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Meet the 78-year-old 'grandfather of CrossFit' who can probably bench press you

by Aliyah Frumin / / Source: TODAY

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Birthdays offer most people a chance to relax and indulge. They have a few drinks with their pals. They blow out a cake full of birthday candles, surrounded by loved ones. They spring for a fancy weekend getaway.

Only a dedicated few torture and challenge themselves with a savagely difficult workout that includes nearly 100 push-ups, 100 pull-ups and 100 squats. Especially if they're nearing 80 years old.

But that’s exactly how Jacinto Bonilla, the so-called “grandfather of CrossFit," rang in his 78th birthday.

Every year since since he turned 69, Bonilla — who is a grandfather (of 12) in the literal sense, too — has added one repetition every July 3 to his signature birthday workout, also known as the “Jacinto Storm.” And it’s gone viral, with CrossFit-ers around the world partaking in the Jacinto Storm to honor the septuagenarian New Yorker.

This year was no exception, with athletes in CrossFit gyms from California to Connecticut, and from Germany to Brazil, participating. The brutal workout starts with 78 double unders on the jump rope, followed by 78 squats, 78 push-ups, 78 pull-ups, 78 wall ball shots, 78 kettlebell swings, 78 deadlifts with a 90-pound weight — and just for fun, ends with another round of 78 double unders.

The Jacinto Storm is a remarkable feat for even dedicated CrossFit enthusiasts — let alone one with nearly eight decades on Earth under his belt.

For this birthday workout, Jacinto gave final words of wisdom to nearly two dozen people (the majority of whom were approximately half of his age) who came to do the workout alongside him at CrossFit Hell’s Kitchen. “Don’t hurt yourself,” the bald-headed senior with a fuzzy white mustache and beard cautioned.

Nearly two dozen people came to do the "Jacinto Storm" workout with Jacinto himself earlier this July at CrossFit Hell's Kitchen in New York City.
Nearly two dozen people came to do the "Jacinto Storm" workout with Jacinto himself earlier this July at CrossFit Hell's Kitchen in New York City.Aliyah Frumin

As he methodically worked his way through all seven exercises, his fellow fitness fanatics cheered him on throughout the entire one-hour workout. While several participants fell back on modified versions of the exercises, Bonilla slowly and steadily did every single repetition in full.

The entire class erupted in applause when he finished his last double under. Out of breath and dripping in sweat, Bonilla told everyone: “If you keep it up, you’ll be fine at 78, too.”

Diana Linares, 43, said she wanted to give up during the workout. “But when I looked to my left and saw Jacinto giving his all, I had to keep on."

Ted Ely, a 32-year-old who has worked out alongside Bonilla for about six years, had similar plaudits for the grandfather of CrossFit. “Whenever he’s here and I’m here, I work out next to him because he drives me to push harder. To be 78 and keeping up with (and) beating a lot of kids who are my age is insane.”

So how long will Bonilla continue to do the Jacinto Storm? “Until I am no more,” said Bonilla, who was born in 1939 — when Franklin D. Roosevelt was president.

Look at those muscles!
Look at those muscles!Laura Spotteck

Fitness has always been important to Bonilla, who took up boxing as a teen growing up in Spanish Harlem in New York City. He also practiced martial arts, ran marathons and was a body builder.

Bonilla first heard about CrossFit in 2006 after reading an article about the high-intensity fitness regime in Men’s Health. At the time, he said there were no CrossFit gyms in the city. But shortly thereafter when he was walking through Central Park he saw some men doing a bodyweight workout comprised of pull-ups, push-ups and squats. “They told me it was CrossFit... I asked if I could join and they said ‘yeah.’” From that point, Bonilla was hooked.

Bonilla’s journey into CrossFit hasn’t always been easy. He was diagnosed with prostate cancer in 2008 and had to take off a few months for treatment. Even now, he becomes choked up while describing his battle with the disease — and how he retired from his job as an X-ray technician, a job he loved, because of it. Though it hasn't slowed him down one bit.

"Today I feel great,” said Bonilla, who also coaches CrossFit at his gym, aptly titled CrossFit 1939, after the year he was born.

Jacinto Bonilla (center) with his son Anthony Bonilla (right) and grandson Tash Bonilla (right).
Jacinto Bonilla (center) with his son Anthony Bonilla (right) and grandson Tash Bonilla (right).Courtesy of Jennifer Ciannella.

He eventually went on to compete in the CrossFit Games, placing 8th in 2011 and 17th in 2012 for his age group. Bonilla isn’t competing at this year’s games, but he hopes to compete again when he’s 80. "I’m giving myself two years to get there,” he said.

That means doing CrossFit five times a week, something Bonilla says he loves because of its high intensity but functional nature.

“Jacinto is an elite athlete. People don’t understand that. He’s 78 years old but he’s an elite athlete,” said Anthony Preischel, owner of CrossFit Hell’s Kitchen, who met Bonilla at a weightlifting seminar in Texas about five years ago. “… His energy is amazing. He is one of the most supportive people in the gym. He trains hard. He pushes other people to train really hard as well.”

Despite the fact that Bonilla is edging toward 80, he says he feels decades younger.

“I just don’t feel like I’m in my 70s. I don’t even feel like I’m in my 60s. I feel like when I was in my 50s,” he said.

But when he’s doing the Jacinto Storm, he looks and acts even younger than that.

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