Leave a comment

Chris Clark explains how residents in Rio de Janeiro’s Rocinha favela use CrossFit to rise above poverty and violence.

 Favela CrossFit at Rocinha CrossFit


I woke up to the heavy thumping of a military helicopter, circling, diving, and banking hard to avoid the gunfire from the ground.  I ran to my window, small and square with bars, and when I was standing on my toes I could see it all. 

Rocinha, perhaps Rio de Janeiro’s  most famous favela (slum), lies like a beast carved into the cradle of the Rio de Janeiro mountains, standing guard forever over the ultra rich penthouses sprawling and spilling toward the Atlantic Ocean.  Rocinha is governed by drug traffickers, the police entering only on raids with elite troops and helicopters.  The heartbeat of Rocinha is loud and never stops, three-hundred thousand favelados (slum residents) shouting, dancing, and surviving with style.  I can never claim to be one of them, but that morning after three months living in the favela, I felt it… 

One year ago I had a green 1997 Jeep Wrangler with oversize tires, a beautiful blond, and a life that many would envy.  I left, moved to Brazil, and within two months of my arrival I accidentally started Rocinha CrossFit in one of the most notorious slums on the planet.  

In the beginning I was teaching English for an NGO (non government organization) named Two Brothers Foundation.  I never lied about being a US Marine, and when the word spread I was nudged towards teaching exercise classes.  We found old basketballs and volleyballs and made medicine balls and kettlebells.  With an old rusty iron bar and two used tire rims we welded an Olympic bar, and so on.

I emailed the Director of CrossFit, Greg Glassman, to let him know there was a community here very interested in his product.   He replied instantly and enthusiastically and we were granted a not-for-profit affiliation.  We struggled with no formal training and minimal equipment, but the affiliation gave us hope and we persevered. 

The principal driving force for Rocinha CrossFit is Rogerio.  Rogerio, born and raised in Rocinha, is the lead volunteer coordinator for Two Brothers Foundation, the NGO that I volunteer with in Rocinha.  Rogerio speaks English, French, and Spanish fluently.  Aside from working full-time with the NGO, Rogerio boxes, teaches boxing, and is the lead instructor for Rocinha CrossFit.  Since Rocinha CrossFit’s inception, two other instructors have joined the program.   Kleber, a talented boxer and expert instructor, and Dani, a university student and boxer. 

Rogerio found an empty rooftop to rent, a spartan area in need of much repair.  You get to our rooftop by three flights of concrete stairs through the middle of an apartment building, passing open doors of families cooking and children playing.  Our rooftop stands in the center of the most active area of Rocinha, providing a beautiful view from the center of the concave bowl that shapes the slum.  During workouts, you can look to the ocean and to the community, you can feel the ocean wind and see the kites flying above the impossible mosaic of homes built too closely, with urgency, and with more regard for survival than elegance.  Our area has faulty lighting, a toilet that doesn’t function, a leaky roof, and after twenty minutes of class the dust from the old concrete floor makes breathing difficult. 

The past four months have seen much improvement.  Our team has repainted the walls and we used a donation from the Vickers Family in Ohio to fix the concrete floor.  Classes continue, and the market for more membership is there, but the WODS (workouts) always need to be modified due to lack of equipment.

Life in a favela is vibrant and exciting, but it is also fatiguing even on the strongest of hearts.  The Rocinha child holds daring dreams that speak and sometimes yell in the mind and heart, but those voices grow faint to a whisper and become unhearable not by a single event, but by an infinite number of barely perceptible negative daily occurrences, over years these occurrences collectively form an opposing force wavelike, deep and mighty yet invisible.  These conditions which hold back the growth of the individual also force him to become stronger.  Small investments in these individuals cause conditions in the positive direction.  We can seize this opportunity to help by using CrossFit as the channel. 

My motivation to start this project was entirely selfish, and not at all altruistic.  Rocinha accepted me with an open heart and a strong embrace.  Rocinha gave me the privilege of investing and creating something truly unique, and the joy that I receive from this project doesn’t seem to have a limit.  In this lifetime, I cannot possibly give back what Rocinha has given me, nor in a hundred more lifetimes, and I am ready for others to experience the power of what I have experienced. There is more work to be done. 

Rocinha CrossFit is ready to grow, but the following issues need to be resolved.  Our equipment is minimal and in poor condition.  Equipment purchase in Brazil is prohibitively expensive.  We need to find organizations that can help with donations.  If equipment donations can be found, we need economical shipping solutions. 

Rocinha CrossFit’s competitive advantage lies in our instructors’ energy, our location in the community, our price point, and CrossFit’s natural product differentiation versus standard gyms.  However, without a baseline set of equipment, our value proposition suffers and the accounts receivable figure will continue to rise.  I believe we only have a few more months until our unpaid instructors will need to focus their time towards something that can pay their rent. 

I am early in the process of forming a nonprofit corporation in order to obtain federal 501(c)(3) tax exemption status.  We need to form a board of directors, ideally including someone with nonprofit and/or fundraising experience, a CrossFit Instructor, and a lawyer familiar with nonprofits.  Certainly being a director with Rocinha CrossFit presents a once in a lifetime opportunity to engage in meaningful international social work, not to mention the satisfaction of involvement with a hardcore project in the city of Rio de Janeiro, the sight of the 2016 Olympic Games. 

My first year in Rio de Janeiro I tried to capture the essence of the city, what is good, what is bad, and why it is so.  I failed.  By conceptualizing Rio the truth constantly evaded me. Rio is everything and nothing at the same time.  It is death, the threat of violence producing a thin cloud of fear, the stark contrast of rich and poor, socioeconomic conditions, the margin between life and death feels thinner.  Rio is also life, the sun and the bustle and heat and sweat that melts into the soft sex electricity of the night.  Rio de Janeiro is the city of this decade, rich in culture and tremendously complex, yet only human, the world watches as the city exposes itself, and at the same time exposes man’s true nature to the world.  There may be no better platform to predict the future of our race. 

Rocinha CrossFit is raw, human, and the story represents everything that is good and everything that is bad.  It is the story of humanity at its core, and with some help and a few resources, the story can be glorious.

Support Rocinha CrossFit by buying a Rocinha CrossFit t-shirt here. Prize: 35 USD/175 DKK (free shipping).

Colours + sizes:  grey and white (all sizes).

…..or pay here:

Danske Bank
Reg. no.: 3121
Account no.: 10588308

IBAN: DK6530000010588308

“RE/Vedr.: Rocinha″ + send your address + t-shirt size to