I suppose I could segment my life into three basic categories when it comes to fitness. There is the first third, which went from around age 14 to age 25, the age where there is the possibility of becoming something great in the athletic arena. I believed that with the right mix of opportunity and training, anything was possible, and those possibilities culminated in traveling north and south to play in competitive basketball tournaments in two countries.
The second part of my life is most notable because it was bereft of athleticism. When work, marriage, children, and law school all come together at once, some things have to take a back seat. The grind of a high pressure job, high pressure academia, little sleep, and a horrible diet can and will do things to a man. By the time school was done, my overall health had deteriorated significantly.
The third chapter of life is one of recovery and refocus. Three years ago, my personal hero and friend Cam Sinclair welcomed me into his CrossFit Nassau gym in Princeton, NJ. He offered no promises, only that he’d check me out and see if there was anything we could do together to improve my mobility, range of motion, and general quality of life. Slowly but surely, my fitness and athleticism returned, never to the point where it was during my competitive days, but to the point where I was becoming confident again in my strength and overall appearance.
It is through this path that I have traveled in my broken body and busted up wheelchair to the doorsteps of WheelWOD and the opportunity to qualify for the first ever WheelWOD championship, held at Wasaga Beach as part of the UG Beach WOD series. I competed in their version of the Open and in their qualifier, and somehow, some way, providentially I made the final cut. I earned the right to appear in the first everWheelWOD championship.
The competition ran from July 8-10th in Canada, and this is my accounting for a historic event that is going to help transform wheelchair athletics and competition. To break it all down, I will resort to one of my favorite sayings, which gives me a writing framework:
Great minds discuss ideas; average minds discuss events; small minds discuss people. – Eleanor Roosevelt
We endeavor to be the masters of all three together – the events, the people, and lastly, the ideas that underpin everything.
I. The People
Each of these athletes shined in their own ways, all of them memorable, all of them meaningful to this historic event.
Angel – He earned 3rd place overall for the men. What stands out most to me is how Angel balances so well the desire to be competitive with his passion for others to be competitive with him. For Angel, to go hard is pure joy, and to have others go hard with him is the pinnacle.
Arika – Fierce competitors can come in small packages, and what Arika showed throughout the weekend was a steadfast approach to remaining consistently competitive in all events. If you asked me to say which event was her weakness, I could not have answered. This consistency put her on the stand, finishing 3rd overall.
Bryan – What I’ll remember most about the soft-spoken winner of the men’s event is twofold – he had no weaknesses and also understood his strengths perfectly. He also brought half the state of Tennessee with him to cheer him on. What an amazing crew to be around, because they didn’t just cheer him, but they cheered all of us.
Cindy – Simply the best complete athlete out of all of us (men or women), and the least surprising beginning-to-end leader of the competition. She is also one of the best wheelchair basketball players in the world, and that always gets extra points from me.
Diego – Language can be a barrier, but that barrier is overcome through competition and hard work. He traveled the farthest out of all of us (Brazil) and his consistency across all events was laudable. On top of that, his sweet fiancee saved me during the out-of-nowhere thunderstorm during the first night of competition. I had no ride available, so they crammed me into their sedan and brought me to safety.
Jed – What impressed me most about Jed is how he was able to round out his weaknesses during competition, even as the competition was going on. Box climbs? Sand crawl? Swimming? What was a weakness for him Friday morning turned into a strength by Saturday night. On top of that, it was a privilege to meet his wife Danielle and see the strength that resides in their marriage.
Joe – When he started loading the plates onto his bench press, I just about died. And then I realized he was just warming up. The fluidity he has in his olympic movements is something that I will always endeavor to emulate.
Mia – She is the pull-up queen. I also had the privilege of video recording a number of her workouts, so I got to see up close how she combines a great motor with stunning strength to go along with keen insights toward life.
Tera – Tera stands out to me because she was the first friendly face I encountered, and if I had to wager, I think she could tell I was nervous when I arrived. It speaks so well of her as a competitor and a person to continuously offer me encouragement throughout the weekend, especially when it was needed most during the first day.
