In sports, box scores don’t always tell the whole story. Take the one from Sept. 18, 2010, a Division III college football game between John Carroll University and University of Mount Union in University Heights, Ohio. You probably missed it. Mount Union won the game 51-7, led by, among others, senior starting running back Scott Panchik, whose line in the box score, while respectable, was trivial to most: 14 carries, 62 yards, one touchdown.
What the stats don’t show, however, is that Panchik played the entire game (the last football game he would ever play) with a torn ligament in his right knee — a cadaver graft, no less, that had been implanted several months earlier and had torn during fall training camp leading up to the John Carroll game — and that this was his third major knee injury in college, which would lead to his third reconstructive surgery in four years. A box score can tell you how many yards and touchdowns a player had in a given game, but it can’t convey one young man’s pain threshold. And no stat sheet can measure Scott Panchik’s heart.
But CrossFit can. Watch him labor through the Camp Pendleton triathlon, bang out a grueling chipper bookended by overhead squats, then beat the field with a 2:41 “Fran” to finish off the 2012 Reebok CrossFit Games, and there it is, for all to see: pain tolerance, heart. In this case, you saw Panchik place fourth at the Games in 2012 with less than four months of dedicated CrossFit training under his belt and not even two years removed from the torn graft.
“I took myself to a place in my head where a lot of athletes don’t want to go,” says Panchik, who followed up his impressive Games debut with another strong fourth-place finish in 2013. “At a certain point, when you get such a high caliber of athletes together, it comes down to who wants it the most, who has more heart and who’s willing to put up with the pain the longest. It just comes down to who’s willing to suffer a little more.”
Panchik’s CrossFit career to this point can be divided into two time periods: before March 2012 and since. He was first introduced to CrossFit by his father Dave in 2009 at CrossFit Pittsburgh (he’s originally from Pennsylvania) before his junior season at Mount Union. It quickly became a Panchik family affair. Scott’s younger brothers, Saxon and Spencer, were rehabbing from life-threatening head injuries sustained while hiking, and the Panchiks would often train together before Scott returned to school. “CrossFit was a great way for our family to bounce back mentally and physically from my brothers’ accident,” Panchik says.
With football, college and eventually work monopolizing his hours, Panchik’s CrossFit training was sporadic. He did it fairly regularly, but he was “winging it” (his words) — doing it mostly on his own and relying on Internet videos for instruction. After graduating, Panchik became a full-time teacher at Mentor High School in Ohio, ran the school’s strength-and-conditioning program, was an assistant coach for its football team and was also head wrestling coach at a nearby middle school. This coincided with the beginning of his competitive CrossFit career, in 2012.
“I had a lot on my plate that year, being a first-year teacher and moving to a new area,” Panchik says. “It was very difficult. I was working out every chance I could. Anytime I could fit it into my schedule, I would sneak into the gym and get a workout in, but it was usually just me and an empty weight room. I didn’t have a coach or a program to follow.
After the Open competition around Easter of that year, Panchik began training at CrossFit Distinction in Beachwood, Ohio, with box owners Regina and Travis Page. Under the guidance of the Pages, Panchik thrived. At the ultra-competitive Central East Regionals, he placed fifth, four spots behind winner Rich Froning, the reigning and eventual three-peat CrossFit Games champion. Panchik continued his rapid improvements, coming out of nowhere just two months later to place higher at the Games than he did at Regionals.
“Scott came to us really strong already and with a great motor,” says Regina Page, who writes Panchik’s programming, while husband Travis coaches and trains alongside him. “We just had to fine-tune a lot of his technique on his Olympic weightlifting and a lot of the gymnastics movements to get more efficiency with that stuff. He already had a great set of lungs and he could move weight, so with that he was able to get better and better in a shorter amount of time than someone else.”
It can be a little intimidating to be an elite CrossFitter training and competing in relative obscurity all year before being thrust onto national television via ESPN for the CrossFit Games. But Scott Panchik is used to it. No college sports team in America does this more often than Mount Union. The Purple Raiders are off the radar completely — no SportsCenter highlights, nothing — until they make their annual appearance on ESPNU in yet another national championship game. Mount Union has played in 16 of the last 20 NCAA Division III title games (four of those while Panchik was in school), winning 11 of them.
“These athletes [at the CrossFit Games] are all athletically gifted,” Panchik says. “I think what separates a lot of them is the mental game. And I feel that I have a very strong mental game. There’s really no secret to it. At the Games, you see a lot of great athletes buckle under the pressure. And I kind of thrive under the pressure. I’ve been in a lot of competitive situations before. I was part of a national championship football team at Mount Union. And growing up, I remember playing in hockey and soccer game shootouts. I remember going in during the fourth quarter when the game’s on the line and you have to drive down the field and score a touchdown. With as many times as I was put in those competitive situations, I think it’s really carried over into the Games. I’ve been able to do my own thing and not really worry about the fans or the people around me.”
