Seaman Silvia Ribeiro and Fireman Rafael Ribeiro Gonclaves are no strangers to overcoming obstacles. At 40 and 39 years old respectively, you might think Navy basic training would be challenge enough, but for these two former professional athletes, just crossing the finish line was never going to cut it. Despite not seeing one another throughout the 8 weeks of boot camp, the couple found each other once again before graduation–as they each prepared to enter an awards board for their individual accomplishments. Not only did this power couple make it through boot camp, they realized as they saw one another, they’d both be graduating with honors.
They’d come a long way since immigrating to the United States in 2015 with less than $4,000 to their name, but among people who know them, their success was expected.
“Myself, Linda and other people that know them are not surprised,” their close friend Jim 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.”
Ribeiro and Gonclaves were both born in Rio de Janeiro, though they wouldn’t meet until much later in life. As a young man, Gonclaves earned his way onto the Brazilian national swim team where he competed for a decade, earning Federation Internationale de Natation (FINA) 400-meter individual medley World Cup medals on two separate occasions. He was also a member of the committee that won the bid to bring the summer Olympics to Rio de Janeiro in 2016.
Ribeiro is no slouch either, earning a living first as a professional volleyball player and then later as a professional triathlete. For a time, her athletic career brought her to the United States, but a one-year job contract brought her back to Brazil in 2012, where she began training with her future husband.
“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 Ribeiro’s one-year contract expired, the new couple decided to move to the United States together, in search of more lucrative sponsorships and a new life.
“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.”
As their professional careers began to wind down, Goncalves took a position with the Los Angeles Fire Department as a lifeguard at Zuma Beach. The two loved their new home in America, so as they discussed new challenges they could pursue together, the idea of joining the military came up. However, they both thought that they couldn’t serve because they weren’t U.S. citizens yet. Fortunately, their close friend U.S. Air Force Maj. Linda Mansolillo was there to explain that not only could they serve, but they’d be eligible to apply for naturalization after six months in the military.
“A story like ours just goes to show how representative and inclusive the Navy is of the values that created the United States,” Goncalves said. “I want to give back to the U.S. and what it represents.”
The two enlisted into the Navy and were assigned to separate divisions at basic training. While other recruits were able to write and call home to speak to their loved ones, Ribeiro and Gonclaves could only relay messages to one another through their mutual friend Jim Garfield.
“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.”
It wasn’t until they arrived at the awards board that they realized the two had both managed to earn honors during their time at Recruit Training Command, Great Lakes. Rules prohibit recruits at basic training from talking with one another, even if they’re married, so the two did their best to communicate their love and pride silently as they stood outside 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.”
Graduating from recruit training with honors is no easy task, and even the command was surprised to see that both members of a married couple managed to pull it off.
“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.”
Navy Recruit Training is an arduous 8-week rotation that includes training in physical fitness, seamanship, firearms, firefighting and shipboard damage control, as well as lessons in Navy history and core values. Above all, Navy Recruit Training instills discipline and and the value of teamwork–concepts that are not at all foreign to Ribeiro or Gonclaves.
“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.”
From here, both new sailors will move on to their respective “A” schools. Goncalves will remain at Great Lakes where he’ll train to become a Damage Controlman and Ribeiro will head to San Antonio, Texas for 19 weeks of training to become a reservist Hospital Corpsman. The two won’t reunite again until they reach Goncalves’ first duty station. But for this power couple, a few more months apart will be worth it in the long run.
“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.”
Feature photo by Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Spencer Fling, U.S. Navy