab next to the Spanish classroom. But where rows of monitors used to be, there is now a pull-up rig. Barbells, weights and kettlebells litter the corners, and rowers line the walls. The room smells like rubber.
They might still be in school, but once they walk through those doors, they’re also in Lancer CrossFit, a non-profit affiliate within Lawrence High School (LHS), named for its mascot.
The pair might be done with exams for the week, but they’ve got one more test to do: Open Workout 17.4.
“And I close my door, I blast my music, and the kids work out—3 … 2 … 1 … Go!” said Vincenzo DeLucia, the affiliate’s head coach and teacher.
A Lesson in Fran
Despite the fact that childhood obesity rates have tripled since 1970 in the U.S., physical-education classes remain a prime target for institutional budget cuts. In 2012, almost half of high-school students across the nation reported they do not receive P.E. classes.
LHS saw fit to change that. Though students must take two semesters of P.E. to graduate, LHS administrators saw a greater need.
“We are all aware that many youth in our community do not have access to high-quality physical education and health and wellness programs outside of school,” said Michael Fiato, LHS headmaster. “At LHS, we want to be sure that our students have the opportunity to engage in high-intensity physical activity during the school year.”
They could have just added more P.E. classes. Instead, LHS sent out a call for CrossFit coaches, and in fall 2015, Lancer CrossFit was born.
Vincenzo DeLucia (top, center) and the CrossFit athletes of Lancer CrossFit. (Photo courtesy of Rebecca Iyore)
“There are many other benefits of CrossFit classes,” Fiato continued. “They provide students with team-building experiences, (help) develop self-esteem and teach students lifelong positive behaviors well beyond their high-school years.”
At first, the class was offered only to freshman. In the affiliate’s first year, DeLucia—who had been a P.E. teacher for six years prior and is also a coach at CrossFit Woburn—taught CrossFit to about 250 students each semester.
Today, DeLucia works with ninth-grade coach, Andrew Matos, and CrossFit is now offered to all students at LHS, whether as a means to meet the P.E. requirement or as an elective course. Twice a week, DeLucia leads a separate class for teachers.
“As the school grew and they wanted more electives to be offered campus-wide, I was one of the most wanted electives,” DeLucia said. “More and more kids wanted to know why these (other) kids were raving about CrossFit.”
Lancer CrossFit operates much like any other affiliate. DeLucia and Matos program daily workouts for each grade level, which might look like Karen, Murph or 7 minutes of burpees. Except athletes at Lancer CrossFit receive a grade to go along with their fitness.
“Everything’s measurable, and we work towards a common goal to get better for the next time around,” DeLucia said.
Students’ grades are based partially on participation—have they shown up? Changed into workout clothes? Been supportive to their fellow athletes? They’re also given credit for completion of their daily workout journals, as well as performance and effort given on the state’s mandatory standardized fitness test. The objective is to equip students with tools for lifelong fitness, mental discipline and the development of camaraderie.
“I preach community,” DeLucia said. “I let the kids know and understand that regardless of your background or how your day is going, we're here to work together for one common bond ... everyone cheering on each other regardless of what kind of day you're having, regardless if you're a boy or girl, you're heavy or fit, (or) you have abs (or) you don't.”
Though the program is only in its second year, the results have been substantial, he said.
“The biggest thing that I've noticed with these kids is that they're more confident in themselves,” he said.
Almanzar agreed. The 16-year-old sophomore races for the LHS track team, and after two full semesters of CrossFit helped him reduce his mile time from 5:42 to 5:18, he’s no longer intimidated to sign up for community races outside school.
“I was really scared before, and CrossFit just opened me up to it,” he said.
The newfound confidence radiated from him, inspiring Collado Rosario, Almanzar’s best friend, to sign up for CrossFit as well.
“I saw how he was leading the class and becoming more confident,” Collado Rosario said.
Though each grade has its own CrossFit class, a mutual understanding of the suffering Fran wreaks has brought different groups of students together, DeLucia said.