Panchik entered 2013 drawing numerous comparisons to Froning, which makes sense considering the two have much in common: size (both at 5 feet 9 inches tall and approaching 200 pounds), age (both turn 26 this year), geography (Central East; Froning lives in Tennessee) and, most intriguing, overall genetic freakishness. Froning is known for having an almost inhuman work capacity, somehow being able to train hard three times a day and still recover adequately. Panchik often trains twice daily now, but before resigning from teaching and coaching earlier this year to focus solely on CrossFit, he was mostly a one-WOD-a-day athlete — making it all the more remarkable that he’s been competitive with Froning from the start.
“People want to know what they have to do to make it to the CrossFit Games,” Panchik says. “But what one person does may not be enough for someone else. At a certain point, it comes down to genetics. There are genetic freaks out there. There are people that were just made to do CrossFit. Add that to someone who’s willing to put in the time and effort and dedicate their lifestyle to it, and you’ve got a top CrossFit Games athlete.”
“So does that make you one of those genetic freaks then?” Panchik is asked.
“I would say so,” he replies. “I think this is what I was made to do.”
Panchik got off to a slow start at the ’13 Games, failing to crack the top 10 in any of the first four events, including a 30th-place finish in the Burden Run event. There was simply too much ground to make up from there, despite a strong finish that moved him up the leader board. He had flown to California planning to win the competition — “I wouldn’t be going if I didn’t think I could win,” he said weeks before the Games — so fourth place overall fell short of his lofty goal.
Does Panchik have the physical and mental capabilities to dig a little deeper, beat the seemingly unbeatable Froning and win the Games? The answer will have to wait until 2014. By then, he’ll have another year of training, skill development and experience behind him. But Panchik is reluctant to single out the three-time “Fittest on Earth” Froning as long as there are 48 other talented athletes in the Games field to contend with, in addition to stiff competition at the Regionals. As he settles into the offseason, the only athlete Scott Panchik is singling out is Scott Panchik.
“I’m looking out for myself,” he says. “That’s really it. I’m still very new to some of the movements. I feel like I haven’t peaked yet, and I’m continuing to improve and get more technically sound. Some of these athletes have reached their peak, and I feel like I’m just getting started.”
Regina Page, co-owner of CrossFit Distinction in Beachwood, Ohio, is the brains behind Scott Panchik’s programming. In July, fewer than two weeks before the CrossFit Games, she discussed their training methods in preparation for the competition, where Panchik went on to finish fourth.
What has been your overall approach to Scott’s training leading up to the Games?
For Scott, just hammering the techniques of gymnastics and Olympic lifting has been key. He already came in very well-rounded, but you can never be too efficient on muscle-ups, handstand push-ups, climbing a rope and things like that. And you can never have too much speed under the bar on your Olympic lifting. So it’s really just a lot of perfecting a high skill set that’s already there. Those are the things we’ve really been focusing on throughout the year, and even before that.
What does a typical training week look like for Scott?
Typically, we do three days on, one day off and two days on so he gets five training days in a week. Sometimes it will be six if there’s an active rest day. And we’re pretty much hitting at least three or four strength workouts in those five days, a WOD every day and gymnastics skill sets every day.
How do you train someone for a competition when you don’t know exactly what the events are going to be, as in the CrossFit Games?
By training and doing everything you can possibly think of — go outside and swim or bike or go for long runs with sandbags or go for trail runs with a weight vest. Those are the types of things he’s been doing just to stay ready. I don’t think there are any holes in his programming because he’s training right now at the peak and because he’s training twice a day. He’s doing everything he needs to do. There’s not a movement that isn’t being covered throughout the five to six days of training per week. There’s no special thing. It’s pretty much doing all the movements in very different sets of programming across the board — like, we’re doing AMRAPs, we’re doing long WODs, we’re doing shorter WODs, we’re doing speed-strengths, things on the minute. He’s not missing or lacking in any area as far as from time domains and movements that he’s doing. And he’s focusing a lot on his mobility so he stays injury-free and can continue to sustain that type of workload. He sees a chiropractor once a week to adjust him. He’s really living the life of a professional athlete. All he’s doing is training and taking care of his body recoverywise afterward.
So he’s training twice a day?
Not every day. We usually train twice daily two to three times a week with a session in the morning and then a session in the evening. But he’s not doing that every day. He might do something at 10 a.m., do some rest and recover, and then come back at 5 or 6 p.m. And for every session, he’s typically in the gym for about three to four hours, but that includes his mobility beforehand and after.
Where is Scott from a maturity standpoint? He’s a pretty young guy [he turns 26 on Nov. 21], but he seems pretty mature.
He’s very mature. He’s not your average 25-year-old. He comes from a great family, a very close, tightknit family. And you can tell that he was raised right. He’s very mentally strong, which makes him capable and gives him an edge over a lot of people his age. He definitely embodies the CrossFit lifestyle. It’s what he does. He eats well, he trains, he goes home. For fun he might watch a movie, eat pizza, maybe go out on a date here and there. But his primary focus has been training to win the Games, training to be the best he can be at CrossFit.
For more from Regina and Travis Page, visit CrossFitDistinction.com.