Like many top CrossFit Games athletes, Nicholas Paladino, Angelo DiCicco and Vincent Ramirez begin their days with a workout—the first of several daily training sessions that total six to eight hours of work.
But unlike podium finishers a few years their senior—Paladino and DiCicco won the 16-17 and 14-15 Teenage Boys Divisions of the 2015 Reebok CrossFit Games; Ramirez took third in the 14-15 Division—these fitness fiends punctuate their days not with coaching or administrative work, but with English and economics.
More than 7,550 teenagers competed in the 2016 Reebok CrossFit Games Open alone, and as CrossFit athletes get younger and fitter—at 16, DiCicco matches CrossFit Games veteran Chris Spealler’s snatch PR of 235 lb.—some of CrossFit’s top teens are forgoing traditional high school education in favor of more flexible options like homeschooling and online classes.
“I’ve never really looked back,” said 17-year-old Paladino, who graduated in February from Penn Foster Online High School after completing two years’ worth of coursework in just six months. “This has turned out really well for me; I’m pretty happy with my decision.”
Paladino found CrossFit online in 2014, partway through his freshman year at Bergen Catholic High School in Oradell, New Jersey. A promising running back and linebacker with dreams of pro ball, he joined CrossFit Steam in March 2014 to add an edge to his game. It took only a few months for him to realize he loved training more than the game, and a few weeks before his sophomore year, he quit the team to focus on CrossFit.
“It was cool to see that I can do what I love, which is train, and actually be competitive at it,” he said.
He consumed all the CrossFit videos he could find online, especially those offering glimpses into the life of multi-year Games champion Rich Froning. Paladino was struck by Froning’s training volume, doing more work in a day than some do in a week.
“I thought, ‘I want to do that,’ because that would take my training in CrossFit to the next level,” Paladino recounted. But even without the rigorous football practice schedule he had been previously tied to, with school occupying him from 8 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. and homework to boot, there weren’t enough hours in the day. He broached the subject of online school with his parents.
“I knew that if I wanted to be at (Froning’s) level … being in the gym for that long would benefit me,” he said. “I just decided that if there was a way to make more time to train and still get my schoolwork done, I would definitely like to do that.”
His parents weren’t on board at first.
“I wasn’t ready yet,” Patty Paladino, Nicholas’ mother, said. “I really wanted to see where (Nicholas’ CrossFit career) was going to go.”
She told him to win the CrossFit Games and then they’d talk.
“So he won the CrossFit Games,” Patty said, laughing.
One gold medal later, Nicholas was enrolled in Penn Foster Online High School. But it wasn’t without some serious thought on Patty’s part. Before sealing the deal, she spent weeks speaking with the teachers and administration at Bergen Catholic, as well as Nicholas’ coaches at CrossFit Steam.
“I wanted everybody’s input, because I knew I was gonna be taking Nick away from being a teenager, taking him out of school,” she said. “And they all explained to me that child athletes, a good majority of them, school from home, because of the intense workouts they do and the time they spend in the gym.”
As she reflected on Nicholas’ already packed schedule, leaving for school by 7 a.m. each morning, spending the evening on homework and training well into the night, she knew it would only get more challenging for her son.
“His coaches also told me that (at) next year’s CrossFit Games, the kids are going to be better,” she said. “These kids know they have to come close to Nick to win. So the kids have been working out more intense, which means Nick’s been working out more intense, and then after this year he goes into the adult Games, which will only get more intense for him.”
“Just this year alone it seems more competitive than last year,” Nicholas said.
Encouraged by the feedback from Nicholas’ coaches and teachers, Patty agreed they would give online school a shot, provided he kept his grades up. When he earned his diploma in February with a 3.9 GPA just a month before winning the Teenage Boys 16-17 Division in the 2016 Open, she knew she’d made the right choice.
“I am beyond proud of Nick; I want to cry when I think about it,” she said.
With the freedom to move through the curriculum at his own pace, Paladino doubled his workload, his eyes on a Games-prep season free of homework. He studied for two hours each morning before going to the gym, hitting the books again at lunch. Another study or test-taking session around 7 p.m. brought his total “school day” to around four hours, with plenty of time for training and recovery throughout.
The extra volume, he said, is what helped him increase his snatch, back squat and deadlift from 245, 365 and 515 lb. last July to 265, 405 and 535 lb. today, in addition to shearing 2 minutes off his Amanda time from 5:32 at the Games to just over 3-and-a-half minutes. Less crunched training sessions have also allowed him to devote more time to accessory movements like sandbag, GHD and odd-object work, and he appreciates having more time for shut-eye. “Just about an hour more (of) sleep has made a huge difference in how I feel,” he said.
