Teenager’s CrossFit dream faces major obstacle: a visa
Venezuelan must clear hurdle to compete in U.S.
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.