Teenager’s CrossFit dream faces ma­jor ob­sta­cle: a visa

Venezue­lan must clear hur­dle to com­pete in U.S.

Houston Chronicle Sunday - - CITY | STATE - By An­drew Kragie

Wil­son Román stands 5-foot-4 and weighs less than 150 pounds, but he can dead lift a gob­s­mack­ing 450 pounds. Ear­lier this year, the 17-year-old — who comes from a coastal slum in Venezuela that lacks run­ning wa­ter — beat out thou­sands of com­peti­tors to earn a spot at the CrossFit Games.

He was the first Venezue­lan of any age to win a place at the an­nual fit­ness con­test hosted by CrossFit, an in­tense train­ing pro­gram that since its 2001 found­ing has grown to out­num­ber many main­stream gym chains.

“I’ve al­ways dreamed of it ever since I be­gan train­ing with CrossFit,” Wil­son said Fri­day in Span­ish, re­call­ing how a char­ity spon­sored him four years ago when he was think­ing about drop­ping out of school. “That was al­ways my goal. It’s the best thing that’s ever hap­pened to me.”

Earn­ing his age group’s top rank for all of Latin Amer­ica was no small feat. How­ever, one last ob­sta­cle may keep him from the Au­gust con­test in Wis­con­sin: get­ting a visa to visit the United States. His ap­pli­ca­tion was de­nied last month.

A re­cent case of Afghan girls de­nied visas for an in­ter­na­tional ro­bot­ics con­test drew pub­lic out­cry and, even­tu­ally, a per­sonal in­ter­ven­tion from Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump. The State Depart­ment says Venezuela is af­fected not by Trump’s high-pro­file ef­forts to re­strict vis­i­tors and im­mi­grants but rather by a de­te­ri­o­rat­ing domes-

tic sit­u­a­tion that makes it more likely vis­i­tors to the United States would over­stay their visas.

The coun­try’s econ­omy has spi­raled out of con­trol since 2013, when so­cial­ist Pres­i­dent Hugo Chávez died af­ter 14 years in power. The cur­rency col­lapsed, driv­ing an­nual in­fla­tion as high as 800 per­cent in 2015, ac­cord­ing to Johns Hop­kins Univer­sity cal­cu­la­tions. Food sta­ples be­came scarce in what long had been South Amer­ica’s rich­est coun­try, largely thanks to sit­ting on the world’s largest proven re­serves of crude oil.

Food in short sup­ply

The cri­sis there has swelled the ranks of the Hous­ton area’s large Venezue­lan ex­pa­tri­ate com­mu­nity of more than 11,000. More than half live in the western sub­urb of Katy, in­spir­ing the nick­name “Katy-zuela.”

Be­fore 2010, most Venezue­lans moved to Hous­ton for jobs in en­ergy and ed­u­ca­tion, said Maria Man­rique de Hen­ning, who runs a char­ity that sends hu­man­i­tar­ian sup­plies to the na­tion that once was South Amer­ica’s wealth­i­est. Now it’s asy­lum-seek­ers.

Things have got­ten so bad in Venezuela that Wil­son’s lo­cal coach said the hard­est part of train­ing is procur­ing enough food to sus­tain the teen.

“Some­times he can’t eat, due to the sit­u­a­tion,” said Dr. Daniel Con­tr­eras, an or­tho­pe­dic sur­geon who also owns a CrossFit gym, known as a “box” in the fit­ness group’s ver­nac­u­lar.

Speak­ing over video­con­fer­ence, Con­tr­eras re­called when Wil­son first tried the CrossFit work­outs in 2013 af­ter re­ceiv­ing an in­vi­ta­tion from non­profit Fun­da­cion Fu­turo. The teen in­tu­itively picked up on the com­pli­cated rou­tines that take many six months to learn, the sur­geon said.

Wil­son also con­nected with Hous­ton-based coach Con­nor Martin through a Venezue­lan col­league who once worked at Con­tr­eras’ gym. He coaches the teen via video­con­fer­ence with the help of an in­ter­preter. Martin said the teen showed his men­tal for­ti­tude by mak­ing mul­ti­ple at­tempts on CrossFit chal­lenges and im­prov­ing each time.

“Wil­son’s awe­some,” Martin said. “He’s one of the top 20 teenagers in the world. He’s a very good gym­nast. He’s a lighter ath­lete but also a su­per im­pres­sive weightlifter.”

Con­tr­eras and Martin helped Wil­son se­cure a ticket on one of the in­creas­ingly in­fre­quent flights from Mara­caibo to Caracas, where the U.S. em­bassy re­views visa ap­pli­ca­tions.

He in­ter­viewed for a com­bined tourist/busi­ness visa about 7 a.m. June 15, Con­tr­eras said. By 8 a.m. he was re­jected.

Rise in asy­lum-seek­ers

The U.S. con­sular of­fi­cial may have been con­cerned the teen — who comes from a poor fish­ing com­mu­nity in the coun­try’s sec­ond-largest city, Mara­caibo — would over­stay his visa and join the ranks of asy­lum-seek­ers. Venezue­lan asy­lum ap­pli­ca­tions have surged in re­cent years, ac­cord­ing to U.S. Cit­i­zen­ship and Im­mi­gra­tion Ser­vices data, from 3,810 in fis­cal year 2015 to 10,221 the next year.

By the end of 2016, Venezue­lans out­stripped even the tra­di­tional top sources of asy­lum-seek­ers, China and Mex­ico. In De­cem­ber alone more than 2,300 filed ap­pli­ca­tions, ac­count­ing for 1 in 5 asy­lum-seek­ers from any coun­try.

The goal of visa screen­ing is to en­sure ap­pli­cants will leave as promised, said Wil­liam Cocks, a spokesman for the State Depart­ment’s Bureau of Con­sular Af­fairs and a for­mer con­sular of­fi­cer him­self.

“Are you try­ing to use this visa to im­mi­grate to the U.S.? Be­cause that would be a mis­use of the visa cat­e­gory,” Cocks said. He added the scru­tiny is noth­ing new im­posed by the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion but rather the long-stand­ing re­quire­ment of fed­eral law. What’s changed is Venezuela’s do­mes­tic cir­cum­stances, which makes it more likely ap­pli­cants would not re­turn home.

‘No plans to stay here’

How­ever, Wil­son and his train­ers say the teen just wants to go to the games, visit a fa­mous CrossFit trainer in Ten­nessee and fi­nally meet Martin in per­son in Hous­ton.

“He has no plans to stay here,” Martin said. “He wants to get the chance to com­pete. For him not to get that op­por­tu­nity would be a real shame.”

The State Depart­ment spokesman said there’s no rule against ap­ply­ing again.

Per­haps, as with his CrossFit chal­lenges, he’ll do bet­ter on the next at­tempt.

Wil­son Román is con­sid­ered among the best CrossFit teens in the world.

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