The Deaf Athlete’s CrossFit Experience

September 3, 2023 by
Photo Credit: @zoomrun
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You are in the middle of 23.2. The music is blaring, your friends are cheering you on, and as the timer counts down, you hear your judge scream at you how long you have left, and you speed up. You hear the beep and collapse to the floor, spent. 

This is the CrossFit experience for athletes who can hear.

The CrossFit experience for Deaf athletes is entirely different.

It is 2013 at the South Central Regional, and the six members of CrossFit Kemah take the floor. One of the members was Robin Gonzales Dazé, a Deaf athlete who had been playing sports her entire life.

  • “I grew up in athletics–I played volleyball, basketball, softball, and tennis. The Deaf Softball League recruited me, and I was in that for three to four years. After that, I ended up in the Deaf pageant for Miss Texas.”

She stumbled into CrossFit with her sister to get in shape for her pageant and fell in love. However, the weights were only one of the challenges.

  • “It was a challenge because of the communication barrier. No one knew sign language except for my sister, and luckily, I had her help me with communication with the coach. The coach used his body language, and that did assist a lot. He gave us a bunch of examples of the movements that he did physically, and he made sure to show it with his body.”

Dazé progressed quickly and was part of the team from CrossFit Kemah that went to Regionals in 2013. She is the only Deaf athlete to compete at this level of CrossFit. Close to the competition, she contacted the organizers to request an ASL interpreter to stand on the floor with her.

  • “Unfortunately, they would not allow a sign language interpreter on top of the CrossFit platform because of safety concerns. I needed someone because they needed to tell me about the timer–countdowns are important, and I’m always behind a bit because I don’t hear the timer go off.”

The interpreter provided was set up behind the fence that separated the competition floor from the spectators, and being so far away, it was almost zero help to Dazé.

  • “I told myself this is doable and just focused on myself. I ignored the interpreter and just started competing. And when it finished, we ended up in 11th place out of 30 teams, which was awesome.”
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The lack of accessibility is not just apparent in high-level competitions for Deaf athletes.

Reyes Ribera is a Deaf athlete who has been CrossFitting for ten years. Based in the Pacific Northwest, he has traveled to several affiliates and has had an interesting experience seeing the levels of accessibility.

  • “Many affiliates don’t know how to work with a Deaf person like myself and someone who is profoundly Deaf, culturally Deaf. Many Deaf people might have some hearing or might be more hard of hearing or even be able to talk for themselves a bit, but I am fully Deaf.”

Through his travels, Ribera discovered that many coaches don’t have any experience with a Deaf person. 

  • “They often talk louder when I am in there. It doesn’t matter how loud they yell; I’m not going to be able to hear it. I just need them to show me how to do it, to demonstrate a movement. And then I can copy it. I mean, it’s simple, but it turns into a real issue for them.”

Ribera decided to get his Level One certification after several years, and this proved another hurdle accessibility-wise. He had two interpreters, one of whom was a close friend who happened to be an affiliate owner and coach, and a second interpreter who had no knowledge of CrossFit.

  • “It was a good thing that I had a CrossFit background–by that time, I’d been into it for six years and already had all the terminology and knew how a class ran. So going into it was fine, but the pace of the weekend was quick, and the interpreter was doing their best to keep up.”
  • “I asked for four interpreters because they have to take turns because of the energy it takes. They couldn’t give me four; the best they could do was two, and those two interpreters had to interpret it all day back and forth. That will wear an interpreter out, I tell you!”

To put this in context, we had an ASL interpreter during my interview with Ribera. Interpreting is a high-level task that takes such physical energy that interpreters usually switch out every 30 minutes or less. We had two during our conversation. For any CrossFitter who has taken their Level One, you know they are long, intense days. Imagine how arduous it would be for only two interpreters to split this work.

We are fresh off the 2023 CrossFit Games and wowed by all the athletes’ performances, including those in the adaptive division. But oddly enough, there has been little representation of the Deaf community at that level. There are many things that Ribera and Dazé would love to see to help merge the two communities.

Ribera has suggestions to help CrossFit become more inclusive.

  • “I know they have added subtitles or captions to videos, but that’s not good enough. I need something visual, like someone signing an actual answer, because it’s a language. ASL is its own language.”

Ribera continued:

  • “There are about 11 million Deaf and hard-of-hearing people in the US, and there are very few Deaf people involved in CrossFit. I have asked them why they don’t get involved, and they say it’s the communication.”
  • “I think what complicates this thing a bit more is the adaptive division (at the Games) tends to be more outwards and physical. Whereas a Deaf person, you can’t see what is “adaptive” with them. So someone could look at them and say, Hey, you look normal. You could be competing with all the other hearing people.”

Dazé had other ideas to build upon as well:

  • “I want ASL interpreters for competitions. And captioning would be nice in classes. I know many people don’t have time to learn sign language and teach, so I just wish there was an efficient way to have captioning on the TV screen in a gym. Something, to where if the coach is speaking, I can see what they’re saying.”

She would love to see the accessibility improve, especially for the Open announcements, in addition to educational resources and content on the main site. 

  • “I think they should add an ASL interpreter for the Open announcements because there are many Deaf athletes all over who want to join and need an interpreter for the Open.” 

Ribera would love to see a Deaf person or at least someone who knows ASL working at CrossFit HQ so that Deaf athletes would have a specific contact person regarding coaching or competitive questions.

There are definitely coaches who know ASL or are excited to learn. Tyler Gradin is one of them. A co-owner and coach from VC Fitness in Portland, Gradin is also an ASL interpreter, so his days are a mix of coaching CrossFit classes and interpreting. He met Ribera when they were both in college; fast forward a few years down the road, and in walked Ribera to a class Tyler was coaching.

Gradin tells the story:

  • “I had run a couple of ASL-specific CrossFit classes in Portland, and one day, Ribera had heard that somebody at VC Fitness knew ASL and was a CrossFit trainer. He didn’t know it was me, though – he just walked into the gym one day.”

Being an ASL interpreter, Tyler understands the importance of his knowledge and how it can impact Deaf members. He makes sure to work with his coaches to create inclusion for all and that Deaf members have the same experience in his CrossFit classes that hearing members do. He stays in communication with his coaches, offering tools to them to help.

  • “One of the nice things is, as a community, you can lean on the physicality of it and the visual part of it – what looks like good movement and what looks like bad movement. So, even with my coaching with Ribera, I have learned that everything has to be a visual cue or tactile. That really forces you to get better at those things.”

Gradin went on:

  • “Plenty of hearing members respond better to the visual than the verbal anyway. It is like what they say in your L1 or L2; you have to be very clear with showing the athlete–you might have to exaggerate a little bit what looks good just to make sure that the point is understood. It is my favorite when I have Ribera in class; I get to merge both of my passions, and the worlds are colliding. It’s awesome.”

CrossFit has made some strides in the adaptive space, specifically for Deaf athletes, but there is so much more to do.

Walking into a CrossFit affiliate for the first time can be difficult enough; imagine if you were also Deaf. 

Dazé elaborated on this:

“I know so many athletes who want to participate. I remember the first time I joined CrossFit; I was super overwhelmed. I could not imagine how other Deaf athletes felt that were trying to get into it. And with no sign language interpreter, and then you have the Open, which is double the work–it can be a bit overwhelming.”

But Reyes hopes for a future where the two communities can unite more.

“CrossFit is a really fun community. We know each other so well, just like in the Deaf community. It would be great for them to come together more. They’re very similar, almost parallel. It would be nice to set up togetherness.”

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