Inside The CrossFit Culture, Part II: The Overhaul

Coach Paul Estrada and Briana Drost at CrossFit Elysium. Photo: T.J. Murphy

What It’s Like To Join A CrossFit Gym–A Strangely Old-School Experience In A Corporate Age

Coach Paul Estrada and Briana Drost at CrossFit Elysium. Photo: T.J. Murphy

Paul Estrada co-owns CrossFit Elysium with Dr. Leon Chang and together with Stacie Beal the three make up the floor coaching staff. Alessandra Wall, PhD, the Elysium nutrition coach, is married to Chang. It’s an eclectic mix of coaches. Early in the summer they moved Elysium to San Diego’s North Park neighborhood, where I live, and I decided to join—although I had experienced CrossFit workouts and coaching sporadically in months prior, I had never been a member of a CrossFit affiliate like Elysium. As far back as I can remember any time I’d faced the initial joining of  a gym I felt a dark, loathing dread—I’d become accustomed to the unsavory experience of the marketing-glazed sales consultation and fear that somewhere in the triple-duplicate contract, the cancellation penalties and the small print of the automatic credit card debit plan, I was getting screwed over.

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Elysium was different. I walked in when Estrada was the only one there, sitting behind a reception desk in front of a computer. While the term ‘reception desk’ may prompt an image of corporate polish, Elysium is, like every other CrossFit installation I’ve been to, utilitarian in design, in this case a large, rectangular commercial space, most of it rubber-matted and the rear of the building with high ceilings. There were the iconic essentials: climbing ropes, rowing machines, barbells, bumper plates, kettlebells, medicine balls and squat racks, with a series of pull-up bars of varying heights mounted along the south wall. T-shirts from other affiliates hung on the northern wall—the primary dosage of color within the box. The outer walls of the reception desk were unfinished sheets of plywood.

I approached the counter. Estrada wore a beret and a day or two’s growth of facial hair. His greeting was neither warm nor cold; rather, it was forthright and even-toned. Energy-efficient. I told him I wished to join up and we discussed how much CrossFit experience I had. He nodded thoughtfully after my replies and surmised I didn’t need to go through their Fundamentals introductory program. He entered my credit card info into the computer. And that was pretty much it. There was nothing remotely resembling a sales pitch, and as I’ve come to know Estrada, Chang, Beal and Wall—I have concluded that the four are completely incapable of being anything but sincere in any conversation I can imagine. Estrada plainly told me the next workout scheduled was that night and I was welcome to get started. That was it. No posing for a membership card picture. No card key. No file folder of pink receipts and yellow contract facsimiles.

(Sidebar on these personalities. Estrada: focused and disciplined coaching manner with a stoic, shy presence that he consistently betrays with a surprisingly dry sense of humor; Chang: high-intensity doctor-type, highly competitive, nuts for Olympic lifting, keen eye for technique, fervently supportive of the gym’s membership; Beal: smart, firm coaching hand but exceptionally compassionate presence; Wall: equally compassionate—a clinical psychologist specializing in depression, anxiety and eating disorders, hell-bent on getting back into top shape after recently having given birth. All sharp, intense people, all passionate about CrossFit, both within coaching others and within their own training).

I attended that first workout the evening of July 1. Beal was the primary coach and Chang was also there. Through some sort of mystical osmosis they all knew my name, and somehow or another Chang guessed that Estrada had forgot to have me sign a waiver (so there was one piece of paper anyway). I had three classmates that night, July 1st, a Friday evening when many San Diegans had fled town for the holiday. The strength component of the workout was overhead squats, a movement in which you extend a weighted barbell over your head with a wide grip, elbows locked, and then proceed to squat as deep as you can, then power your way back up for one rep. I say weighted because the others in the class were progressively stacking on weight to either side of their barbells, whereas the 45-pound bar I was given alone proved to be too much for me, revealing the inflexibility in my shoulders and hips. I couldn’t do it. Poor Stacie Beal. She saw how impossible the movement was for me and had to give me the hard, humbling news that I needed to exchange my 45-pound bar for a 35-pound bar (aka the girl bar). Meanwhile, women across the gym, significantly lighter than I, were off to the races and setting PRs. I was waiting for Beal and Chang to take me aside and start informing me on the schedule for the Fundamentals class. Rather, they both watched me carefully and coached me through the specific details of the movement. By the end, I was nearing the level of what qualifies for an actual squat and had added plates to both ends of the bar. The plates were 2.5 pounders, baby plates, about the size of vinyl 45s, but hey, I still walked out feeling like I was better than when I walked in.

It’s been three and a half months since then. I still have days where I feel like a complete greenhorn, particularly with Olympic lifts, yet I’ve looked back over my training log and am surprised at the improvements. I’m 48-years old now—no spring chicken—but I’ve progressed to the point where I’m sure that I’m stronger now than when I played high school football. Two years ago I had a back that I constantly threw out and trick knees. That’s all vanished. I’ve recently bored the hell out of friends in boasting about my newfound ability to overhead squat 125 pounds. (It’s all relative of course–Estrada can overhead squat more than 300 pounds. My friends don’t know that.)

But I digress. The real story I want to tell you about is Drost:  My inspiration for what apparently can happen when you grind through a year of Crossfitting.

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