Inside The CrossFit Culture, Part II: The Overhaul

Demonstrating the Tribal Power of CrossFit: The legendary Annie Sakamoto, CrossFit Santa Cruz Central coach and elite Crossfitter. Immediately after finishing the workouts during the Reebok CrossFit Games Sakamoto leaped into cheering for her competitors. Sakamoto won the Spirit of the Games award. Photo: T.J. Murphy

CrossFit’s Tribal Power: Consistency & Intensity Through Community Support

Demonstrating the Tribal Power of CrossFit: The legendary Annie Sakamoto, CrossFit Santa Cruz Central coach and elite Crossfitter. Immediately after finishing the workouts during the Reebok CrossFit Games Sakamoto leaped into cheering for her competitors. Sakamoto won the Spirit of the Games award. Photo: T.J. Murphy

Briana, Sam, Parnell, Raquel, Tiff, Dustin, Miriam, Brian, Dave, Andrew, Rachel, Irene, Bill, Courtney, Sara, Ben, Morgan, Elizabeth, Karla, Jen—these are some of my fellow members at CrossFit Elysium, a typical CrossFit tribe, who I meet with almost daily, and ask anyone who has been Crossfitting awhile and they too could will reel off a similar list of names. When I’m asked about what CrossFit is and why it’s so popular this is part of my answer: There’s a fiercely powerful tribal accountability at work—a friendship and alliance forged through simultaneously competing with each other in workouts and supporting each other through the same workouts.

CrossFit is not easy. Once, after a met-con at CrossFit Elysium—3 rounds for time of 20 kettle-bell swings, 15 burpees and 10 pull-ups—Parnell and I were, as usual, thrilled to have it over. While we half-heartedly did some post-workout stretches we chatted about the puzzling nature of it all—how despite the have-the-defibrillator-ready rigor of the effort, we kept coming back. We also talked about how the nerve-racking specter of an upcoming evening workout could haunt you through the day. I told Parnell how the nerves I experienced on my way to Elysium were not unlike how I felt before the start of a running race. “I know,” he agreed with a weary smile. “On my way here I have butterflies.” As we both departed we said the same thing: “See you tomorrow.”

Photo Gallery: The 2011 Reebok CrossFit Games

I go to CrossFit for the purpose of my ongoing overhaul as a runner, and first and foremost for my overall health, but I can’t deny that the most emotionally-charged reason I keep going back is because I don’t want to let down my teammates. The grip of this accountability, as I discovered 2,500 miles away from the mainland, is ridiculously powerful. I’m convinced it’s the critical lever as to why CrossFit is known for rapidly producing stunning results. The accountability, due to coaches and the community, fosters a level of consistency despite the difficulty of the training.

Briana Drost as an unwitting agent of this accountability: I had only trained with Briana once when I went, as a spectator, to my first local CrossFit competition, called the Left Coast Invitational held at CrossFit Mission Gorge. The competition consisted of three different workouts, spread throughout a sunny Saturday in San Diego. I made it for the final workout. Upon first meeting Briana—her bright smile set off by hair died a deep raspberry red—you might figure her to be a nice hippie gal in the neighborhood that works as a dental assistant and likes to bake apple pie. In fact, after she finishes grad school she plans to become a police officer with on-the-scene-of-the-crime counseling duties for the trauma-stricken. (Writer’s note: She might well like to bake apple pie too, and be quite impressive at it; I don’t know.)

At the Left Coast Invitational Drost’s girlish sparkle had cohered into an unwavering intent. Fact is she looked a little pissed that she wasn’t winning. The WOD I watched her compete in was a furious mix of kettlebell high pulls, burpees, front squats and kettlebell swings with a 12-minute time cap—the first to finish was the winner, so rest between sets and reps was fought against. The competition space was lined with members of Elysium, CrossFit Mission Gorge and CrossFit 858. Standing room only unless you wanted to sit on a stack of bumper weights. Everyone was screaming. Briana was lashing her way through the sonic din with a 35-lb kettlebell, with two of the three CrossFit Elysium coaches, Leon Chang and Paul Estrada, howling encouragement at her. I noticed my mouth and throat were cooked dry. This was not the Reebok CrossFit Games at the Home Depot Center, where the venue was so large a distance existed between the athletes and the specators—this local triangular meet version of CrossFit Competition was like being in a mosh pit watching a punk band go at it. The air was desert dry and Briana was gasping for oxygen, her face cherry red, and I thought, Good God, am I even close to being as tough as she is? Nothing about her facial expression or body language communicated a hint of self-pity or resign.

I would later be astonished to learn that Briana, just a year before, had been, at the age of 24, sedentary and out-of-shape, a victim to the grind of 12-hour nightshifts, 6:30pm to 6:30am, as a police dispatcher chained to a desk. Thirty pounds overweight, a frequent patron of Denny’s and suffering the ill effects of all the above in terms of poor sleep and overall just feeling bad. One year of being in a CrossFit box had rejuvenated Briana, and as she told me in a recent interview, the initial reason she joined CrossFit Elysium was because she had seen friends achieve similar transformations training at CrossFit Invictus in San Diego. “Their results were phenomenal,” Drost recalled. “I asked them, ‘Oh my god. What are you doing?’”

Briana Drost’s journey to the Left Cost Invitational offers a telling explanation of why CrossFit is seeing such rapid growth across the country.

“I was working 40 hours a week as a police dispatcher,” she recounts. “And I was in my first year of graduate school, studying psychology. I wasn’t eating well or exercising. I was tired of feeling tired all the time. And the scale was reading 159 pounds—I’d gained 30. What had I done?” Drost said the fear of the scale reading any higher shocked her into action. “If I had hit 160 I would have had a huge mental breakdown.” Drost joined CrossFit Elysium in August of 2010.

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