“Anyone who's gone through high school (knows) you have your popular kids, you have your jocks, you have all different cliques,” he said. “And CrossFit eliminates these cliques ... it develops new friendships, and they high-five each other going down the hallways.”
Just because the students have become friends doesn’t mean they can’t engage in some healthy competition. For the last four weeks, Lancer CrossFit students have joined the rest of the CrossFit world in the 2017 Reebok CrossFit Games Open, and DeLucia said that’s by design.
“I really want these kids to be introduced to something other than track and field, … basketball, … baseball—some other type of fitness or level of competition which they can get excited about,” he said.
DeLucia doesn’t require his students to participate in the Open, though he encourages it—so much so that he and Matos paid the six Lancer CrossFit Open competitors’ registration fees out of pocket, along with their own.
“Just like in any CrossFit affiliate, (the Open) brings out a healthy competition where everyone is pushing each other to do better,” he said. “I wanted to show them we're doing this not just for general fitness, but now you're gonna compete against kids your age across the whole (world).”
Every Thursday night during the Open, DeLucia and the athletes—including Almanzar and Collado Rosario—congregate in a group chat, guessing at what the workout will be and then talking strategy the moment it’s announced. Friday afternoon after the last class of the day, they throw down.
For Collado Rosario, the best moment came in 17.2, an AMRAP of weighted walking lunges, toes-to-bars and bar muscle-ups. He’d spent the whole year working on bar muscle-ups—and he also wanted to best Almanzar, who’d beaten him in 17.1 by 5 reps.
“He’s my best friend but also my enemy,” Collado Rosario joked.
When he did the workout, the 50-lb. dumbbell weighed him down on the lunges and the clock ran out before he could test his new skill. He could have felt sorry for himself; instead, he studied footage of the workout. When he tried it again—DeLucia and all his student competitors redo the Open workouts together every Monday—he locked out atop the rig in his first bar muscle-up, with 5 seconds to spare.
When 17.4 was announced, Almanzar was intimidated at first. He did 16.4 last year, but that was in the 14-15 division, when he needed to deadlift only 135 lb. This year he faced the 225-lb. barbell, the same loading as in the men’s individual division. He’d only lifted that weight once before.
Both he and Collado Rosario labored through the deadlifts, each lifting barbells weighing almost two-thirds their body weights. It took Collado Rosario 8:25 to finish all 55 reps before moving on to the wall-ball shots (a 20-lb. ball to a 10-foot target).
Collado Rosario (Photo courtesy of Rebecca Iyore)
“At first when you pick up the ball it feels light, (like it) doesn't weigh anything,” he said. “After 5 reps it feels like 120 pounds.”
Still, he persevered, completing 39 reps before time expired. Three days later, he did it again, adding 3 more reps to his total. And even though Almanzar did not advance beyond the deadlifts, “I was just so proud of myself,” he said, for getting that far.
So was his coach.
“Seeing the kids do that and really push through for those 13 minutes and get as far as they can is rewarding in itself,” DeLucia said. “It's a proud coaching moment to see these kids do their best.”
Beyond the Open
Almanzar and Collado Rosario have only one more Open workout remaining to test their fitness this year. Though they will not advance to the Online Qualifier in 2017, DeLucia said that was never the point.
“It has to do with mental toughness,” he said. “When they're asked to push through a hard workout, are they gonna give up? Most of the time they don't. They push through it and they find a different part of themselves they thought they could never (develop).”
Almanzar (Photo courtesy of Rebecca Iyore)
Collado Rosario agreed: “That’s what CrossFit is all about; having the mindset that you are gonna do better than what you think you’re gonna do.”
He noted a greater confidence in his abilities with academic tests since starting CrossFit.
“It’s made me become a better person and athlete and actually made me better in class.”
That’s the whole point, DeLucia said.
“Lancer CrossFit allows them to understand that I'm not just asking them to be this type of athlete or person when they walk in my room, but when they leave, hopefully the core values that we have ... they take with them outside of the classroom.”