January Featured Story
Krystal Cantu Cuate:
By David Daly
When most people picture an athletic champion, they envision a finely tuned body powered by a competitive soul. The passion for the win propels them towards a specific goal. The exhausted marathon runner crossing a finish line, an Olympic weightlifter hurling hundreds of pounds above their head, these champions seem to be superhuman. Their accomplishments speak to what is possible when the mind and body focus on one objective - victory.
All of those things can be true, yet at the same time, a superhuman athlete can also be injured and dealing with depression. Injuries are common for highly competitive athletes. Sometimes, the pressure to perform, even while wounded, can transform a love for the sport into a toxic poison. And that is precisely where CrossFit enthusiast Krystal Cantu Cuate found herself.
Her journey began a little over seven years ago when a vehicle accident forced her right arm's amputation. Never one to quit, Krystal quickly gained notoriety as an adaptive sports CrossFit athlete. Able to do more with one arm than most can do with two, Krystal's struggles and deep insight have inspired many. Her resilience and accomplishments in the athletic arena are admirable, and Krystal has gained her peers' respect. She is a true overcomer, in every sense.
Pushing her body to its limits, Krystal endured multiple injuries until eventually finding both her body and her life in disrepair. Emotional, sometimes crying for hours, more and more of her free time was spent arguing with her husband and taking long naps. As Krystal's depression continued, she began to gain weight. Her confidence eroded, and the once-mighty, unstoppable superhuman had become unsure of her purpose in life. Before getting into that, let's take a closer look at the moment that ultimately changed her trajectory.
In 2013, Krystal's life was changed forever while on her way to visit family. In an instant, the gunshot-like sound of a tire blowout sent her truck spinning out of control and heading straight into oncoming traffic. Everything seemed to move in slow motion as the truck chaotically propelled itself off the surface of the road. As the vehicle flipped and rolled out of control, shards of razor-sharp glass filled the cab. Krystal's arms lifted up into the air, and it looked to her as if one was broken. With a final thud, the truck landed upright on the side of a Texas highway. Both Krystal and the truck's driver, Daniel, now Krystal's husband, amazingly survived. After assessing their situation, Krystal noticed her right arm was hanging out the passenger side window. Not yet feeling any pain, she unsuccessfully attempted to move her arm. Leaning in closer to assess the reason for her arm's unresponsiveness, she realized her arm was well beyond broken. What greeted her eyes was almost indistinguishable. The horrific mix of crushed bone, skin, and muscle, which was once her arm, clung to her body by only a small piece of flesh.
The side door of the truck was crushed and refused to open. Attempting to free Krystal from the wreckage, Daniel tried to budge the door to no avail. Taking hold of her mangled arm, Krystal Cantu escaped out the driver's side door. A passing motorist, who happened to be an emergency room nurse, witnessed the accident and ran to the crash site with a trauma kit in hand. A short time later, emergency personnel arrived and assessed the situation. Krystal was swiftly loaded onto a helicopter and rushed to the nearest trauma center, her life possibly hanging in the balance.
Once at the hospital, it was determined that she would live, but her arm could not be saved. Coincidentally, two other people who had suffering life-threatening injuries were simultaneously brought into the trauma center by emergency workers. With her arm scarcely hanging on, Krystal was abandoned in a corner bed and left to wait until the "more immediate emergency" was handled. In those moments, alone with her thoughts, Krystal says she decided to use her determination and fighting spirit to get through it. "My biggest fear is death," she explains. "I wish it wasn't true, but it is. I knew I wasn't ready to leave my family and Daniel behind. Maybe another day but not this day."
As she waited for medical attention, the athlete kept her focus on making it through each minute. Interrupted occasionally by a concerned nurse insisting Krystal take her mother's phone calls, she attempted to block out the world. Krystal knew it would be nearly impossible to maintain her stoic facade should she try to speak to anyone. Due to the nurse's persistence, Krystal finally accepted the phone. She heard her mother's tearful, panic-stricken voice on the other end. Matter of factly, Krystal explained that she would be alright, but her arm would need to be amputated.
The next words she spoke were meant to relieve her mother's fears but would surprisingly have more impact on her own well-being. "It's okay, Mom. I'm going to be alright," she stated with conviction, reassuring her mother that everything would, in fact, be okay. "When I said those words to my mother, it was as if I had spoken them into existence," Krystal says. She knew at that moment that although the journey wouldn't be without its challenges, she would get through it. Much to everyone's astonishment, Krystal was at the gym ready to work a mere month after her amputation. In no time at all, her perseverance was turning heads, and she was making a name for herself in the athletic arena. Krystal states that initially, CrossFit was "a strength outlet," and her workouts provided a feeling of being in control. Each exercise was a test, and passing those tests seemed to prove she could still do all the things she could before losing her arm. She lifted extraordinary sums of weight and was enjoying the command over her new body.
