Reyes Ribera shifted his weight nervously as he stood before his dumbbell.
The 44-year-old typically used a 35- or 40-lb. dumbbell when the workout called for snatches, not the 50-lb. implement at his feet.
He glanced across the room, meeting the eyes of his coach and CrossFit Livermore owner, Matt Souza. Souza held up three fingers, indicating the final countdown, then slashed his fist through the air like a flagman of fitness. Ribera ripped his dumbbell off the ground.
As he worked, he focused on the rhythm of his breaths, trying to keep his heart rate steady. Step down, step up to the box, jump. With each leap, he felt the impact buzz through his feet. Ribera had no music to motivate him and heard neither scream nor cheer as he worked through the grueling couplet of dumbbell snatches and burpee box jump-overs.
Twenty minutes later, he’d completed 214 reps, just 11 reps short of finishing Open Workout 17.1.
Though Ribera, who is deaf, couldn’t hear his friends’ cheers, “you can almost feel the crowd’s energy, just like someone else would be able to hear it,” he said, speaking through an American Sign Language (ASL) interpreter. “They’re all there just wanting everybody to succeed as much as possible.”
Ribera was born deaf into a generationally deaf family, sharing his quiet world with two deaf parents and a deaf sister. He learned to sign before he learned to read and write. Still, his childhood was like any other: He traded tricks on his skateboard with the neighbor kids and played for football, basketball and track teams at deaf schools with deaf coaches and faculty as well as traditional schools where he relied on body language and lip reading to communicate.
After graduating from Gallaudet University—the world’s only university designed for deaf and hard-of-hearing students—in Washington, D.C., Ribera became a teacher at the California School for the Deaf in Fremont. Though he spends most of his time surrounded by co-workers, friends and family who sign, simple tasks like ordering at a coffee shop or going to the doctor often take twice as long.
“I’d need a pen and a piece of paper to talk ... and that really ate up a lot of time,” he said.
When he wasn’t working, Ribera liked to keep active, training at his local globo gym. Though the environment naturally suited those without hearing—who talks to each other on the treadmill, anyway?—Ribera began to lose interest in the monotony of a daily workout done in isolation.
In late 2013, when he met a friend for a drink, he noticed she looked considerably more fit than when he had seen her just three months prior, her defined shoulders catching his eye and sparking his curiosity.
“So I asked her how she was doing it, and she said it wasn't the gym. It was CrossFit,” Ribera said.
A few days later, he walked through CrossFit Livermore’s doors. Souza greeted him, extending his hand in welcome. When Ribera pointed to his ears and mouthed “hello” to indicate he could not hear, Souza was taken aback at first.
“I knew it was going to stretch the parameters of the coaching a little bit,” Souza said. “But I thought about it for a second and it was like, ‘Well, this man has been living with this his whole entire life, so there's no reason for me to feel any apprehension or to be nervous.’”
Ribera’s first workout was a simple AMRAP of air squats, push-ups and rowing.
“I was down on my knees gasping for breath,” Ribera recalled. “In that moment, I realized that I was not really in good shape. I decided to quit my membership with my regular gym straight away, (and) I have kept on coming back every day since then."
The pair communicated with body language, Ribera reading Souza’s lips while Souza mimed the movements and wrote on a small handheld whiteboard. Souza learned key phrases in ASL, such as “ready” and numeric increments such as “400” or “2,000” for running and rowing distances.
Ribera also credited his fellow athletes for helping get him up to speed.
“Everyone that was there was just so social and encouraging,” he said. “They'd always say ‘hi’ and be there, ready to help and make sure that I was understanding the coach.”
As Ribera got fitter, Souza improved as a trainer.
“He’s made me a better coach,” Souza said. “It’s helped me tenfold become better for people with hearing.”
The affiliate owner found that if he could find creative ways to teach Ribera how to snatch without using verbal cues, he’d be that much more effective when he could use his voice with other athletes.
Before long, Ribera became a leader at the gym, greeting new members and showing them the ropes.
“As a community we'll forget that he's deaf because he's so involved,” Souza said.
But still, come time for the 2014 Reebok CrossFit Games Open, Ribera didn’t feel ready.
“I looked at some pictures online (of the previous Open) and I thought, ‘Oh gosh, I have not arrived at that point yet,’” he said.
Communication was also a concern. How would the judges let him know what rep he was on or if he got no-repped? Ribera asked Souza if signing up would be a good idea.
Souza had no doubt Ribera could handle it.
“I just figured if he had the ability to just walk into a CrossFit gym, which is already crazy intimidating, then I was like, ‘Dude, there's no way the Open's gonna be a problem for you,’” Souza said.
Five weeks later, Ribera had done his first Open—he registered to compete and performed all five Open workouts in 2014, though he did not post his results that year.
“It blew my mind,” Ribera said. “I can’t describe how I felt when I accomplished the challenge and overcame the communication barriers.”
He’s competed in every Open since. All it takes, he said, is a little pre-emptive communication. After selecting a heat and a judge, Ribera first asks the judge to—as much as movements allow—stand in front of him rather than to the side. That way he can glance at the judge’s hands or read his lips with a quick glance rather than turning away from the task at hand.
“Then you lose your focus and kind of lose your rhythm,” Ribera said.
Then the pair works out a system of hand signals. For instance, the judge might divide the total rep count into sets of five, holding up a hand for each set, taking down a finger for each rep Ribera completes.
With a nearly ironclad system in place after three Opens, come 17.1, the only thing Ribera was worried about was the dumbbell weight. Before the workout, he studied YouTube videos and blog posts online, taking special note of the 17.1 tips offered by Nicole Carroll, CrossFit Inc.’s Co-Director of Training and Certification
After that first solid rep, Ribera’s nerves abated. From there, it was all about the burpee box jumps.
“They felt like they took forever,” he said.
Ribera worked steadily, stepping up out of the burpee one leg at a time to conserve energy for the box jump ahead. He counted internally along with his judge, minimizing time spent craning his neck to the side to read his judges’ lips.
He never expected to advance past the third round, so when he entered the fourth with 5 minutes left before the 20-minute time cap, he had a decision to make: keep his steady pace or go all out?
His friends gathered in a circle around him, furiously gesturing for him to keep moving. As Ribera rested on his hands and knees after slowly peeling himself from the ground, Souza ran up to him and placed a hand on his back, mouthing “Go!” and pointing to his wrist.
“That’s when I decided I was gonna keep going and finish that fourth round and finish what I could from the fifth round,” Ribera said. “That (support) is really what inspired me to know that it was possible.”
Five minutes later, he finished the fourth box jump of the fifth round, completing 214 of the couplet’s 225 reps.
“It was definitely a proud moment for me,” Ribera said.
After he caught his breath, he swapped places with another athlete, using the same hand techniques to judge for his fellow competitors.
“It’s amazing to watch his progress,” Souza said. “I just think he's an inspiration to the community in the sense that people will say, ‘Oh it's hard and it's intimidating,’ and they don't have the disadvantage that he has.”
Ribera shrugged the notion off.
“I feel like it doesn't really matter where you're coming from,” he said. “Honestly, I feel like it's easy (to do the Open) because of the supportive environment.
“It may not be an easy workout, but it's fun to be around everyone and everyone’s there for each other, and that just makes the day.”