"I was expecting to be in the top 10, but it was more than a shock to win."
Orlando Trejo was the Rich Froning of Latin America.
The region’s Open and regional victor for two years, it seemed Trejo’s reign might last forever. But when he took second to Leonidas Jenkins in the Open this year, fans wondered: Could Trejo be defeated?
Conor Murphy and Joel Bran, last year’s second- and third-place regional finishers, were the favorites to take Trejo’s place. Newcomer Mark Desin also looked to make an impression after taking third in the Open this year.
But when the Leaderboard shifted for the last time in Santiago, Chile, a new name held the top spot: Emmanuel Maldonado, of CrossFit SJU in Puerto Rico.
He took the podium quietly, earning the sole qualifying spot without winning a single event. Finishing in the top 10 in all but one event, he proved his fitness with consistency.
As Maldonado looked into the stands from his perch atop the podium, he was just as surprised by his victory as the crowd was.
“I was expecting to be in the top 10, but it was more than a shock to win,” the 24-year-old said. “It was an awesome feeling.”
Trading Curls for Cleans
Maldonado discovered CrossFit online in 2011. A former high school track athlete, motocross racer, and globo gym rat who only trained back and bis, chest and tris, he doubted CrossFit’s efficacy.
“I just couldn’t get how those workouts could get you a better physique,” he said.
Then he tried Elizabeth—21-15-9 reps of 135-lb. cleans and ring dips. When he failed before finishing the round of 21 reps, he decided to get an education, joining CrossFit Iron Heart in San Juan, Puerto Rico, in February of 2012.
“I was curious to try it out and see the whole dynamic and how it worked,” he said.
As he hunched over, gassed from his first workout at the affiliate—a couplet of push presses and box jumps—he revised his attitude toward CrossFit.
“I remember seeing everyone going so fast on the box jumps and I was just trying not to die,” he said. “I started to realize what CrossFit was all about.”
Addressing the barbell as the clock ticked down, he said, reminded him of the anticipation he felt astride his bike, revving his engine as he waited for the gate to drop.
“I love the adrenaline rush it gives you,” Maldonado said. “Like when you get scared when the timer goes off, facing the workouts. I just love that feeling.”
In the beginning, strength was an issue. Though he had a 315-lb. deadlift before CrossFit, he had never studied the Olympic lifts or squatted before. Despite good mobility, 95 lb. was the most he could overhead squat, and without the aid of the Smith machine, he could back squat only 135 lb.
“It was all chest and bicep days, there were no leg days,” he said. “I kind of had chicken legs before CrossFit.”
However, he was a quick study, and was snatching 135 lb. within his first month of CrossFit.
“I had lots of power and explosiveness from track and field,” he said.
Little more than a year later, he took seventh place in the 2013 Latin America Regional in Guayaquil, Ecuador.
“I was more going for experience, having fun and to travel to another place,” he said. “I never thought I was going to end up in the top 10.”
After the 2013 regional, Maldonado’s main priority was building strength. Following programming by two-time national Olympic weightlifting champion, Ursula Garza Papandrea, Maldonado increased his snatch from 225 lb. to 260 lb. and his clean and jerk from 265 lb. to 315 lb. over the past 12 months.
But CrossFit had become more than a sport to him; it had become a vocation. In September of 2013, he quit his job working for his father’s industrial sales business to open his own affiliate, CrossFit SJU.
“It’s a life-changing experience when you start coaching,” he said. “I just like helping change other people’s lives.”
Today, Maldonado’s affiliate is home to 120 athletes and five other coaches.
“It’s been more than a blessing for me,” Maldonado said. “I don’t see it as a job, more as a passion.”
After placing 14th in the Open this year, Maldonado added competitive programming from CrossFit Invictus to his strength training and Olympic lifting. He also increased his gymnastics work, practicing handstand walks, L-sits, strict handstand push-ups, pull-ups and muscle-ups to become well rounded.
When it came time to put his work to the test, he had only one goal: consistency.
“I always tried to be consistent in every event,” he said. “If I kept (in the) top 10 in every event, I knew I was going to be on the podium.”
His focus on strength and Olympic lifting technique paid off with a 240-lb. hang squat snatch and a tie for sixth in the first event.
After tying for seventh and ninth in the next two events with a 185-foot handstand walk and a Nasty Girls V2 time of 10:18, Maldonado finished Day 1 tied for first with Trejo, each with 22 points.
Taking seventh and eighth in Events 4 and 5, Maldonado broke away from Trejo, who suffered a disastrous 42nd-place finish in Event 5, the couplet of legless rope ascents and sprints. Maldonado’s 37 points put him 5 points ahead of second-ranked Francisco Javier going into the final day of competition.
Pain was the prescription of the penultimate event, an arduous 450-rep chipper of rowing, box jump overs, deadlifts, wall-ball shots and ring dips. Finishing 48 deadlifts before the 21-minute time cap on his way back through the chipper, he left 102 reps on the floor for a 14th-place finish.
“I knew it was going to be a grueling workout … but I knew I had to be in the top 10 or 15, so I just kept pushing and not thinking of all the pain,” he said. “It was painful but awesome.”
Though the performance was his worst of the weekend, Maldonado remained in first overall, entering the final event with 51 points. With 8 points separating him from Murphy, in second, all Maldonado needed to secure his ticket to Carson, California, was a top-eight finish in the couplet of pull-ups and overhead squats.
When he hit the rig, he butterflied through his first 40 pull-ups unbroken before breaking into sets of 5 reps.
“As soon as I got to the (barbell) I knew I had to go unbroken,” he said. “I had done the (event) before, so I knew it was possible.”
Baring his teeth in a grimace of concentration, he executed his plan, finishing the 8 205-lb. overhead squats in one unbroken set and reaching the mat in 2:51 after four other men. His fifth-place finish was good enough to keep his lead over Murphy. Maldonado won the regional with Murphy 9 points behind.
Though the crowd roared with delight as it met its new champion, Maldonado’s proudest moment was greeting his father in the athlete village.
“When I got back outside, my dad was waiting for me, and he hugged me with pride,” he said. “Half my family went to Chile with me and I think that was a big part of how I performed. Just seeing my dad there in the stands gave me more of a push in every (event).”
Preparing for Carson
After qualifying for the Games, Maldonado met the man whose programming helped him get there, traveling to San Diego, California, for a two-week training camp with CJ Martin of CrossFit Invictus.
A first-time Games competitor, Maldonado appreciated Martin’s teaching on having a Games-ready mindset as much as his coaching on movement.
“I learned a lot from him about staying positive and enjoying the experience and the ride,” Maldonado said. “He talked to me a lot about mindset, how to perform and what to do to right before a workout to be calm mentally.”
Maldonado will spend the weeks before the Games treating training like a full-time job. Entrusting all but a few of the classes at CrossFit SJU to his assistant coaches, he trains up to four hours per day, five days per week.
Volume, he said, is the main priority, focusing on metabolic conditioning with high-rep barbell and body-weight movements like double-unders and box jumps.
“(The Games) are gonna be tough,” he said. “It’s double (the volume) from the regionals so it’s about getting the body prepared for all those events.”
To refine his gymnastics skills, he practices weighted pistols and muscle-ups, and strives to get 50 unbroken pull-ups before the Games. Unused to swimming, he works his lungs while in the water, doing 500-m swim intervals separated by a 1-mile run.
In less than four weeks, Maldonado will compete with athletes he’d only dreamed of meeting just months ago. But rather than dwell on the challenge, he plans to enjoy it.
“There’s always some kind of fear, but I know it’s going to be a great experience,” he said. “I just want to have fun and represent the continent well, and the people from Latin America.”