Hurricane, Blackouts, Pandemic, Earthquake: Resilience in Action for Two Female Gym Owners in Puerto Rico

April 4, 2023 by
Courtesy of Valentina Sollo
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After falling in love with the lifestyle, culture and people in Puerto Rico, Cherese Matthews and her now wife Valentina Sollo decided to uproot from the United States and buy a CrossFit affiliate in Puerto Rico.

So in 2016, the couple, who met at a fitness convention in Orlando, FL, got rid of their apartments and cars in New Jersey and Florida to start a new chapter.

But when they got to the affiliate they were slated to purchase, all of the equipment was gone, and the former owner was rolling up the floors.

  • “What happened?” Matthews said of her reaction at the time.

What happened was the old owner hadn’t communicated with his buyers and had sold all of his equipment to other gyms, so ultimately there was no longer an affiliate to purchase or take over. 

So, What Happened Next?: Even though there was no gym to buy, Matthews and Sollo were undeterred. 

They got their hands on the former members’ contact information and “just called them up” and told them they would be offering CrossFit classes at the beach for free until they figured out their next month.

  • “We had no equipment and no car. We were just walking everywhere,” said Matthews, whose friend eventually gave her and Sollo a pair of dumbbells and a medicine ball, and “rain or shine” they showed up to the beach to train whoever showed up.
  • “We were going to make this work,” Matthews said of their attitude at the time.

Then one day, while walking by a local shopping center, they noticed some shipping containers in the parking lot. Their immediate thought: Why not turn a shipping container into a gym?

  • “We can make that work,” Matthews said.

So she got herself an Amazon Prime credit card and “maxed it out” buying as much equipment as they could for their 400 square foot shipping container gym, and began charging $5 for drop-in classes.

So, Where are they Today?: A little more than six years later, Matthews, a CrossFit Level 3 coach, and Sollo, who was born and raised in Venezuela, are the owners of CrossFit Rincon in Rincon, Puerto Rico.

  • They have a flourishing gym with 135 to 170 members, depending on the season, and are having a “record year” in their 3,500 square foot facility. Further, they have created a community that prides itself on being inclusive, and that focuses especially on servicing minority groups, such as women entrepreneurs and the LGTBQ + community.

But the road to getting where they are today has been anything but smooth.

After their rocky start getting the business going in 2016, Hurricane Maria hit and devastated the island in 2017, causing some to lose power for months.

Knowing the hurricane was coming, Matthews and Sollo flew back to New Jersey before it hit. 

Their plan was to return to Puerto Rico in just a few days, but the hurricane was so devastating that the airport didn’t open for almost an entire month.

While stuck in the United States, Matthews and Solo did what they could by hosting fundraisers all month to support victims of the hurricane.

  • When they returned 28 days later, they discovered the house they were renting and their gym both had experienced flooding and they still didn’t have electricity.

In fact, blackouts due to poor infrastructure and politics around electricity in Puerto Rico, means the couple often has to operate without electricity. Sometimes they are forced to cancel their late night classes.

  • “If you sneeze too hard the lights go off,” Matthews joked about the unpredictable electricity throughout the country that leads many to have back-up generators or solar powered homes.

The next obstacle for Matthews and Sollo was, of course, the global pandemic that hit the world a year-and-a-half after the devastating Hurricane Maria. For them, like many other gym owners, it meant closing their business for six months.

Business became so dire that at one point during the pandemic, they came within 48 hours of closing their doors for good, but at the 11th hour the government allowed them to re-open, so they decided to stick it out one more time.

Finally, amidst the pandemic Puerto Rico was hit with big earthquake that caused yet another blackout, adding even more fear and uncertainty to their business and community in the process, they explained.

The big picture: Nobody would blame Sollo and Matthews for calling it quits and packing it up, but they say all they have been through has only made them, and their community, stronger.

  • “From the beginning, it has been obstacle after obstacle…but I feel like I don’t regret anything. It has just made us so resilient,” Sollo said.

Matthews added: “I feel privileged to have had obstacles, because I feel like it builds character. It allows you to be empathetic. It allows you to be kind, and understand that hard work and effort is the only way you’re going to get what you want.”

And through the obstacles, there are moments that remind them of why it’s all worth it. 

  • “You have these moments where a member walks inside the gym and they’re so excited because they were able to do something they had never done before, and all of those obstacles just kind of disappear,” Sollo said.

More than anything, Matthews and Sollo are proud of what they have built, and proud to have become the “safe space” for 130-plus die-hard members who show up day-after-day.

  • “Going to the gym allows people to just be happy and forget about (everything) for an hour. And that’s what makes it so important to stay connected to your community no matter what you’re going through, as a member and as an owner,” Matthews said.

Sollo added: “I can tell you that’s why we’re still here. The support of our community has made it so amazing.”

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