Vanessa – Vanessa is the counterpart to Angel, always smiling, always encouraging everyone, but also seeking to win every event we held, and she finished 2nd overall in the female division. During our final group dinner together, she addressed us all as a family, a powerful sentiment and I hope we have a ‘family reunion’ soon.
Stouty – Chris “Stouty” Stoutenberg is the man responsible for everything. The owner of CrossFit Indestri and founder of WheelWOD, he is a heavily decorated international athlete who decided that winning a plethora of medals and accolades wasn’t enough. He needed to change the world. And that’s what we began to do in Wasaga Beach.
II. The Events
I can’t discuss day 1 of the competition without first providing the context of my adventures to the great north. I hail from Virginia, USA, approximately 540 miles and a 10 hour car ride away. My family and I decided to rent a big vehicle and drive up, and we were a packed SUV. So packed, in fact, that after I picked up the massive SUV from the rental agency I realized that there would be no way for me to bring my sport wheelchair (and in fact we barely had enough room for my regular chair).
Heading into the competition, I knew that not having my sport chair would be a challenge, but not too great, because I figured I could borrow someone’s sport chair for the necessary events. What I didn’t fully account for was what the trip would do to me physically and mentally. I drove the whole way (by choice), finishing up the final 3.5 hours on Friday morning, arriving but a few hours before the competition began. I felt OK upon arrival, but as soon as we started moving around, fatigue and hunger hit me hard. I tried to force some protein into my system, but it wasn’t working. My energy level went through the floor, and I discovered later that I was running a fever. In an event where you have to be ready both physically and mentally, I was coming into the event from a bad place.
Workout 1: 1-rep max bench press
If ever there was a strength workout that I might not embarrass myself in to kick things off, it would be this one. My Olympic-style lifting is crap, but I know at the very least I can lie on my back and push a weight skyward one time every minute or so. I knew that I wouldn’t be able to contend with the big boys in the group who would be chasing the 300lb barrier, but I knew that on a good day I could hit at least 200lbs, so I set my personal goal at 205lbs. The only challenge was the bench itself. Which turned out to be a bigger challenge than I hoped.
At my home gym, I simply stacked up mats until they were high enough to get a full range of motion from chest to full lock-out position all while giving me maximum surface area and stability for my back and hips. This option was not available; we only had standard benches and weight racks. The problem I have with the bench press is that when I lie down on a narrow bench, my hip flexors, psoas, and lower back begin screaming in agony due to the over-extension that the bench requires in order to balance. I tried putting boxes under my feet, but to no avail. It was going to hurt.
My only option was to lay down and ask one of the volunteers to essentially hold my hips and legs in place while I did the work. In theory it should have worked, but oh my did it hurt when the pressure was placed on my legs. Unfortunately, the additional pain and the general lack of balance did me in. I knew I was in trouble when I started to strain at a weight that the other guys had warmed up on. My 205 PR goal quickly became a distant memory, and I finished at a very, very disappointing 30lbs under my goal at 175lbs (a weight I can usually get at least 5 reps at). To add insult to actual injury (because at this point my lower back and hips were searing in pain), my failure to get to my normal 80% of max weight put me in last place.
Workout 2: 8 minute AMRAP
- 5 floor-to-box transfers (20″)
- 15 strict pull-ups
- 25′ sled drag
This workout originally started out outdoors with a hill sprint instead of a sled drag. Under normal circumstances I would have been great with that, but as I mentioned above, I had no sport chair. I asked Angel if I could borrow his sport chair for the heat, and Angel happily obliged, so I thought I was set. And then the weather got nasty.
Out of nowhere, a massive thunder and lightning storm hit the beach, wiping out many of the vendor booths and scattering the athletes everywhere. With the rain, wind, and sand blowing everywhere, we could barely see. I had sent my family back to the hotel 30 minutes prior because they were all worn out, but it left me vulnerable to the elements and only through the kindness of Diego and his fiancee Suzi was I able to join the reconvened WheelWOD crew at CrossFit Indestri. Once safe and dry, they resumed the WOD with a slight tweak – instead of the hill sprint, it would be a sled drag. No worries! I thought. I do sled drags all the time.