Though Nicholas is planning to enroll in college eventually—possibly continuing the online program through Penn Foster—right now, his focus is “100 percent on the Games in July,” he said. One day, he hopes to own his own affiliate. Whatever he does, he has the support of his family.
“He proved to me over the last couple of years what CrossFit means to him, (and) I guess I have to trust him,” Patty said. “He just has a love and a passion for CrossFit … and he has worked harder in my eyes than anyone to get where he is. I’m just in awe of him and so proud of him, and I trust him.”
Training Smarter, Not Harder
For Vincent Ramirez, 15, the decision to abandon the brick-and-mortar schoolhouse was less about volume and more about recovery time. After one year at Oskaloosa High School in Iowa, he began homeschooling in the fall after taking home the bronze at his first CrossFit Games appearance last July.
“I feel better now because I can break (training) up into two sessions instead of having to do all the WODs in one session,” he said. “I can give my body a rest between each workout.”
Ramirez fell in love with competition after taking fifth place in a local throwdown in 2014. After following up the performance with a second-place Open finish in 2015, he upped his training from one or two hours each day to around four to prepare for his Carson debut. He did all of the work—multiple strength sessions and metcons—in one jam-packed session after school each day. The work paid off with a podium finish and a newfound passion.
“I found out this is what I truly love to do and want to do for the rest of my life,” he said.
Still, he doubted he could keep up the routine without consequences.
“My body was just too tired to keep on doing that amount of workouts in that short of time,” he said. “(The fatigue) was mostly mental, too, because your mind tells you you’re tired (and) then your body follows your mind.”
Remembering conversations with older teenage athletes at the Games, some of whom had become homeschooled to make more time for training, he appealed to his parents.
His father, Rey Ramirez, was set against it, mostly for fear that Vincent would be unable to play traditional sports if he withdrew from school. Raquel Ramirez, Vincent’s mother, however, was an easy sell.
“I was all for it,” she said. After marrying young and and forgoing many of her own ambitions to have children, she encourages Vincent, his brother and his sister to follow their dreams.
“I always told my kids if you know at a young age what you want to do, all you have to do is tell me, and you can go ahead and try it,” she said. “And he knows. I can see it already. He wants to be a trainer and compete in the CrossFit Games, and I don’t think you need a degree for that.”
The family met in the middle with dual enrollment: While mostly homeschooled by the parents of Will Kminek, Vincent’s friend and training partner, he would remain partially enrolled at Oskaloosa High School, granting him the right to take additional courses like foreign languages at the high school and to play for the football team, which he plans to do next year.
The benefit to schooling from home, Vincent said, is no time wasted on lunch periods or class transition time.
“In school if you get (your work) done, you still have to wait in class,” he said. “So now if I get my English done I can move straight on to history or science or math.”
Ramirez and Kminek typically study two subjects in the morning at Kminek’s home before heading to CrossFit OFC for their first training session. After lunch, they return home for another set of classes and cap off the day with an evening workout.
After eight months of homeschooling, Ramirez is happy with his choice. He sees his school friends at sporting events and on the weekends, and having more time to rest between sessions, he said, has helped him make both physical and mental gains. Since the Games, he’s increased his clean and jerk from 270 to 300 lb. and his snatch from 205 to 235 lb.
“I have more confidence,” he said. “Now since I let my body rest, I can get more energy and I feel more confident.”
Training For the Future
Like Ramirez, 16-year-old Cookeville, Tennessee, native DiCicco opted to homeschool after the Games last year in order to “train smarter instead of cramming stuff all in one time period,” he said.
He used to perform several metcons back-to-back in the hour or two after school and before homework.
“I was just destroying myself more than I needed to,” he said. “I would always have the volume high but the intensity not as high as it could be. And having intensity high makes more gains.”
DiCicco played baseball and lacrosse, and ran in cross-country until he discovered CrossFit at the end of seventh grade. Seeing Rich Froning on the cover of one his mother’s fitness magazines had sparked his interest, and having Froning and Dan Bailey stop by his middle school to lead the kids through a workout cemented it. That day he asked Froning if he could take a class at CrossFit Mayhem. One year later, as a high-school freshman DiCicco won his first local throwdown and fell in love with the thrill of competition.
