A Different Kind of Hierarchy


The noise is the first thing that hits you, the speakers thumping and music filling 40,000 square feet inside the Meadowbrook Athletic Complex. More than 600 athletes are packed in here the second weekend in April 2016, with spectators, vendors, judges and volunteers filling nearly every inch of available space for one of the biggest CrossFit competitions in the Mid-Atlantic.

Out on one of two competition floors, teams of two men and two women are dredging multiple sandbags, tied together to form a “serpent” through a brutal conditioning test. For Event 4, they’ll each throw their part of the serpent up over their shoulder and perform 20 squats, drop it to perform 10 burpees with a jump over the serpent and finish with five serpent clean-and-jerks.

The sequence is done four times, as fast as possible, and early heats are figuring out that communication —among the chaotic atmosphere of the music, cheers and emcee— is paramount to keeping each athlete on the same rep.

Up! Down! Drop it! Are all familiar calls screamed above the chaos as athletes try to keep their team on track for the synchronized movements.

Three teams from CrossFit Hierarchy don’t have that luxury.

Hierarchy and sister gym, Hierarchy Ivy City, both based out of the Washington, DC area, have come to compete in the MAAC (Mid-Atlantic Affiliate Challenge) with three of their five teams featuring at least one deaf member. The serpent event, in which they are given permission to turn and face each other, is a significant obstacle. But, like so many other tasks in CrossFit and life, Hierarchy’s deaf athletes rose to the challenge.

“They spent two hours before that event working with each other on visual cues, on patterns of movement,” Hierarchy general manager and coach Christine Bald said. “They would tap their hip twice and know to pick up the serpent. They agreed beforehand once [the serpent] was up on the shoulder they’d keep it up. They kind of had that figured out.”

It wasn’t the best event for any of the three teams, but they all beat out other, fully-hearing teams and provided one of the most inspirational performances of the day.

“When I work out I need to have music blaring, that kind of blocks out the pain and lactic acid buildup and everything. Whereas these guys can’t have anything to get their mind off those things,” said Ivy City head coach Ikaika Kua-Nachor, who was on one of the teams. “And that in itself is just incredible. The fact that they can push themselves beyond what other people can push themselves with music blaring is just awesome.”

Kua-Nachor competed in the MAAC RX division along with Robin Gonzalez, a former Regional competitor (2013 South Central) who found CrossFit in Texas while trying to get in shape for a Miss Deaf pageant in 2012.

“I notice a lot of deaf people who are getting involved in CrossFit [now],” said Gonzalez, through an interpreter. “After Regionals, many deaf athletes asked me, “How do you communicate with your coaches? Do you have to be patient and write back-and-forth on paper? Or do gestures?’ Patience was the main thing. I come from a hearing family so it’s easy for me to gesture and communicate with hearing people. I don’t really have a problem socializing with hearing people.”

Neither do any of the other eight deaf athletes at Ivy City, which Gonzalez calls a second home. Opened in September, down the street from Gallaudet University, Ivy City’s first member was a deaf athlete: Rachel Benedict. And there’s been a steady stream ever since. Some people, like Kua-Nachor, knew a little sign language coming in. Others have picked up certain words or phrases. And nearly everyone that walks through the doors of Ivy City, has learned that the deaf athletes are about as outgoing and open a group as can be.

“I feel like it makes me a better person,” said Andrew Zernovoj, who started CrossFit by his old home in Virginia after seeing the popular “Fight Gone Bad” workout done at a festival in 2011. “I feel like I need that spirit, that fire. I played football in college [at Gallaudet] and I like being involved in sports. So, wow, CrossFit itself has really changed my personality, my spirit, who I am as a person.”

Zernovoj, who competed on one of the scaled teams at the MAAC, is partially deaf and still communicates primarily through sign language. A budget analyst for the government, Zernovoj is an impressive strength athlete who squats north of 400-lb and convinced his wife, Katelyn, to give Ivy City a try in 2013.

hiarchy_2“I’m able to improve many areas of my life, socially, how I hang out and interact with members and friends. I’m able to improve my goals in life. Without CrossFit, I don’t know. I wouldn’t know what to do, really. It’s given me perks to keep going,” Zernovoj said through an interpreter. “One of the bigger reasons behind it is my family has a lot of health issues. And, because of that reason, CrossFit has helped me to understand their issues and help them out with that. And also myself, to become a more healthy person.

[It’s helped me] not being afraid of stepping out and doing new things. That’s one example. But business can be risky and stressful and maybe, if I didn’t do CrossFit, I would screw up at work often. Or, if I didn’t do CrossFit, I wouldn’t be able to have some release everyday from the stress. This is my place where I can do that. CrossFit, it’s perfect.”

Zernovoj said he kept things simple at first when approaching and interacting with Ivy City’s hearing athletes and, while awkward at first, the group is now just one community.

“Those who are not aware of deaf people or deaf athletes they realize it’s not that hard to communicate, it’s not that hard to be social,” Andrew’s wife, Katelyn said. “It’s pretty simple.”

Katelyn, who got back into CrossFit two weeks after giving birthday in early May, is cleared to do everything on the agenda on this Wednesday afternoon at Ivy City. She does heavy back squats, working toward a three-rep max, 10 minutes of the benchmark “Cindy” and a mile run with no evidence —besides her joking before the workout— of being remotely out of shape.

No part of this workout was nearly as tough as doing the CrossFit Open pregnant, which required Andrew and other members scheming up ways for Katelyn to modify pushups with a very pregnant stomach. The solution —to have her perform them on boxes with a big hole in the middle— enabled her to keep competing and encompasses everything Hierarchy’s deaf athletes are about.

“I’ll always find a way, always,” Katelyn said. “I don’t like excuses. I’m pregnant, doesn’t matter. [I get it done] no matter what.”
It’s that kind of attitude that continues to amaze people like Kua-Nachor and Bald.

“That was what spoke up to me at the very beginning- deafness is not a disability,” Bald said. “Do they experience the world differently? Yes, but it’s not a disability. You can’t watch these athletes and think they are any different than a hearing person. You can’t say they have a disability, they go about their lives 100 percent normally. That’s the thing that’s kind of cool about CrossFit. It levels their playing field. It focuses on their abilities, not on their disabilities. They just want to lift heavy shit and hang out with their friends.”


All pictures courtesy of CrossFit Hierarchy.