Silvia Ribeiro anxiously waited at the finish line of the 2015 Ironman World Championship in Kona, Hawaii. Her hand grasped a ring. Her thoughts held a marriage proposal.
“Você quer se casar comigo?’ she asked in her native Portuguese, moments after Rafael Ribeiro Goncalves completed the race.
With post-race fatigue briefly giving way to the realization of spending a lifetime with the woman he loved, Ribeiro Goncalves replied yes, between a few exhausted breaths. Their wedding ceremony was presided over by a judge, who also was a runner. Wedding guests, some of whom had just a day’s notice of the hastily arranged ceremony, showed up wearing swim parkas and cycling gear during a break in their tight training schedules.
The Brazilian couple, who moved to the United States in 2015 and resided in Los Angeles, have seldom done things in a conventional way and never have they done them halfway. That, in part, explains their decision to enlist in the U.S. Navy.
Ribeiro Goncalves and Ribeiro were among 1,073 graduates participating in the Jan. 24, 2020 Pass-In-Review graduation ceremony at Recruit Training Command. Graduating was never going to be enough for these two motivated, high-achieving, former professional athletes who were recognized as honor graduates.
As the top graduate in his training group, Ribeiro Goncalves, 39, was awarded the Navy Club of the United States Military Excellence Award (MEA). The MEA is awarded to the recruit that best exemplifies the qualities of enthusiasm, devotion to duty, military bearing and teamwork. Ribeiro, 40, earned the United Service Organization Shipmate Award for best exemplifying the spirit and intent of the word ‘shipmate.’
“Seaman Recruit Ribeiro had given her E-2 collar device to another recruit that advanced, but did not have one,” said Operations Specialist 2nd Class Jenise Collier, one of Ribeiro’s Recruit Division Commanders. “I had brought her out to the middle of the compartment and presented her with new collar devices. She continuously exemplifies the highest standard of honor courage and commitment. She is well on her way to being a superb Sailor in the fleet.”
Joining the Navy is the latest example of how the couple took an idea and, as they had with so much of their civilian lives, ran with it
“I spent my whole life competing or being part of projects that require really high performance, but it was always for myself,” Ribeiro Goncalves said. “I figured late in life 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.”
When the couple began entertaining the idea of enlisting in the military, they believed they did not qualify, as they were not U.S. citizens. However, a close friend, U.S. Air Force Maj. Linda Mansolillo, informed them that they could indeed join and apply for naturalization after six months of service.
“A story like ours just goes to show how representative and inclusive the Navy is of the values that created the United States,” Ribeiro Goncalves said. “I want to give back to the U.S. and what it represents.”
Both husband and wife were born in Rio de Janeiro, but they didn’t meet until much later in life.
He became a member of the Brazilian national swim team for 10 years, earning Federation Internationale de Natation (FINA) 400-meter individual medley World Cup medals in 1998 and 2000. FINA is the sport’s international governing body recognized by the International Olympic Committee. He also was a member of the bid committee that brought the Summer Olympics to Rio de Janeiro in 2016.
She became a professional volleyball player, and later a professional triathlete who moved to the United States in 2010. Two years later, she was offered a job opportunity for a one-year contract back in Brazil.
“I started training with the same team Rafael was a part of and we became super good friends as we were both dating others at the time,” said Ribeiro. “We both eventually became single and because we spent long periods training on the bike, and running and swimming, we started getting closer.”
As their budding friendship soon blossomed into a loving relationship, Ribeiro’s contract was about to expire. Seeking better training and sponsorship opportunities in the United States, they agreed to leave Brazil and moved to Boulder, Colorado.
“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,” she said. “It was rough in the beginning but we went for it and competed professionally in triathlons.”
In 2017, they moved to Los Angeles and Ribeiro Goncalves became employed as an ocean lifeguard for the Los Angeles Fire Department. He was assigned to Zuma Beach, where lifeguards rescue swimmers at an average rate of one every 10 minutes, according to a story published in the Los Angeles Times.