She gained recognition on social media as the competitor whose injury couldn't stop her. Each time she posted an image of her workout or a new video of her lifting, approval would follow. "I had to show people anything was possible," Krystal recalls. Each time she posted another video, her Instagram and Facebook followers clamored for more. Krystal began pushing her body to more dangerous limits until the extremes became an expectation she had placed on herself. With positive feedback pouring in, the competitor began to believe that the entirety of her identity was CrossFit and nothing else. Krystal describes the pressures of social media as "I needed to post, and it became very toxic for me. I made CrossFit a job, and it took the fun out of it. I made it toxic on myself."
As a result of Krystal's grueling gym and work schedule, her relationship with Daniel began to suffer. When Daniel was offered a job in Florida, the two decided to uproot from Texas in search of a fresh start. Before looking for an apartment, Krystal prioritized finding the nearest CrossFit box (gym). She would now see CrossFit as her full-time job, and workouts were bulked up to at least three to four hours daily, often much longer than that. In Texas, Krystal had participated in only two competitions. But, in Florida, she was competing all the time. Many CrossFit event promoters were actively soliciting adaptive athletes during this period. In Krystal's opinion, attention was initially positive. Eventually, however, it grew out of control. She explains, "It was a fad. Now it's just a fucking circus when I look back at it." The scoring system, which ranked everyone by the same criteria, created even more pressure for athletes to push harder. All adaptive contestants were expected to perform the same exercises regardless of their particular challenges. Rationally, she was aware that with one arm, her stats in a clean and jerk couldn't possibly beat those of an athlete with two arms. But that didn't matter to Krystal. At the time, the way she saw it was if she scored lower, she just needed to push harder.
Driven by social media pressure, Krystal Cantu Cuate was on a collision course with potential injuries to her body and mental well-being. "I let the likes, comments, and popularity get to my head. I never stopped being humble to this day, but internally these things were in my head," the competitor admits. "These things were what I was thinking about, so I kept competing. I kept breaking myself down day by day. Breaking my body down day by day." One day, shortly after recovering from an injury, a friend urged her to meet up for a workout. A fellow adaptive athlete and competitor, the friend, introduced Krystal to her coach. As it turned out, the Paralympics had recently expressed a need for javelin throwers. "I was like, what the hell is a javelin? Like, I had no clue what it was!" Krystal took to YouTube and was impressed with what she saw. She says, "I was like, Holy Moly! That looks intense! These girls that were throwing these javelins were ripped. All the power they had when they were throwing these javelins...it was insane." The sport was unquestionably hardcore, and Krystal was quickly all in, stating, "Something clicked inside of me, and I was like, yes...challenge accepted. Sign me up. What do I need to do?"
With that, Krystal and her new coach, Scott, started training for the US Paralympic team. Krystal worked out every day to master the javelin, and her latest obsession was born. She spent two days a week training at a local university's javelin field with Scott and the rest of the week in the gym. It wasn't easy, and her progress was slow. Eventually, Krystal was told she had to reduce her CrossFit workouts. "I was happy about it because I was getting so injured in CrossFit. But I was kinda pissed about it, too. I thought you can't take that sport away from me. That sport made me," she recalls. Reluctantly decreasing her CrossFit workouts, Krystal strenuously worked to get a single javelin throw down and saw limited progress. "Nothing has ever humbled me more than throwing that javelin. For me, CrossFit, even though it took time to get to a level where I thought I was a pretty good athlete, it didn't take very, very long," Krystal states matter-of-factly. "I was able to build up endurance and strength pretty quickly as I went. With javelin, nothing I did seemed to make that javelin go the way it needed to." After considerable practice and enduring endless frustration, Krystal finally launched the javelin a distance far enough to try out for the US Paralympics team. "It was a huge deal for me to be able to say 'I am on Team USA.' I think that's what I wanted more than anything," she remembers. "I wanted to be able to represent my country in the Paralympics. I wanted that so bad."