Stouty offered me one of his sport chairs, and I was good to go, or so I thought. The only slight difference would be that Stouty is a lot taller and heavier than me, ergo his chair was configured much differently than mine, and also that the sled drag would be harnessed on my shoulders instead of the chair axle as I had been accustomed. But since the weight wasn’t particularly heavy (a modest 25lbs), I thought little of it. Here we go!
I flew through the first two movements in the AMRAP with little trouble, and then hopped into Stouty’s chair for the first time. I lashed on the harness, fired the chair forward, and was immediately hit with something I wasn’t expecting. I wasn’t moving. No matter how hard I pushed the wheels forward, the drag that the sled was causing, combined with its high angle of incidence relative to the floor, was causing all the weight to shift to the back axle, and I could not overcome the drag. My wheels were literally spinning in place.
For a moment, everything stopped. I looked around, watching a flurry of motion around me. Guys were flying up and down the floor with their weights, but I was stuck in neutral. Why wasn’t I moving? My eyes scanned the room for some help, when finally one of the judges said that I had to shift my weight forward and bring the harness lower, and only then would I be able to move it forward.
Slowly but surely, the strategy worked, but it wasn’t easy. Since I don’t have any abdominal control at all, trying to drive my torso forward against weight that was pulling it backward was almost too much to bear. I could only manage 6-12 inches at a time, pure agony in a race against the clock. By the time I got back to the right to resume the other two motions, my energy was completely depleted, my psyche damaged. My second go-round went marginally better, but without momentum and confidence, my final score, last again, marked the disappointing end to a disappointing day.
Workout 3: The Triathlon (for time)
- 500m ski erg
- 15 cal arms-only assault bike
- 500m row
As mentioned above, I had completely burned my body out, couldn’t eat, and was a running a fever. It took an evening of forcing down food and a long, restless night of sleep, but the fever finally broke and I got some measure of recovery. And a good thing too, because the ‘triathlon’ was up next.
How does 7-8 minutes of misery sound to you?
There was absolutely nothing enjoyable about this WOD. It started with 2.5 minutes of grueling imbalance on the ski erg, 2 minutes of a short punching-style of motion on the assault bike (imagine throwing 100 body blows against a heavy bag without a break), and concluded with 3.5 minutes on the one thing I thought I knew how to do well, the rowing machine. In the end, I finished the WOD at 8 minutes flat. I wasn’t fast, I knew that going in, but to my and my coaches’ credit, I wasn’t slow, either. WOD 3 marked my first experience where I didn’t finish dead last, and I hang onto that like a badge of honor.
It was during the break between WODs that I knew I had to get help. My lower back wasn’t recovering, and with all the torquing motion that WOD 3 required, it was causing all sorts of muscle spasms throughout my body. I retreated to the physical therapy tent and, on the PT’s diagnosis sheet, circled everything. When we finally targeted the lower back, I wanted to pass out. To which she replied in her lovely Canadian accent:
It hurts, eh?
Double Grace (for time)
Let’s get this out of the way early – I’ve only just begun my journey in Olympic-style lifting, which is not only difficult for most athletes to excel in, but doubly so for someone without any hip drive or abdominal control. Because of this, my WODs have always been built around doing only 5-8 of these clean-type movements at a time. I had never really attempted Grace, so why not kick things off with a double Grace?
As I headed into the pit, the visual I was met with was my fellow competitors practicing their clean + press reps, bouncing them touch-and-go style like they were playing on a drum line. Nice psych-out, fellas!
Again, my goal was to not finish last, and to do that, I wanted to maintain a pace of 5 reps followed by 15 seconds of rest. When the race began, for the first time I had to go to my dark place (tm – Dashing Brad Bunde) because my competitors were flying through it seemingly without pausing to rest. I had to leave that behind and stay within my own abilities. One third of the way in I was staying strong, but by the time I hit rep 30, or in normal parlance half-way, my form was breaking down. I had to recover my form, because if I lost it, I would lose the race as well.
