"'Keep your head up and keep going,' is the motto my mom and I have lived with ever since I shook off my post-accident depression."
“I would like to prove to myself that I can accomplish what I set my heart to, including any workout. It has nothing to do with the scores anymore,” Victor Hugo Castro said as he tried to compose himself after a grueling workout.
As he wiped his face, he exposed his ripped and tattooed back. His right arm stayed hidden in a sling.
The 24-year-old Guayaquil native has been doing CrossFit for four years. In the beginning, his only concern was qualifying for the Latin America Regional. Everything else was secondary, including other people.
“There was no community in me,” he admitted.
Although he was fit, the Regional stayed just outside of his grasp. Life had a way of tossing him a challenge at just the wrong time. In 2011, he was unable to submit his score on the final workout in time, and the next year he had to have emergency gallbladder surgery during the first week of the Open.
Bitter about being waylaid by life for the last two Games seasons, he poured himself into his training. By the fall of 2012, he appeared to be on track for a successful run at the 2013 Latin America Regional.
On September 22, 2012, he took third at a local Strongman competition and got on his motorcycle to ride home. As he approached the onramp, he noticed something was wrong—he was going too fast.
“I foresaw in my head what was going to happen in the curve,” Castro recalled. “My rear tire was bouncing off the ground at every junction while I was down shifting and trying to brake. When it was clear to me I was going to hit a pole, I focused on getting my head out of the way to save my life.”
His body slammed into the pole, impacting at his right shoulder. The blow caused a plexobraquial rupture, damaged three cervical vertebrae and put him in a coma.
As he lay unconscious on the operating table, doctors tried to save what they could. After 10 hours of surgery and 13 skin grafts from his legs, he emerged alive but permanently affected by the accident. He had lost motor function and sensation in his right arm.
When he awoke from the coma, “My first response while lying there was, ‘Where is my arm? I want to train,’” he recalled.
When the surgeon told him that he should forget about CrossFit, he was devastated.
“I started crying. I collapsed inside,” he said.
After three months of depression, he decided to escape the bustle of Guayaquil for the quiet of the Galapagos Islands. As he recovered, he started to run, and tried to swim off the island’s shores. Even though he couldn’t do CrossFit, he preached its virtues to everyone he met.
When he returned to the mainland of Ecuador seven months after the accident, he resolved to return to CrossFit. He walked into Urdesa CrossFit, and has been training ever since.
It has taken time, and some creativity, to do the workouts.
“I had to invent my own way of doing CrossFit so I wouldn’t get injured doing everything with one arm,” he said.
Over the last year, he has learned how to do pull-ups, thrusters, cleans and snatches. He has trained with everyone from the regulars at Kallpa, Urdesa, and Maori CrossFit to Pat Sherwood (Go South Episode 8, 7:00+).
“CrossFit is the best therapy there is,” he said. “It fulfills me incredibly, and while I am mid-workout I even forget about my condition and limitations with most day-to-day activity.”
His mother, Rebeca Assaf, isn’t surprised by his achievements over the last year. She calls him a warrior and a fighter.
“He loves CrossFit with passion,” she said. “Ever since day one in the intensive care unit while in a coma, I would sit by his side and tell him that he could keep going, that no one could ever tell him what he could or could not accomplish.”
Now Castro has his sights set on the 2014 Open. For the first time, it’s not about his score on the workout or how he ranks on the Leaderboard. He wants to prove to himself that he can achieve whatever he sets his heart to.
“My goal for the 2014 Open is … simply to be able to do all the workouts in the best way I can ... and hopefully not have to scale them at all. The only exercise I think that could stand in the way is chest-to-bar pull-ups, but maybe I could pull them off,” he said. “But then again, I am a very intense person and for sure I will not settle for anything. I plan on giving everything I can and more.”
The accident has made him more aware of the community around him, and given him a new role. Rather than pouring his energy into qualifying for the Regional, he’s pouring himself into the workouts to show others there’s nothing to fear.
“‘Keep your head up and keep going,’ is the motto my mom and I have lived with ever since I shook off my post-accident depression. I am lucky that I am now able to see that it is not about myself; community is about helping everybody grow,” he said.
“What I would really love to accomplish is to be able to help change people’s fear about this sport, and to encourage them to give their everything in the Open, regardless of their final placing.”
Victor Hugo Castro can be found on Instagram at @victerie, and his email is firstname.lastname@example.org.