With CrossFit’s increasing popularity, you’re bound to hear anecdotes about miracle health cures and amazing fitness feats. Some may sound too good to be true, and some admittedly are. But this month, we tracked down and interviewed three CrossFit acolytes: the park ranger who lost more than 100 pounds, the middle-aged writer and attorney reclaiming his athleticism, and the elite CrossFit competitor who couldn’t do a pull-up when she began. These three are among those who can legitimately claim that CrossFit has changed their lives.
The Weight-Loss Ranger
During the summer of 2011, Steve Gifford, a 30-year-old National Park Service ranger, was asked to be in a friend’s wedding. He’d recently seen pictures of himself from his sister’s wedding and didn’t want a repeat of the results staring back at him. At 6 feet 1 inch, 340 pounds, a 4XL shirt and 46-inch pants, Gifford knew he wasn’t very healthy but didn’t know another way of life.
“After you’ve lived this way for so long, it becomes your normal,” says Gifford, a football lineman and heavyweight wrestler in high school. He’d become accustomed to severe joint pain bordering on arthritis, difficulty negotiating steep staircases and sleep problems. “But with those pictures and the wedding, I knew I had to get measured and confront the reality of how big I really was,” he says.
Gifford had four months, so he began searching online for a fitness program. Though intimidated by many of the CrossFit videos he came across, he also found CrossFit.com and the affiliate Capital City CrossFit in Springfield, Ill., where he was living at the time. Two weeks later, he took his first introductory On-Ramp class.
The weight and body composition changes were immediate: Within a month, Gifford had lost more than 30 pounds. He’d also altered his diet after reading Robb Wolf’s The Paleo Solution, and a Paleo challenge at the Capital City box pushed him to lose 50 pounds by New Year’s. “Everything just clicked for me, and I jumped on board 100 percent,” Gifford says.
Still, his athletic performance was slow to improve, and Gifford finished last in every timed workout for four months straight. However, besides the obvious weight loss, he made friends quickly at the gym, where his WOD partners and trainers were unfailingly supportive. “It was more than just the WODs; we were building a community,” he says.
And his competitive nature from years of team and individual sports propelled him forward. “I was so excited that I’d clawed my way to next-to-last place!” he says of the November day he outpaced one other gym member. Moreover, Capital City’s workouts typically included a strength portion, in which Gifford could excel thanks to his size and his powerlifting background. Those positive results would buoy him through the conditioning WODs. After 12 months of CrossFit roughly six times per week, Gifford had lost 130 pounds, at which point he put away his scale, focusing instead on athletic performance and ensuring his new 34-inch pants and regular large shirts fit well. His joint pain disappeared, and the sleep problems were gone. Today, Gifford says CrossFit has changed more than his health and weight. It has also prepared him for the rigors of an uncertain park ranger future, in which contracts are typically just six months long. He’s constantly moving and often doesn’t know what even his basic housing situation will be when he arrives at a new park — it might be a bunk; it also could be a tent. “With CrossFit, you know you can take it on and overcome the challenges put in front of you,” Gifford says. He compares his lifestyle to a long CrossFit WOD, focusing on what’s immediately in front of him, not what might be down the road.
“What’s the next rep?” he asks. “Not the last rep.”
Getting Off the Couch
In October 2007, just a month after JT Kalnay completed his fourth Ironman-distance triathlon, the arthritis in his left hip became so severe that doctors told him it needed to be replaced. After 25 years of endurance sports, from 5Ks and marathons to mountaineering, rock climbing and triathlons, Kalnay’s athletic life as he knew it was over. However, earlier that year Kalnay’s friend, Tim Babcock, had introduced him to CrossFit. The duo had trained occasionally in the “Shed O’ Pain,” what they called the barn, outfitted with a bouldering wall, climbing rope, Olympic weights, kettlebells and boxes, behind Babcock’s house in New London, Ohio. After his hip replacement, when Kalnay’s doctors told him it couldn’t take the abuse of 26 miles or another triathlon, the now-51-year-old author and attorney found he could still execute many CrossFit movements. Kalnay was a convert. “I went from a lifetime of endurance sports to the intensity of CrossFit,” Kalnay says. “It changed my life because it got me back off the couch.”
