April 4, 2013
Rob Burke Can
By Keka Schermerhorn

“I am living proof that once we get past our fears, there is no limit to our capacity as human beings ... I am able to do things now that I was not able to do before I was wounded ..."

Photos courtesy of Liz Dearstyne

Rob Burke doesn’t believe in the word “can’t.”

“I am well known by the athletes at the box as the coach who hates that word,” Burke, a captain in the National Guard, says. “Whether it is something someone tells us or a little voice in our heads, we can do anything over time with commitment and dedication.”

Within two years of joining the Army, Burke completed Infantry, Airborne and Ranger School. In 2007, while deployed in Iraq, the Army Veteran was introduced to CrossFit. When not out on a mission, he could usually be found working out.

Five months into his deployment, in February 2008, while on a night raid, Burke was injured, sustaining five gunshot wounds to his leg, face, arm and shoulder. A 7.62 mm bullet went through the back of his left shoulder blade and exited out of his trapezius. Another bullet entered his left torso cutting his latissimus dorsi in half, and exited two inches from his spine. 

What followed were months of treatments at the Walter Reed Army Medical Center, in Washington, D.C.

“The doctors informed me that although I was in superior shape prior to my injury, which helped me to survive the wounds, my body had sustained so much trauma that I would never be able do the things I was once able to do,” Burke recalls. “And that I needed to consider medical retirement as I conducted my initial rehabilitation.”

Despite his post traumatic stress, a quick bout with depression and gaining 50 pounds while at the hospital, Burke overheard a conversation between two soldiers that changed his outlook on the situation.

“I heard these two soldiers who were amputees talking about how excited they were to get their new legs and what it would be like for them to run again,” Burke says. “At that moment, I realized that I needed to stop feeling bad for myself and I had to prove everyone wrong.”

Burke took the next two years to fully rehabilitate, and returned to his unit.

“I did not retire from the military. I did not choose that option when I left the hospital so I could return to my unit, although I still had massive limitations in strength and mobility,” he says. “I deployed to northern Afghanistan in 2010 in a support role to give the last little bit I could.”

It was during that tour in Afghanistan that Burke got reacquainted with CrossFit.

“I began doing small (workouts) with kettlebells and pull-ups,” Burke says. “I started deadlifting and squatting with heavy weight again. Everything was scalable to my ability level and gave me an intense workout, while helping me be functionally fit.”

Burke left active duty in 2011 and joined the New York Army National Guard to continue his service. It was then when he fully immersed himself in CrossFit.

“It was in the CrossFit community that I found an atmosphere that so many young veterans look for when they get out of their military branch,” Burke says. “The CrossFit atmosphere is one that is inviting and accepting; no matter your health level, past experience or history. I wasn’t pressured to be the ‘guy with the war stories’ or ‘the veteran with PTSD.’ I could be the guy who was ‘working on his double-unders.’”

It took Burke a whole year to be able to string together unbroken kipping pull-ups. He was diligent with his training, striving to get better with every workout. The Olympic rings, however, continued to intimidate him.

“I stayed as far away as I could from them,” Burke recalls. “I would focus not on that weakness, but on another one, using my shoulder injury as an excuse anytime they came up.”

Burke acquired his CrossFit Level 1 Certificate and was coaching classes last spring when Open Workout 12.4 came around.

He got through the 150 wall balls and 90 double-unders with three minutes left in the 12-minute AMRAP to perform 30 muscle-ups.

“I spent that whole 180 seconds trying to get up and could not even get past the pull,” he says. “I felt defeated but put it on my goals list.”

Months passed and Burke opened CrossFit Syracuse with his partners Dan Goldberg, Ellen Spicer and Colin Hillman.

“After we opened, I tried to soak up every bit of knowledge from my fellow coaches because it was something we were rich in. It was a long wait, but I eventually got my first muscle-up a few months ago, but it did not really meet the standards. I continued my skill work ready for the next WOD with a muscle-up. As Open WOD 13.3 was about to be announced I had a gut feeling we would see 12.4 again, and boom, there it was.”

This time around, Burke was getting over the flu, and moved considerably slower through the wall balls and double-unders. He got to the rings with 61 seconds left on the clock.

“I gave it all I had and it came easy,” Burke says. “The second pull was not as lucky as my left shoulder did what I thought it would do every time and gave out. I was sure I was done. As I landed on the ground and shook my arm off, I realized I was OK and needed to get another (muscle-up) to prove the first was not a fluke. As I pressed the dip out of my second one, I heard ‘3, 2, 1 … time,’ I yelled in celebration. No more fear, no more excuses, no more voices of people telling me the one word I have grown to despise …”

Burke hopes CrossFit can positively impact other veterans’ lives as it has impacted his. CrossFit Syracuse offers free classes for Team Red White and Blue Veterans and the organization's local chapter also provides CrossFit scholarships for interested veterans.

“I am living proof that once we get past our fears, there is no limit to our capacity as human beings. My muscle-up is just a small expression of that,” Burke says. “I am able to do things now that I was not able to do before I was wounded. The doctors may have been right in the fact that my body cannot move certain ways anymore because of my injury, but I truly believe that my fitness and quality of life is better both physically and mentally due to CrossFit.”