I slowed my pace slightly, but continued to go through my fundamental progressions, from the finger tips, to the hands, to the wrists, to the shoulders, through the pull, and then overhead. As long as the form stayed true, I stayed on pace. I could hear one athlete was chasing me down, and I had to stay in front to achieve my goal. With 10 reps to go, I could barely see as sweat stung my eyes. With the finish line within reach, I muscled the final 10 clumsily but effectively until #60 was called by my judge. I had edged out my competitor barely by 15 seconds. My judge fist-bumped me and offered his approval.
It sucks, eh?
Workout 5: SURPRISE!
- 30m sand sled drag (50lbs)
- 60m swim
- 30 meter sand sled drag (50lbs)
- 5 muscle-ups
- 15 minute time cap
This was the mystery workout that Stouty had planned for us, and the goal was to get us out of our chairs and into the water. To be sure I’m not exactly Michael Phelps (or even Michael Phelps’ towel guy) but I’m comfortable in the water. I have a basic swim stroke. I can do this. Right up until that muscle-up. To that I said to Stouty, “So basically I’m going to work hard for 5-7 minutes so that I’ll have 8 minutes to try and get 1 muscle-up.”
In no particular order, my thoughts leading up to the start of this WOD were:
- Don’t throw up
- Don’t lose your swim trunks
- Don’t drown
- Lord, just give me 1 muscle-up in front of everyone
In the words of Mike Tyson, “Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the mouth.” For me, the punch in the mouth was the sand. This wasn’t ordinary soft and plentiful ocean beach front sand; this was sand packed down hard on the shores of Lake Huron. As I dragged myself backward, slowly pulling the sled, it felt like gravel was raking across the back of my legs, now mostly unprotected because of my swimsuit. Every drag caused my lower body’s muscles to involuntarily stiffen. When I finally reached the water, dying for some relief and buoyancy, I was hit with a reminder that the water temperature in Canada is not the same as it is down south. The frigid water bit into me face first, and I stared up at my judge, a silent howl on my lips. My judge could only offer:
It’s cold, eh?
To make matters worse, the water was too shallow to swim. I tried to submerge myself under the breaking waves and swim forward, but at best all I could do was half-crawl all the way out and back. The place where I thought I could gain some ground in fact slowed me.
I somehow made it back to the beginning of the beach where the rings were waiting for me. I was in the middle of the pack at that point, and I knew that I had a muscle-up in me, but for my body, it is always a day-to-day thing. If everything behaves, the movement is there. But if my hips, legs, knees, and feet don’t cooperate, I can spend 30 minutes on it and not get a single one. With a lead on a few other athletes, could I knock out 5 of them before the 15 minute time cap?
I positioned myself as best I could, tried to relax and remembered my great gymnastics Coach Tracey’s words for movement – stay tight, stay loose. Tight and loose. Tight and loose. And pull.
It wasn’t happening. My legs were stiff from the pain of being scraped across the sand and the icy water. My shoulders were burnt from the drag. And most importantly, everyone had caught up and now had surpassed me. The emotion of the moment was overtaking me. I was soon in the position that every athlete dreads; I was the last one on the course. And that’s when the question starts to seep into your mind like black ink in crystal clear water:
Why am I doing this? I’m not going to make it. I’ve failed. I’m going to quit.
III. The Ideas
It would be so cool if I could write next, “And then I found something deep within myself that enabled me to surge ahead like LeBron James crossed with a great white shark holding a rocket launcher driving to the rim,” but I can’t. That isn’t me, and that isn’t reality for a lot of people. However, that is also what distinguishes the CF community from other competitions, because it is at this moment when the announcers, the judges, and the hundreds of athletes watching you fail repeatedly understand that it is their time to join in. Your moment has become their moment. Your failure, their failure. And your success, their success.
