These Married Ironman Athletes Just Graduated Together from Navy Boot Camp

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Seaman Silvia Ribeiro and Fireman Rafael Ribeiro Gonclaves
Seaman Silvia Ribeiro and Fireman Rafael Ribeiro Gonclaves, wife and husband, pose for a photo after graduating from Recruit Training Command, Jan. 24, 2020. (U.S. Navy photo/Spencer Fling)

Over the last five years, two professional athletes moved from Brazil to the United States, competed in an Ironman World Championship, married and graduated with honors from Navy boot camp.

Silvia Ribeiro, 40, and Rafael Ribeiro Goncalves, 39, were both born in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, and they met while training for the same team. After years of triathlons and in sports, they said they felt it was time to offer their services to their new home, according to a recent Navy news release.

"I want to give back to the U.S. and what it represents," Ribeiro Goncalves said in the release. "I spent my whole life competing or being part of projects that require really high performance, but it was always for myself."

He added he realized later in life that what "really gets me going is when I'm part of something bigger than myself. Once I realized that, the military was the obvious choice."

One year later, on Jan. 24, the couple graduated with honors from Recruit Training Command. Ribeiro earned the United Service Organization Shipmate Award for "exemplifying the spirit and intent of the word 'shipmate'" while her husband was awarded the Navy Club of the United States Military Excellence Award for his enthusiasm, devotion to duty, military bearing and teamwork.

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The couple moved to the U.S. in 2015 after their friendship blossomed into love as they spent long periods training on the bike, running and swimming.

"It was so hard in the beginning as we literally arrived with two boxes of belongings, our bikes, a couple of suitcases and only $3,000-$4,000," Ribeiro said in the release. "It was rough in the beginning but we went for it and competed professionally in triathlons."

She proposed to Ribeiro Goncalves as he crossed the finish line at the 2015 Ironman World Championship in Kona, Hawaii. Their friends showed up with just a day's notice to their wedding wearing swim parkas and cycling gear.

Several years later, Navy boot camp separated the couple for two months. They were assigned to separate divisions and recruit interaction directives keep them from talking to each other despite their barracks being less than 1,000 yards apart. To stay somewhat in touch, they used a mutual friend to relay updates on how each other was doing.

"The toughest part was to be away from him and not knowing how he was doing," Ribeiro said. "We were training together and doing everything together, so it was very hard not having him by my side doing things together. He is everything for me."

The two have a strong history of athleticism that came in handy with their time at boot camp.

Ribeiro Goncalves was on the Brazilian national swim team for 10 years, winning the Federation Internationale de Natation (FINA) 400-meter individual medley World Cup medals in 1998 and 2000. Ribeiro was a professional volleyball player who later became a professional triathlete.

"The main thing they teach us in boot camp is how to work under stress," Ribeiro said. "I had no problems dealing with this because being professional athletes, we're always under stress and we're always tired. There was no single day where we were both not moaning about how tired we were when we used to train for the triathlons, so that helped us a lot."

The two ran into each other once during their training, before they were supposed to go to a Navy Recruit Training Command board for evaluation for awards.

"They told me my uniform would be inspected too," Ribeiro said after completing a 3-mile pride run with her division, "so when I turned the corner into the hallway, I was busy looking over my uniform and when I looked up -- he was in front of me. I almost had a heart attack."

She said they exchanged looks, and then they both winked at each other.

"We talked with our eyes: 'I'm so proud of you. I love you so much.' It was so hard not to cry," she said.

Their success was not surprising to their friends.

"For them, it's go hard or go home," said Jim Garfield, who was Ribeiro's sports agent. "It's 110 percent for them and they are also so appreciative of the opportunity to be here, to be citizens, and to be together."

They advised future couples going through Navy boot camp to remember it's only temporary, which is "nothing compared to your whole life."

"A strong relationship makes everything better," Ribeiro Goncalves said. "I was looking forward to the day I would see her again."

Ribeiro Goncalves will stay at Great Lakes Naval Station, Illinois attending his "A" School as a damage controlman, and Ribeiro is going to San Antonio, Texas to begin her "A" School training as a Reserve hospital corpsman. Once they're done with their training, they plan to reunite at Ribeiro Goncalves' first duty station once their training is complete.

-- Dorothy Mills-Gregg can be reached at dorothy.mills-gregg@military.com. Follow her on Twitter at @DMillsGregg.

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