For the past three years, Kalnay and his small cadre of Shed attendees have tracked their WODs on CrossFit’s message boards under “The Shed O’ Pain” heading, racking up more than 1,900 posts. He says the public nature holds him accountable and opens the group up to pointers, criticism and praise for their WODs. “You’re getting the benefit of the entire CrossFit community,” he says, which is more inclusive, supportive and egalitarian than other athletic groups he’s experienced. In fact, thanks to his extensive work-travel schedule, he has trained with CrossFit legends like Annie Sakamoto and Jason Khalipa and at some 50 other boxes across the country.
More important, CrossFit allowed him to return to rock climbing, and on a recent trip to Joshua Tree, Calif., he was shocked as he completed the most difficult route in his 27 years of climbing.
In addition to doing the WODs at the Shed, Kalnay recently joined CTown CrossFit in the Flats area of Cleveland. In the last year, he has noticed dramatic changes in his performance. “When you have consistent professional coaching, you get benefits you cannot get when you’re self-coached,” Kalnay says. And after competing in the CrossFit Games Open and a Masters event outside Columbus, Ohio, he was bitten by the competition bug, setting new and lofty goals for himself.
For this year’s Open, Kalnay’s goal is simply not to finish last, but by the time he turns 55, Kalnay wants to win the Open in his age group (55-59). “It’s ludicrous, and I know it’s a long way to go,” he says. “But when others [in the CrossFit community] see you’re willing to sweat and bleed for something, they’ll embrace that goal with you.
The Elite Level
Christy Phillips, 27, is a four-time CrossFit Games veteran, a tally that includes sixth-place finishes in 2009 and 2010. We spoke with the Washington, D.C.-based athlete and nurse about what CrossFit means to her.
How were you introduced to CrossFit, and what got you hooked?
I didn’t know what I was going to do after graduation from George Washington University, so I applied to Gold’s Gym during my senior year. I had to convince Melody Feldman [the hiring manager and now owner of CrossFit MPH in D.C., where Phillips trains] to hire me. That’s when I really got into strength and conditioning.
I had my teammates in high school and college and always got a lot out of the camaraderie. Melody programmed these workouts, and we’d do them with our clients, but she wasn’t calling it CrossFit. We’d want to beat her and she’d want to beat me, so it was also competitive from the start.
Then in June 2007, Melody said, “This is CrossFit,” and she showed me the Nasty Girls video (community.crossfit.com/video/nasty-girls). It blew all my preconceptions about what you could do out the window. Whatever they were doing, I couldn’t do that. But I realized then that’s what I wanted to be able to do.
And is it really true you also couldn’t do a pull-up when you started?
I started CrossFit in shape but not strong. One of our huge goals was to get more than one pull-up, yes.
You were pretty emotional when you were cut before the final event of the 2011 CrossFit Games. How did it feel to bounce back in 2012, finishing 11th overall?
After the 2011 Games, I didn’t really even know what to make of it. It was just a blur of disappointment. The 2012 Games really sparked me again. It was a real confidence booster, and making it to the last workout was really exciting. That finish gave me the freedom and confidence to look back at the Games and figure out where I can get better for 2013, and I realized I need to go to the Games gunning for first place. It was hard to have that mindset and train to win coming off 21st place in 2011.
What does your training schedule look like these days?
I train five days a week, and I’ve changed around my rest days to be able to fit in some more volume. During the week, I find that I don’t have the energy for more than two hours of training, so I decided to work out on Saturday and Sunday. I’m able to get multiple lifts in, as well as conditioning.
Anything you’re particularly focused on after the 2012 Games?
Last fall, the focus was on strength and the Olympic lifts, and it stayed that way until January 2013, when I shifted to more conditioning mixed in with the lifts. I have the cardio-respiratory capacity, but I need to be able to move heavy weight faster and do more unbroken reps.
In what ways has CrossFit changed your life?
It’s really hard to separate the two: CrossFit is my life. It helped me prioritize what is important to me and helped me let go of some things that were not healthy. It gives me an outlet to channel my negative feelings and yell and cry at a barbell. And I learn again and again in a very physical and objective way that you get out what you put into something. CrossFit has also helped me balance my life. I can be successful at CrossFit while being a good nurse, a good friend, good sister and daughter.