Faith in Fitness

Dan Bailey has chased the podium at the crossFit games for more than four years. But what began as just a competition for a title has grown into a calling.
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Dave Castro announced, seconds before the men took the floor for the last time at the 2014 Reebok CrossFit Games. “You will do 60 reps for time.” Dan Bailey smothered a grin. The first time he performed Grace (30 clean-and-jerks for time), he finished in 1:34. For Bailey, Double Grace was a welcome finish to a gnarly weekend. “I was pumped,” he told CrossFit Media after he won his heat to take third in the event. He caught the 135-pound barbell with shallow power cleans, driving without pause into snappy push jerks. He repped them out into metronomic singles, finishing in 5:09, the fastest time yet. 

In the final heat, Jason Khalipa beat Bailey’s time by 1.2 seconds. Rich Froning won the event in 5:05.6. “He’s tough to catch,” Bailey says now of the four-time CrossFit Games champion. Which is not to say that Bailey hasn’t been trying. In fact, he has been chasing the four-time Fittest Man on Earth since 2011, when Bailey took sixth at the Games. Since then, Bailey has bested Froning in nine Games events, but the podium has remained stubbornly just beyond reach, with Bailey scoring sixth-, eighth- and 10th-place finishes in 2012, 2013 and 2014. Froning’s retirement from individual competition following the 2014 Games means Bailey will never have the chance to share the podium with the champ. “But I never let that discourage me too much,” Bailey says.

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Before Bailey met the barbell, he ran. Fast. A star high school track athlete, he went on to lead his Ohio University Bobcats team as a sprinter, running the 400-meter dash in 48.19 in 2005. After graduating in 2008, he accepted positions as a middle school PE teacher and an assistant track coach at Fresno Pacific University in California. But one year later, the funding for both positions was cut, sending Bailey back home to Akron, Ohio. He moved in with his parents and went back to school for a master’s degree in physics. It was a strictly rational decision. “Those jobs don’t go away as easily,” Bailey explains.

Still, he struggled with questions about what to do with his life. A man of faith, he longed to know what God had called him to do. It was then that he discovered CrossFit. In February 2010, training in the Akron University recreation center, a workout buddy told Bailey about CrossFit. Bailey’s first workout was “Fran”; the second, Grace. He acquitted himself well in both, impressing his friend. “Will was pretty shocked at how well I did,” Bailey recounts.

Days later, he joined CrossFit Legacy in Barberton, Ohio. “I was hooked,” Bailey says. “In CrossFit, there’s always something you can be doing every day to make yourself better.” A mere month after that, affiliate owner Brian Yoak urged Bailey to sign up for Sectionals, which is what the Open was called before it was the Open.

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“I signed up on the last day with like an hour left because I wasn’t sure if I wanted to do it or not,” Bailey says. He won. “After that, I kind of thought, ‘OK, maybe I could actually go to the Games.’”

In his debut Regional appearance that year, Bailey began the third day in first place. But he was a sprinter, and the final event was a chipper. His fifth-place finish knocked him from the podium — and almost knocked him off the CrossFit course entirely.

“I can remember lying in bed one night and thinking, ‘What am I doing?’” Bailey recalls. “I’m living with my parents — I don’t have any business putting this much emphasis on competing anymore. I should be trying to get a job elsewhere. But I’m a Christian guy, and while I was lying in bed, I felt like God was saying, ‘You gotta keep doing this and just take it to wherever it goes.’” One year later, in 2011, Bailey won the Open and Central East Regional. He met Froning on the bus on the way to the beach event at the 2011 Reebok CrossFit Games. “He said, ‘How many beaches and oceans do you have in Ohio?’” Bailey recalls. “And I said, ‘About as many as you have in Tennessee!’” Though Froning struggled with the swim and the sand run, Bailey admired him from the start. “He’s the best our sport has ever seen,” he says. “Though at that time we didn’t know that, you could just tell by the way he moved and how fluid he was at everything that he was just a step above everybody else.” After the Games, Froning connected Bailey with the head strength-and-conditioning coach at Tennessee Technological University in Cookeville, Tennessee, where Bailey accepted a position as an assistant strength coach and a full ride to finish his master’s. He moved in with Froning and his wife, Hilary, and the two men spent their nights training in the garage and their weekends sprinting in the woods.

“We would just train and train until someone got sick or hurt, and usually, it was me,” Bailey says, laughing. “You could see what it took for him to win. It took a lot, and it was impressive and frustrating at the same time because I wanted what he had.”

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The pair lived and trained together until after the 2013 Reebok CrossFit Games, when Bailey accepted a position as a strength-and-conditioning coach for the Department of Defense, moving to San Diego to train members of the Navy SEALs. “They’re a very special group to me,” Bailey says. “It’s rewarding to work with any part of the military because you get to serve people who are serving you with the potential to give the ultimate sacrifice.”

For a while, life was good. Bailey coached, trained and bought a boat to live on: a 1972 Uniflite Aft Cabin. But after just a few months, history repeated itself. Military budget cutbacks put Bailey out of a job again. For the second time, he laid in bed, questioning his life, this time as he floated in a marina off the coast in Chula Vista. “I was devastated,” he says. “It came out of nowhere and hit me right in the stomach … it made me wonder if I was any good at what I’m doing because I kept losing all these opportunities.” Again, he felt an inexplicable tug toward competition. “OK, if this is what you want me to do, this is what I’m going to do,” Bailey prayed to God. “It’s in your hands. I’ve just got to keep rolling with it.”

So he got back to work, training at CrossFit Costa Mesa, CrossFit Invictus and at fellow Games athlete Josh Bridges’ home gym. Training with Bridges, Bailey says, helped him improve his pacing. “Josh may not move all that fast, but there are no big breaks,” he says. “He’s smooth and steady through the whole thing.”

Bailey writes his own programming and follows CrossFit Weightlifting. He plans no more than a couple of days in advance, knowing only that he needs to run three times per week and swim twice. He chooses his skill work each day based on what he feels he needs to work on most. For the past year, he has focused on making reps cleaner and more efficient to eliminate “junk reps” rather than just focusing on speed.

Though the 31-year-old athlete admits to “training to win,” the Games are about more than proving he’s the fittest. For Bailey, competition is a platform to inspire. “There are people who say I’m a motivation for them to be competing or for them to work out,” he says. “It’s a humbling thing to hear.”

Which is why it doesn’t come as a surprise to hear Bailey maintain that his biggest achievement is not his Games resume. “In 2012, I heard about the CrossFit for Hope program building schools in Kenya,” he says. The program provides funds to build schools and water cisterns in impoverished Kenyan communities. “I thought it would be awesome to be involved in something like that.’” So he started donating money from his paychecks and CrossFit Games prizes — and now cherishes photos of the young schoolchildren whose education CrossFit has helped him support. He also appreciates the daily flood of emails and Facebook messages from CrossFitters who say he has inspired them to compete or to take charge of their own fitness.

In short, Bailey doesn’t suffer much from sleepless nights anymore. “For a while there, I kinda didn’t know where God wanted me, and I wasn’t sure what I should be doing and what I should be working toward in life,” he says. “I thought, ‘Competing in CrossFit is just fitness, who are you really helping?’ Well, in the Bible, God used a bunch of fishermen to change the world. CrossFit has given me the opportunity to inspire people, and it blows my mind. It’s what I consider my biggest accomplishment, period.”