On July 16, 2015, 24-year-old Mohammad Youssef Abdulazeez opened fire at two military centers in Chattanooga, Tennessee, killing four U.S. Marines and one U.S. Navy sailor. Though Abdulazeez’s father had previously been investigated by the FBI and put on the terrorism watch list, he was later removed, and Abdulazeez, a former high school wrestler and promising electrical engineer, had an unblemished record.
The attacks shook the Hixson community, a quiet suburb in a town of less than 200,000 people.
“It’s the kind of place you can go next door and borrow eggs from your neighbor,” said Eric Griffith, a 41-year-old Chattanooga resident. “I can’t go to the grocery store without seeing six people I know.”
Griffith had been kayaking on the Tellico River the day of the attacks, darting across rolling rapids fed by a week’s worth of rain. Pausing in a quiet eddy, he flicked on talk radio to the tune of tragedy.
“It threw me instantly back to 9/11, me being at work and hearing the same radio chatter, not knowing what’s going on,” he said. “I just remember being in shock.”
On the drive home, his phone chirped with the sound of a new text message.
“What are we going to do?” it read.
The message came from a coach at CrossFit Brigade, the 4-year-old affiliate Griffith owns with his wife, Emily Griffith. More than a dozen of its 120 members are veterans or National Guard Reserve members.
A Facebook chat between several other local affiliates revealed a similar sentiment among the Chattanooga CrossFit community. Hours later, a plan was hatched to honor the fallen soldiers with a memorial WOD dubbed #NoogaStrong.
Get Built Chattanooga CrossFit secured the location: First Tennessee Pavilion. CrossFit Mayday designed and sold T-shirts. CrossFit Hixson obtained product donations from Kill Cliff and FitAid. With the help of these and four other affiliates — Full Steam CrossFit, CrossFit Live Loud, CrossFit Kopis and Three Notch CrossFit — the event sold out all four 40-athlete heats.
It all went down on August 22, 2015, the scream of fire engines signaling the start of the first heat beneath the glittering Tennessee sun.
More than 50 spectators arrived to cheer 160 athletes from across the Chattanooga CrossFit community. From beneath a banner of American flags flanked by U.S. Navy and Marine flags, athletes made their way across the pavilion floor through five rounds of a 300-meter run, seven kettlebell ground-to-overheads, 16 walking one-arm overhead kettlebell lunges and 15 American kettlebell swings. The number of rounds signified the five fallen soldiers; the rep scheme is the date they were slain.
“We didn’t bring a clock,” Griffith said. “It was designed as a memorial and shared suffering.”
For Lisa Blevins, a 49-year-old athlete from CrossFit Hixson, the workout was “a simple way to say ‘thank you’ and to lift up the families,” she said.
“CrossFit is a community in which there is a prevailing sense of camaraderie,” Blevins continued. “We don’t leave anyone behind. We suffer together. We conquer together. We build each other up. We know we are stronger together … and when events like the one on July 16 occur, we lean on that strength.”
Between athlete registrations, T-shirt and product sales, and donations, the event raised more than $6,200. The proceeds were donated to the Chattanooga Heroes Fund at the Community Foundation of Greater Chattanooga, created to support the families of the fallen soldiers.
Fundraising, Griffith said, was just one small part of the reason for organizing #NoogaStrong.
“I just wanted to provide a vehicle for athletes to express their sorrow in a way that might honor these soldiers,” he said. “The thing about a workout that’s really hard is that it puts you in the moment. It kind of takes you outside of your head … you really can only think about putting one foot in front of the other and trying to get enough oxygen to keep moving.”
Griffith knows no WOD can compare with the ache of loss. But working together, sweating together — remembering together — through CrossFit, he said, helps his community to endure together.
“It’s sort of like hitting the reboot on your computer … there’s a catharsis in that. And I think the other thing is when you suffer for that little bit of time, it helps us to empathize with those other people that may be suffering and connects us as a community.”
If you’d like to donate to the Chattanooga Heroes Fund at the Community Foundation of Greater Chattanooga, click here.