But let us take a step back for a moment. To my question of hopelessness, actually. Why am I doing this? I knew for a fact that amongst all the competitors that would be there, I was going to be near the bottom. It wasn’t even a question; the numbers during the Open and Qualifier didn’t lie. Why did do it to begin with, knowing that in the end I’d be finishing last? Why put myself through the grueling workouts when I had virtually no shot at all?
To answer this question, I just think about baseball. And competitive balance. Let me allow veteran broadcaster Bob Costas to explain.
You don’t have a game without two major league teams. The New York Yankees make $58 million a year in local broadcasting revenues, but the money comes because they’re playing games against other major league teams. Yankee intrasquad games are not broadcast, and wouldn’t be watched in such numbers if they were.
What the heck does that even mean, and how does it have anything to do with CrossFit, and WheelWOD in particular?
Costas’ point is that unless you have competitors, you don’t have a game. If you don’t have a game, you don’t have interest. If you don’t have interest, you don’t have people showing up and spending their money to find out who wins. Without the money coming in, over the long haul, you may end up not having anything at all. Exhibitions and demonstrations are great, and clips of wheelie athletes dot the Internet and social media to positive effect. But unless there is something at stake, people aren’t going to watch, at least for very long. However, when you have a competition where the top 3 spots of Double Grace are all separated by a mere 20 seconds? Or you’re watching an underdog try to chase down one of the best female athletes in the world? Yes, people are going to pay attention. In this cynical, over-scripted, media-saturated existence we live in, we long for and crave the opportunity to not know what is actually going to happen next. That’s what makes competition so great. The only way that happens is if winning actually means something.
This may sound a little weird, but I believe it to be true – the highest complement one athlete can give to another is to try and beat them thoroughly and completely. That only a best effort is enough, and something less than best cedes victory to another. But in order for that to happen, both guys have to show up. Both have to be willing to compete, to put themselves in a place where failure is possible. And if it so happens, as it did with our muscle-ups, that the winners got through them and I couldn’t, maybe it says something about me as an athlete, but maybe it also says something about them too, about how good they are, about how hard they worked to put themselves in a position to win.
A few days after I returned from Canada, I came across this clip of Annie Thorisdotter, winner of the 2011 and 2012 CrossFit Games. This was her first successful muscle-up in the Games. Her fight through the movement reminded me an awful lot of my many failed attempts; there is nothing graceful or powerful in the struggle; it is simply a continued fight to get your body to comply with what your brain wants more than anything – to get itself over the rings.
I think this is why the WheelWOD competition is so important, and similarly, why it was so important for me to make the trip despite my low probability of winning anything. The groundwork has to be laid down. Winning has to mean something. It has to involve two or more athletes paying the highest tribute to the other by working as hard as they can to beat each other. I couldn’t win, but my presence there and the effort I put in could help lift other people up.
You must do the things you think you cannot do. – Eleanor Roosevelt
I finished last at the 2016 WheelWOD championship. I can’t wait to compete again.
Here is where I make a fatal attempt to try and thank everyone who helped get me to this point, because as I argued above, it is important for me to be there, and it is important for more athletes after me to be at events in the future. Cam Sinclair, you took a chance on me and trained me first, because as you put it, “well, I have some free time on my hands.” Justin Doran, you continued Cam’s work and brought me into the fold. Conan Bruce, when we arrived ‘gym homeless’ in VA you made us a part of your own and helped make my family and me feel whole again, and for that I can never thank you enough. Doug Naquin, Brad Bunde, Tracey Kloes, and so many other coaches in Ashburn, you each dedicated yourselves to helping me figure out how to adapt better. To Janice McLean, who has offered me a place to train at CrossFit Loudoun. Finally, to Seth Wolfe, who took it upon himself to train me specifically for this, my biggest competition, I couldn’t have represented myself well without you. And to everyone who helped fund our trip, offered support and encouragement, and simply walked with us during this journey, my deepest thanks to you as well.
And of course to my Beloved, who wanted me to be in these games more than anything.
It’s good, eh?