The Beast

Fernando Rivera 2010 Steelhead 70.3 Half IronMan MichiganPerhaps you’ve seen Fernando running through the North Shore. Or maybe you’ve driven by him as he was cycling up Sheridan Road. You may have seen him swimming at the lake or even run into him at a triathlon.

A quick glance at Fernando, whether he’s mid-activity or not, and you know he’s fit.

What his charming smile doesn’t tell you, though, is that he is a beast.

 

Growing up in Mexico, Fernando was a troubled kid whose outlet was fighting. “Friday, Saturday, Sunday… there always had to be a fight.” By the time he was 14, his mother could see his behavior would lead him to no place good, perhaps even to jail. So she intervened. Someone suggested boxing.

The way Fernando describes it, “It was like dumping a fish into water.” He remembers thinking, “Instead of getting in trouble for fighting, I can get a prize for it?” It was exactly the outlet he needed. He was a champion in his city by the age of 18. His city government sponsored him. They paid for his training, school and expenses.

After a stint in the army and watching his friends working in unfulfilling jobs for which they were overqualified, Fernando knew he had to leave Mexico. So he came to the U.S. In Chicago, he found his way into construction work. Working six days a week and many, many hours, he stopped working out. But his job required using his body and heavy lifting – until an unfortunate accident befell him.

In 2000, a compressed spine left him paralyzed from the chest down. Instead of being able to move freely and use his body as he could before, Fernando found himself confined to a small space.

After nine months, he finally found a doctor who was able to perform surgery to get Fernando back on his feet again. But it was his wife who got him off of his butt.

Fernando Rivera 2008 Chicago MarathonNine months of immobility left Fernando feeling depressed. His former middleweight self was all bones and down to 120 pounds. He did physical therapy and even started boxing classes at Evanston Athletic Club (where he would soon take over as instructor). But a close friend could see that Fernando needed something more. So she registered him for a marathon.

Fernando was dumbfounded. He wasn’t a runner. A marathon seemed like an impossible distance. But he was registered for the marathon with a charity training group. He raised funds for AIDS research and built up miles along the way. He also met like-minded people. In Fernando’s words, “I met a lot of crazy people like me in that year of training.”

After the marathon, his friend told him it was time he try a triathlon. His response? “But I can’t swim.” So Fernando went to Coach Craig Strong. At their first session, Coach Craig told him to swim to the other end of the pool. When he finally made that 25 yard swim, Coach Craig asked him, “Are you sure about this triathlon? I don’t think you’re ready.” Fernando decided to prove to Coach Craig that he could do it.

 

Fernando Rivera 2010 Steelhead 70.3 on bikeHe did his first sprint triathlon locally. And then he signed up for a 70.3 and a full IronMan. He was addicted. All the while he was training for long course triathlons, Fernando continued to cross train, doing body weight exercises and boxing.

Then one day, in his second year of triathlon, accident befell Fernando again. While out on a training ride for another upcoming 70.3, he was hit by a bus. Fernando had surgery for a broken clavicle. He asked the doctor if it was okay if he continued his training even while his clavicle was healing. His doctor told him he needed to make sure he wasn’t in pain.

So, a week after surgery, Fernando decided to test his legs with a little run. He didn’t have pain, so running was fine. Next, Fernando decided to do a little swim test down at the lake. He had no pain after a one-mile swim. So he could add swimming back to his routine. Then Fernando decided to test himself back on the bike, just a little 20-mile ride. How bad could that be?

While out his first post-surgery ride, Fernando met up with a driver who was texting at the wheel. Only weeks after surgery for a broken clavicle, Fernando found himself back at the same hospital.  Now his other shoulder was dislocated and he had three broken three fingers and a broken elbow.

Fernando Rivera 2013 Escape from AlcatrazWhile his triathlon training was set back – he was unable to do the 70.3 that summer – Fernando still managed a few running races that summer, including Evanston’s Race Against Hate and the Chicago Rock and Roll Half Marathon. Oh, and a 5k swim he did with Craig.

While his time may have suffered due to the nine months of training he lost, Fernando’s spirits were high at his next IronMan event. With only three months of serious training, he was still able to finish his 2.4 mile swim, 112 mile ride and 26.2 mile run with a smile on his face. He wasn’t in pain and he enjoyed every minute of that day.