“Just the feeling of being in front of a crowd felt good,” he said. “I liked having people cheering me on; I liked pushing myself and seeing how far I could go.”
It was during his debut Games performance that he learned of an alternative to single, crammed training sessions. Between events, Nairobi Romero—who would take seventh in the Teenage Girls 16-17 Division that year—told DiCicco how much more flexible her schedule became after she chose to homeschool.
But it wasn’t just about having more time to train. Now looking back after more than eight months of homeschooling, the arrangement “has also gotten me away from all of the high school kids who are very small-minded and judgmental,” DiCicco said.
For years before he found CrossFit, DiCicco was mocked in school for his vitiligo, a condition in which the skin loses its pigment, dotting the body with bright white patches.
“It was really difficult (for Angelo) to deal with that,” said Cheryl DiCicco, Angelo’s mother. “And when he found CrossFit, he really started to flourish. It made him happy to have that environment that CrossFit offers of acceptance.”
But just as his fellow students stopped mocking Angelo for his skin, they found something new to judge him for: his love for CrossFit.
“I wasn’t the outcast, but I wasn’t the cool kid, and lots of kids in my school are extremely hypocritical about CrossFit,” he said. “They say it’s not a real sport, that I’m wasting my time.”
Cheryl knew little of the bullying until during some downtime at the Games last summer, Angelo’s girlfriend showed her a YouTube video some students—some of whom were top athletes for the high school football team—had made, mocking Angelo’s love for training.
“Why would that type of bullying be allowed in this day and age?” Cheryl said. “It’s still completely slipped under the rug and it’s appalling.”
After he won the Games (14-15 Division), DiCicco got more followers on Instagram but didn’t get more true friends.
“Once I won the Games I picked up a few friendships that I don’t think were very genuine,” Angelo said. “I (was) the kid who goes to our high school who has a lot of followers on Instagram. That’s why they wanted to be my friend.”
And so though Cheryl and her husband, John DiCicco, were initially concerned that homeschooling might make it more difficult for Angelo to get into college, they agreed that giving him a more positive school environment would be better in the long run.
“I finally looked at my husband and it just kind of became crystal clear,” Cheryl said. “I said, ‘You know what? People go to college online all day, every day; we’re not holding him back.’ CrossFit is a wonderful, positive environment, and when you’re surrounded by that and it finally makes you feel good, why (would) you want to sit in a classroom where you’re made fun of all day?”
Today, Angelo splits his time between training and studying, often traveling across the country to compete and visit his girlfriend, who lives in Iowa. His homeschool teacher, a professor at the local community college, also trains at CrossFit Mayhem, and since making the switch, Angelo’s grades have gone up. The difference is almost palpable, Cheryl said.
“He’s so much more happy,” she said. “It’s like a weight was lifted off of his shoulders. The whole homeschooling thing isn’t about secluding yourself. I believe truly it’s more about picking and choosing your surroundings.”
“I love how I’m only surrounded with the people who will positively influence me in every way,” Angelo said.
Cheryl stressed that homeschooling isn’t about avoiding dealing with uncomfortable situations or responsibility.
“I don’t think it’s teaching our youth to run away from their problems,” she said. “Quite the contrary. I think it’s teaching them how to handle a problem in a constructive manner. If you are having problems at work … you try to deal with them in the best way you can, and if it doesn’t work out, what do you do? You look to better yourself and better your career path by finding a better job, a better fit.”
She said homeschooling also gives Angelo the freedom to make his own schedule, finishing school while competing and building relationships with sponsors, developing career-building skills that Cheryl doubts he would have had the chance to hone in traditional high school.
“At the high school level, homeschooling is more about the teen taking on responsibility,” she said. “It’s training him to look ahead.”
Last fall, Angelo arranged meetings with a number of sponsors, many of which he has gone on to share fruitful relationships with.
“How many kids do you know in a regular, formal school setting that think outside the box like that?” Cheryl said. “I think (homeschooling) helps these kids, especially kids that might be challenged in some way, to think outside the box and show them that there are more solutions.”
“I think I have learned the same amount … as I would have in (traditional) school along with all of the real-world knowledge I have from being with people who are much further in life than I am,” Angelo said. “I can definitely stay focused on the right path to do well in both CrossFit and school not dealing with the stress of having people who are out to hurt you mentally and emotionally. CrossFit is all about (having) great values and being a wholesome person all around, and my new friends through CrossFit always teach me that.”