A week before flying out to the qualifier, Krystal was at the gym, performed a simple jump, landed wrong, and wrenched her ankle. Immediately, pain surged through her with the intensity of an electric impulse. Doctors later confirmed that her injury, known in the medical community as a Jones Fracture, was one of the most severe injuries a foot could endure. Upon learning her foot required surgery and potentially screws and plates, Krystal knew she would need months of rehab. Any hope of making the Paralympic team was dead. "I just broke down and started crying. I couldn't contain what I was feeling. Like to me, this just crushed my dreams," the champion recalls. "I had this qualifier in the palm of my hand. I was so close to being able to go get my chance to make Team USA. And it was taken, right from the palm of my hand. It really crushed me." As the recovery time waged on, Krystal slipped into a profound depression. Unable to work out and with no significant social media posts, Krystal felt she failed to serve her purpose. When the injured athlete wasn't napping or arguing with Daniel, her inner narrative was extremely negative. "I would tell myself, you're nobody right now. You suck right now," she confides. After an arduous recovery period, Krystal began to shake off the darkness. She began to compete again with encouragement from her friends, signing up for an event called Rush Club. The event is a sort of hybrid version of Fight Club and CrossFit. Two opponents are assigned a workout thirty days before the competition. At the matchup, rivals perform in front of judges and fans, with the winner receiving a championship belt and bragging rights.
As the event neared, Krystal and Daniel bought their first home. The excitement, coupled with lingering depression, caused Krystal to stop training for two weeks. Krystal was slated to compete against an athlete she had previously defeated named Kendra Bailey. Confident this would be an easy win, Krystal wasn't worried. That is, until the night before the Rush Club event when the two met up for dinner. Krystal's opponent, Kendra, appeared to be in the best shape of her life and hungry for a win. Krystal remembers the moment her eyes saw Kendra; it was a blow to her confidence. "I'm watching her walk up to the bar, and I'm like holy shit! She is ripped...., like ripped! Like, muscles everywhere."
She continues by saying, "I'm like, holy hell, girl, you look amazing!' My confidence went from 100 to fucking zero really fast." Her self-doubt progressed, and Krystal's performance at Rush Club reflected it. As she walked on stage, Krystal tripped on a barbell and later scraped her shin during one of the competition rounds. Kendra won the event hands down. "I watched her beat me. I stood there, and I said, 'You're fucking worthless, Krystal." She knew a lack of training lost her the event. It made Kendra's win all the more upsetting, and Krystal fell further into despair.
Just two days later, Krystal was back in the gym, performing a series of deadlifts, and noticed a bit of discomfort in her back. She switched over to the clean and jerk, recalling what happened next. "I did the first clean in the workout, and it was fine. I felt a little pinch in my back, but it was fine. I went for the second one and still a little pinch but nothing major. And then I went for the third clean, and I felt a little pop. I let the barbell go, and I said, 'fuck.' I knew what was to come because I had already hurt my back before," Krystal describes. She knew the feeling of a herniated disc and was fully aware of the pain that would soon follow. The superhuman athlete would spend the next three months in recovery, struggling to stand upright again. With her Paralympic dreams shattered, and after the Rush Club defeat, Krystal Cantu Cuate knew something had to change. Krystal asserts, "By this point, I didn't care about fucking Instagram. I didn't care about Facebook. I didn't care about training. I said, 'Krystal, this is enough!' This was the last straw." She told herself, "Your health is a priority. Your relationship is a priority. This house that you're in is a priority. CrossFit is no longer a priority. Instagram and Facebook are no longer a priority. Enough is enough!" The athlete says, "I really had to sit down with myself and say, 'Krystal, what do you want in life more than anything?' When I thought about that, I thought about Daniel, and I thought about us having a family together." Without the added pressure of being what she thought others wanted her to be, Krystal and Daniel's relationship began to grow stronger. Eventually, they welcomed their son, Joaquin, into the world.
Determined to rebrand herself as a whole person rather than just a CrossFit athlete, Krystal saw her happiness and inner beauty flourish under a renewed focus. In 2019, Krystal started the Unarmed Podcast. Her episodes are uncut and unedited to preserve a genuine view of who she is. She proudly states that she enjoys the frank, open discussions about struggle, hope, and the dark places social media can lead. Krystal is quick to note, "Instagram and Facebook mean nothing. Nothing! They are such great outlets and can bring such good and good opportunities. But, they can bring just as much bad as they will good, if not more bad than good. Guaranteed." In monologues and in interviews with other overcomers, Krystal shares the rediscovered purpose and renewed priorities she has in her life today. She explains, "You never know how your personal story of overcoming can help change someone else's life. Someone who is in the dark and feels like they no longer belong on this earth... just hearing your story can change them for the better, and that's incredible." She believes her story can show others that inner harmony is where real courage originates. Her new perspective and unquestionable strength were also an inspiration to Krystal's father after suffering diabetic complications that required a leg amputation. Using her own experiences, she encouraged him to see past the potentially dark and scary days ahead. Krystal says she wants people to remember, "You need to discuss the struggle. Everything isn't rainbows and butterflies."