With their athletic careers nearly finished, they sought fresh challenges and a way to honor their new homeland. Their journey to becoming Navy Seaman Recruits began exactly one year before they stood before friends, family, and several thousand guests as honor graduates.
At a birthday party for their close friend Jim Garfield, who was Ribeiro’s sports agent, Maj. Mansolillo first talked to them about joining the military.
“Those two, particularly, are really great examples of the kind of citizens we want,” said Garfield, who attended their boot camp graduation ceremony. “We want people who are engaged, who recognize the blessing of being an American, who are proactively American — not by birth — but by actual action in what they do, what they believe, and how they act and conduct themselves. That, to me, says a lot. We should all be so lucky to have folks like that protecting us.”
Assigned to separate divisions, the couple did not see each other for nearly two months though their recruit barracks are located less than 1,000 yards apart. Unlike other recruits who can update loved ones with letters and phone calls home, they could not write to or call each other, which would have violated recruit interaction directives.
“The toughest part was to be away from him and not knowing how he was doing,” Ribeiro said. “We’re married and we love to be together all the time. 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.”
Fortunately, they found a way to indirectly communicate through Garfield. During their infrequent phone calls home, each would update their friend, who in turn, would pass on the information to the recruit’s spouse.
Though the couple arrived to boot camp about a week apart, they wound up having the same graduation date. For those close to the couple, the news about their success in boot camp was expected.
“Myself, Linda and other people that know them are not surprised,” Garfield said. “For them, it’s go hard or go home. 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 are a good example of people who have created their own hope, and they are definitely people who are appreciative of the blessing of the place where they are at.”
The couple’s vast experience as professional athletes seemed to give them a leg up in boot camp as they applied it to their training.
“The main thing they teach us in boot camp is how to work under stress,” Ribeiro said. “Even when you’re tired, you’re still under stress. 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.”
Ribeiro unexpectedly spotted her husband for the first time in a hallway as they both prepared to go before the award board. Having just completed a 3-mile pride run with her division, she was instructed by her RDCs to quickly shower, dress and head to the board.
“They told me my uniform would be inspected too, 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!” Ribeiro said. “I looked at him, he looked at me, I was thinking what should I say, what should I do? So, I kind of winked to him and he winked back. We talked with our eyes, ‘I’m so proud of you. I love you so much.’ It was so hard not to cry.”
The following day their RDCs arranged a brief meeting at Captain’s Cup.
“We first found out at the awards board; we didn’t even know his wife was here,” said Aviation Machinist’s Mate Cody Kasian, one of Ribeiro Goncalves’ Recruit Division Commanders. “The fact that she is an award winner as well is truly amazing. They were able to interact at Captain’s Cup, as Sailors, and that was a good thing to see.”
Ribeiro Goncalves, who was assigned the rate of Damage Controlman, will remain at Great Lakes Naval Station for approximately 10 weeks to attend his “A” School. His wife will be in San Antonio, Texas to begin approximately 19 weeks of “A” School training as a reservist Hospital Corpsman. They plan to reunite at Ribeiro Goncalves’ first duty station once their training is complete.
What advice do they have for future couples headed to Navy boot camp?
“A strong relationship makes everything better,” Ribeiro Goncalves said. “I was looking forward to the day I would see her again. I had full confidence that she would be doing well and I’m sure she felt the same. We know each other’s potential.”
“Trust in each other, because it’s hard,” Ribeiro said. “It’s really hard not knowing what’s going on outside of your barracks. Respect each other and realize it’s only temporary; it’s only eight weeks and that’s nothing compared to your whole life.”
Boot camp is approximately eight weeks and all enlistees into the U.S. Navy begin their careers at the command. Training includes physical fitness, seamanship, firearms, firefighting and shipboard damage control along with lessons in Navy heritage and core values, teamwork and discipline. More than 35,000 recruits are trained annually at RTC and begin their Navy careers.