DACULA, Ga. – A year ago, Cindy Martinez was struggling to walk even just a few feet and lift just five pounds.
A flesh-eating bacteria had ravaged the 35-year-old Marine veteran's body. She had a grim choice: Amputate both legs, an arm below the elbow, and parts of the fingers on her remaining arm — or face almost-certain death.
The amputations saved her life. And after months of hospitalizations and rehabilitation, she finally found herself back home but alone during the day while her young children were in school and her husband was off at work.
"It kind of takes a toll on you mentally, just sitting there after all that I had gone through," she said.
In the stillness of her home, she fired off an email to a local gym and asked about joining. When they called back later that night, "I told the lady on the phone, well, there's a twist to my story."
She soon found herself sitting in a circle surrounded by trainers at Crossfit Goat — with the motto Be Your Greatest of All Time — in Dacula, about 45 miles northeast of Atlanta. She told them her story and began in February to embark on an unusual quest: becoming a Crossfit athlete. Crossfit gyms are known for high-intensity strength and cardio workout, and their members often consider their "box" to be like a family as they bond over workouts-of-the-day that test their strength and resolve.
Her coach, gym owner Amanda Greaver, pledged to work with her and to find whatever way they could for her to do exercises that challenge even people with all of their limbs. She's come away in awe of how Martinez tackles each workout.
"She will not be stopped no matter what," Greaver said. "If something doesn't work, there's no getting frustrated. We adapt and move on to something else. She is always, always positive."
Martinez has worked up to deadlifting 95 pounds — nearly her weight — and squatting 65 pounds.
She needs to use her abdominal muscles to ensure she remains balanced. The fingers on her remaining full arm have varying degrees of amputation, which makes it difficult to grip a barbell or dumbbell. Part of the latissimi dorsi muscles on the left side of her back, the area where the infection first sprouted, were removed.
But she and Greaver constantly find ways to adapt. When she's performing squats with the barbell behind her, she uses a strap to connect the arm that was amputated just below the elbow to the bar. When using dumbbells to do chest presses, she uses a strap to attach the weight to her hand and arm to allow her to lift it without needing a tight grip. When she's performing body rows, she attaches a strap with a hook on the end so she can grab the rings, dip back then pull herself back up.
Martinez is often surprised by the attention she gets and how others see her as inspirational.
"I'm just doing it. I want it — not that other people don't want it," she said. "I don't know how to explain the speed that I've done it with."
The gym and its members have rallied around her. At one point, Greaver created a workout for members so they would have a greater understanding of the challenges Martinez faces and help raise money to pay for a recumbent bike.
During the workout, athletes were allowed to use only one arm. One-armed push-ups, one-armed kettlebell swings, one-armed farmer carries.
"Literally everybody who came in from doing that came straight up to me and said 'Look at my arm. Wow, that was so difficult. You really see how hard her workouts are,'" Greaver recalled.
Martinez worked her way up to walking farther and recently got a new pair of prosthetic legs that will allow her to run. She's getting used to the new legs, which she says feel like she's wearing high heels on a trampoline, but one day they will allow her to run around with her young children or perhaps enter a road race.
For now, she's setting her sights on this month's Marine Corps Marathon in Washington, D.C., which she will race on her recumbent bike.
"The mental aspect, it can be tough. It's not that I don't have a bad day," she said. "But for the most part, I try to stay positive and I think staying active is a good way to, I don't want to say get your mind off of it because it's not like I can get my mind off of it but I've got to work with what I've got. I'm here for my kids, my husband and I want them to see I can still do things with them."