Fernando attributes his body’s ability to come back to such a demanding sport so quickly to his well-rounded approach to training. (Sound familiar? Tommy Danielson credits his quick comeback after his horrific crash in the Tour to the core training he did with his trainer.)

Fernando believes in whole body strength, making sure that his core muscles are as strong as his legs or his shoulders. He recommends total body conditioning, like his boxing classes, for all athletes, including triathletes. In fact, he believes this total body conditioning approach is a “missed link” with many coaches and their athletes.

Fernando Rivera 2011 IMTX IronMan TexasTriathletes, cyclists, runners and swimmers all work in one plane of motion; they all work to go forward. But real life is in all directions. Our bodies work in all directions.

Fernando uses an analogy of a tent. It’s our connective tissue (muscles, tendons and ligaments) and bones that keep that tent up. They all need to be strong to provide that tensile strength for the tent to be stable.

“If muscles are strong, you have a strong tent. If even one part is weaker than the rest, the entire tent will suffer. It’s why athletes and triathletes have a lot of injuries. What do strong legs & strong arms mean without a strong core? What’s a strong foundation if the middle of the tent is week? The tent is eventually going to collapse if any part is weak. So many swimmers have shoulder problems. So many runners develop problems in their hip, knees, ankles and hamstrings. So many cyclists have problems with their low back. With a weak core, the problem is going to show itself somewhere.”

Fernando also points to nutrition. “A lot of triathletes complain they can’t lose weight but their coaches keep talking to them about supplements. Supplements are a lot of calories.” Instead of focusing on consuming more calories, Fernando suggests adding cross-training.

“Coaches concentrate on how much they want you to last. Train your body with cross-training to make it last. Integrate weights, boxing or boot camp into your training. Your cardio is going to spike in a different way. You’ll find you’re able to run longer. Your body will respond completely differently.”

Fernando Rivera training George Kontos at UIC Flames Golden GlobesFernando’s classes integrate boxing, cross-fit, boot camp, even some Pilates and yoga. “We go 100 miles an hour. I’ll make you sweat the last drop of sweat you absolutely have.” It’s for this reason, Fernando says, “They call me an animal; they call me, ‘the Beast.’”

It’s also the reason that his students have seen results. “I’ve seen people lose 20-30 pounds in nine months. They went from having problems walking from their car to doing 5k runs.” One of his students lost half of her body weight.

He works with a wide range of people – from Golden Glove boxers and other athletes to kids. And he’s seen amazing changes. He’s worked with a 60-year old woman whose posture improved as she lost 30 pounds. He’s worked with troubled kids whose concentration in school improved through the discipline of boxing. He’s worked with an athlete who, “after three weeks of religious core training,” PR-ed in a half marathon.

Fernando Rivera 2012 Carrera de los Muertos 5k Day of the Dead ChicagoBut some people are afraid. Fernando cites some people’s fear, namely in adults, to the fear of trying new things and also a fear of looking silly. People are worried that they’re too uncoordinated to learn. They’re concerned about adding training time into their already tight schedule. And they’re afraid of the connotations of the word, “boxing.”

“Boxing is something that’s missing nowadays. I believe it’s mostly due to ignorance… A lot of people think violence; it’s a lot more style… Boxing is an art…  People hear ‘boxing’ and think classic boxing. What we’re doing is boxing for conditioning, not for fighting. It’s about fitness. It’s exercise.”

The benefits? “In 15 minutes, you’ll feel better about yourself. You use negative energy for positive. It’s cheaper than seeing a shrink.” Even better, “the benefit goes into anything you do.”

Fernando Rivera Higher Gear 2013 Specialized Shiv

 

Fernando describes his classes as “cross training for core.” They involve “discipline and total conditioning.” “I recommend them for all athletes… I can bring good things to people who do endurance work.”

Some people will “hate it at the beginning, but they love it at end.” And “seeing people happy & fit” is what makes it worthwhile for Fernando. “If I can get one smile a day, it’s a wonderful day.”

“It’s like dancing. I show you the steps and then you do your own thing.” Fernando will be showing the steps out of his own studio, BOX, which is scheduled to open in Evanston in April.

 

 

 

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