Written by: Cathy Axibal-Cordero
Photographs by: Allan Axibal-Cordero
Tucked into a corner of Da Vinci Innovation Academy’s campus in Hawthorne, California, is a CrossFit box overflowing with gumption and expertise. It’s outfitted with all the necessities. In front is an expansive blacktop covered in pastel chalk markings that tracked squats and bench presses from the past week. In case you were able to forget you were on a high school campus, you’re quickly reminded by the basketballs and soccer balls filled with concrete at the entrance − they’ve been refashioned into kettlebells. Besides those homemade tools the school provided, the space is outfitted with standard weights and ropes. The box may be scarce on flashy equipment, but it’s big on heart and experience.
At the helm is Zebedee Pascual, or Zeb − as his friends call him. A guy that calls his crammed bookshelves, “nerd tower one and nerd tower two.” He embodies those nerd towers. At first all you see are the intimidating hardback books on success and stacks of worn National Geographic magazines; once you get closer you realize there are posed “Lord of the Rings” figurines all over the book piles. Zeb is just a big ‘ol nerd at heart. As no surprise to anyone who’s met him, he named his box CrossFit Nerd.
Nerd shares their space with an outreach affiliate called CrossFit Zen. Zen is a non-profit box that partnered with the school to train their students who would not otherwise have access. Garrett Oliver, the cofounder of Zen, is one of Zeb’s three partners. The Nerds use the box for training (before school or in the evenings), but when school gets out at 3:00pm, Zeb and Garrett prop open the shed’s windows with speakers and beckon the students over like the pied piper. “All of these kids are pure quality. They have a high level of maturity and grace and I’m very impressed by them. They call me Coach Zeb,” says Zeb. The students become athletes from 3:00pm to 5:00pm and often stay late to pick Coach Zeb’s brain for lessons on lifestyle − like eating Paleo. “I recognize Paleo both historically in CrossFit and for all of its health benefits. It’s a great primer and foundation for my lifestyle. There’s no way I’d be able to hit my professional standards without eating right and living optimally, and that’s through Paleo,” says Zeb.
Before he dreamed of having his own box, or even being a CrossFit trainer, Zeb’s only dream was to be a Navy SEAL. Back in high school, he was as determined as he is now and funneled all of that youthful energy into training. He sought out a Navy recruiter for career advice and joined an after-school program called the US Navy Sea Cadet Corps. The rigorous training in the Corps prepped him physically and mentally for a career of heroism, brotherhood, and honor. He was on his way. His next step to be a SEAL was basic testing. But almost as quickly as he put the “NAVY” nametag on his chest at the processing station, he was kicked out. His urine test found proteinuria, which is indicative of health problems down the line. A positive result prevents individuals from testing again for another two years. When those two years were up, he tested again with the same conclusion; this time he was told he could never test again. Crushed, he wrote his senator and congressman for another shot − and got it. Unfortunately, proteinuria was still found. With three failed tests over three years he was officially disqualified. “After I was disqualified I was disillusioned and upset. I was grief-stricken and didn’t want to do anything. I was truly lost,” says Zeb.
He attempted to make peace with his broken dream by pursuing a career in construction. “I did odd-object lifting and I loved it,” says Zeb. But in the midst of his new career path he got another blow. A dog bite swelled up his face to a size so alarming that he went to an urgent care facility. Though initially sent home, his mom, a registered nurse, read over his paperwork to find his vitals distressing and told him to go back immediately. That’s how he found out one of his kidneys was failing. It had been hinted at years earlier by the proteinuria, but never clearly identified until after the dog bite.
His mom sprung to action contacting all of his friends and family and found his silver lining in the form of a friend – Sonia Reiter. She was his only match for a kidney. “Our deal was that she would save my life and I would live in a way that honored that. I had to live a life that I loved. Whenever I have to make a big decision, I always ask if it would honor or dishonor Sonia,” says Zeb. (They celebrate every April 21, the day of their surgery, and he even walked her down the aisle when she got married.)
Kidney failure made Zeb reevaluate his life and what he was doing. The same guy that loved the physicality of moving concrete and wood slabs all day in the sun was now sentenced to his idea of work purgatory: a desk job. “I like physical jobs. But after [having kidney failure] all of my bosses didn’t want me working in the manual labor part of it,” says Zeb. So he finally chose a safe bet – nursing. “To my family … nursing is everything. So that was the only direction I had left and I literally didn’t know what else I could do,” says Zeb. He thought a nursing career might lead to stability, and hopefully he might even learn to love it.
Instead, Zeb found his passion in CrossFit. He had been studying it since his construction days but couldn’t afford to join a box at the time. He read reports and trained himself based on the extensive CrossFit information he found online. The more he read, the more he agreed with the fitness mentality and lifestyle. Then, in the middle of his grueling workload at nursing school he was finally able to join a box. On the day he passed the board exams, he quit nursing. “It was simple. With CrossFit, life felt right. With nursing, life felt wrong,” says Zeb.
Five and a half years after being introduced to CrossFit, he’s finally living his new dream. Zeb’s living by the beach and filling his days with training, working on the business and “nerding out” – which is his term for researching new fitness studies. He’s found his element after a journey peppered with hiccups and is eager to pay it forward through CrossFit Nerd and CrossFit Zen. “For those of you who aren’t living your dream job yet,” says Zeb, “I have a feeling that you love something. And you’re in a country that will give you the opportunity to find that thing and make it work economically. Not only do you [have to] pursue it, you have to pursue it with this almost obsessed kind of vehement drive, and you have to make it excellent. You have to make it work.” A living example of having done just that, Zeb makes any dream feel that much more within reach.
To learn more about CrossFit Zen and how you can contribute visit www.crossfitzen.org