After losing nearly 50 pounds working out in a Gold's Gym, Krystal Cantu was introduced to CrossFit for the first time by her then-employer Rackspace in San Antonio, Texas. It only took one workout for her to make the permanent switch.
Just a few months after leaving Gold's for CrossFit, the IT professional discovered she had the physical strength and the hardcore mindset necessary to be a competitive athlete. She could put more than 200 pounds on her back and squat it; she could clean more than 135 pounds. Her dream was to one day compete in the CrossFit's most prestigious and high-level competition, the Games.
Today, nothing has changed. Krystal Cantu does it all... with one arm.
On August 2, 2013, at 23 years old and just weeks away from competing in her first CrossFit competition, Krystal and her boyfriend David were in a severe car accident. When a tire blew, David lost control of the vehicle, which caused it to flip several times. Krystal's right arm was crushed between the vehicle and the road.
When she woke up after being air-lifted to the hospital, the doctors told her that all the blood vessels in her right arm were destroyed and there was no way to replace them. To save her life, they amputated her arm at the middle of her humerus.
The competition may have been out of the question, but the loss of her arm did not mean the loss of her competitive career.
Relearning How To Lift
Just a few weeks after her surgery, Krystal was in her coach's garage with a kettlebell in her hand. "I guess I just realized sooner rather than later that it's life," says the 25-year-old athlete. "I've never been the person to sit down and cry about anything. The day the accident happened, I was already thinking about how I was going to get back to my normal life. I was doing CrossFit and working before; I just wanted to get back to living the way I was living."
After spending a couple of weeks working on her conditioning, Krystal returned to her box. "When I got back, I immediately grabbed a 15-pound bar because I wanted to try the snatch and the clean and jerk," she says. "I just held the bar in the center, obviously, because I didn't have two hands any more, and I started going through the movements. I wanted to get back to doing things very quickly, but everyone else wanted me to take it slow."
Unable and unwilling to "take it slow," Krystal worked hard to reteach her body to lift in its new state. "My body remembered the squatting aspect of the movements—nothing really changed there," she adds. "But the balance took some adjusting because my hands weren't in the same place anymore. It takes a lot of core work."
Squats and cleans are only part of the equation. Krystal also had to learn how to get the bar over her head. "That's been the hardest thing to figure out—where my arm needs to be and what's the best position to get the bar over my head," she says. Luckily, Krystal's left shoulder has what she calls "alien-like mobility." "For a lot of people, overhead movements are really tough because their shoulders just aren't that mobile. But, surprisingly enough, my left shoulder is very mobile and it can be in any position holding weight, and I can get it over my head."
Although it could be a full-time job just working on her Olympic-style lifts, Krystal also wants to improve all the other aspects of her CrossFit abilities. She doesn't let having only one arm stop her from working toward her goals. "I prefer lifting to bodyweight movements," she says. "I like overhead squats. Anything that's overhead is fun to do, but gymnastics is something I have to get better at."
To improve her gymnastics, Krystal became a pro at adapting the movements in order to fit her abilities. "Instead of handstands, I typically do a wall walk, but, it's not a very vertical wall walk. It's nerve-wracking to think of being completely upside down and vertical with only one arm. So, that one's still a work in progress."
"If a workout has a lot of pull-ups in it, I'll put one band around my armpit and use another band around my legs to help me pull my body weight up. But I like doing strict ring rows with one arm better to work on my strength. So, I prefer to do those when the WOD doesn't call for a ton of pull-ups."
And, as any elite athlete does, Krystal also performs those movements she likes the least. "My least favorite movement is burpees for sure, and I hate weighted lunges," she says. Her distaste for some of these exercises doesn't prevent her from doing them, though. Like she says, "I always push myself as hard as I can. It's part of being a competitive person."
Despite phantom pains in her right arm and participating in a sport that generally requires the use of two arms, Krystal refuses to be less than her best. It's this determination and will to succeed that make her such an inspiring personality.
"I don't want to be a mediocre athlete," she says. "I set goals. I [view] competition as a way to rank myself to see if I'm getting any better. I'll never be happy with a 200-pound back squat. I always want to better myself. I work out every day because I don't want the same numbers. I want a new number every single month. That's just how I've always been."
Krystal's drive for success is evident in her long list of personal records. "As soon as I hit one PR, I want to move up," she says. "When I recently hit a 135 clean, I said to myself that 145 is next. I like to do 10-pound increments on the snatch and clean and jerk."
"I think I get into my head a lot when it comes to squatting, so I take that a little slower and increase by 5-pound increments. My last back squat PR was 215, so I think I want to do 220 for my next one. My last front squat PR was 195; next, I want to hit 200."
Overcoming Negativity, Inspiring Fitness
Despite having such a positive outlook on her growth and development as an athlete, Krystal is no stranger to negativity. "I hear negative comments," she says, "and it's not because I have one arm; it's because I do CrossFit.
"I don't care if people think CrossFit is dumb. At the end of the day, if you can't find it in you to encourage people, you're the one who's little. I don't care what you do— if you're a swimmer, tennis player, or bodybuilder—there's no reason for you to make fun of or say mean things about something you haven't tried."
Those who dislike her choice to compete in CrossFit are small in number compared to the voices that look to her for support and advice. "I've had a lot of people recently ask questions or send emails about how to lose weight. If they're not coming at me already asking about CrossFit, then I won't suggest it. Instead, I tell them to go to the nearest gym or the nearest CrossFit box and talk to the trainers. I tell them to do their own research and see what type of gym or fitness plan fits their goals best."
Krystal's skill and strength as an adapted athlete has gained her some well-deserved opportunities. She was selected by the supplement company 1st Phorm to be a sponsored athlete. "They're a great company," she says. "All of my teammates are good-hearted people who inspire and encourage others. I couldn't imagine being affiliated with anyone else."
Krystal has also competed in adapted CrossFit competitions like the Working Wounded Games and hopes to one day compete in an adapted division at the CrossFit Games. "I don't know when it's going to happen, she says, "But hopefully soon they'll say we need another division." Krystal also has her eye on competing in the Paralympics.
At 25, Krystal has done more than most of us can hope to achieve at 50. Inspirational athletes like her come into the world few and far between. But when they do, they only make us better. Their hard efforts and singular capacity for excellence inspire us to surpass our limitations and become our best.
"There is no red line," says Krystal. "You can always do more."