CrossFitting in the Slums

CrossFit Racinha

The slum of Rio de Janeiro is home to CrossFit Rocinha, the only non-profit CrossFit Box in South America.

This Box, however, is atypical to most CrossFit gyms. Because they do not operate within four walls. And their goals revolve around not just fitness, but leadership and responsibility qualities.

Rogiero Rodrigues, the founder and head Coach of the gym, had been working in non-profits in the slum — known as Rocinha — before the idea of the Box was even conceived.

In 2008, he met a U.S. Marine, Christopher Clark, who was volunteering at the same organization where Rodrigues worked. After Clark trained with Rodrigues a few times, Clark invited him to try CrossFit.

“The workout he proposed to me was Cindy. I was like OK. I can do that,” Rodrigues said. “After 15 minutes, I was dying on the floor. I think I never felt my heart beating so hard. That’s when I said, ‘OK, all right. That’s interesting. Let’s do something.’”

Rodrigues visited Clark the next day and proposed the idea of CrossFit Rocinha, the only non-profit Box in South America. The idea was ‘creating a culture of excellence,’ which is also the Affiliate’s mission statement. According to Rodrigues, they wanted to “replace the culture where people are walking down the street and you see people smoking, doing drugs and you see people wasted because of alcohol abuse and there’s also family abuse and all this psychological problems that eventually somebody suffer from if they live in situations like that.”

CrossFit Racinha

The first pilot group for the Box consisted of young girls meeting in a roofless community center — the roof gone due to structural problems — in the favela, or slum. Soon, adults and families started coming and CrossFit Rocinha eventually outgrew the center.

Now, Rodrigues leads WODs on the beach, at local parks or on soccer fields. All of the equipment used is either donated by Affiliates and CrossFitters who come to visit or is made by the community.

Despite the lack of a Box and equipment, the mission has never faltered.

“We had this thinking: Dealing with the physical part is easy. We get that done in three months. In three months, we detoxify the body using CrossFit … But what about the mind? How do we get these folks to start thinking, ‘I am a leader inside my community. I am a leader. I am able to make decisions,’” Rodrigues said.

So, Rodrigues and Clark started Daniel’s Program, named after a man Rodrigues worked with who had died from lung failure. The leadership program brings well-known athletes or Coaches to CrossFit Rocinha to discuss leadership and the responsibilities of being an athlete. But it also gives the speakers an opportunity to see the violence that is happening inside Rocinha.

“They really start seeing, ‘Oh it’s not a pair of shoes that a basketball player is wearing that is going to make me a better person. It’s my mind. It’s myself. It’s everything that I do that counts.’ So we’ve been trying to put that image into the kids’ minds,” Rodrigues said.

Hannah Caldas of CrossFit Anywhere has volunteered at CrossFit Rocinha for over three years, and she said the experienced changed her life.

“(The kids) get to play, they get to be active doing something that’s healthy and then once we have their attention, we’ll tell them about the importance of going to school … and having a job,” Caldas said. “Which for a lot of them, they don’t understand based on the reality that they live in. They end up in drugs, prostitution, that kind of stuff. So that’s something that’s really important to me.”

Rodrigues is currently in the works to expand his program to another area of São Paulo. He is also starting a campaign to go to Santa Cruz, California to spend four weeks training and looking for support for other not-for-profit Affiliates all over the world.

“How you separate all that stuff so you are able to be a good person?” Rodrigues asked. “Believe in a good future. Believe that you can be a leader and change all of that. Those are very complex questions that I have been carrying with myself for the last eight years. And thanks to CrossFit, thanks to this amazing community, they are recharging me.”

Hayli Goode is the former digital editor for Peake Media.