Before most gyms even opened in Tysons Corner last Saturday, there was one that pulsed with energy. Music blared. Weightlifters grunted. A crowd of onlookers swelled in size and volume, screaming for one more set on the deadlift, one more lap on the sled drag. As a man with a microphone counted down the final seconds, a man without legs gritted his teeth for a final lift, a woman with one arm huffed through her last lap and a guy with a wheelchair on the sideline climbed another wall.
This was no ordinary weightlifting competition. Neither was it an ordinary CrossFit competition, if such a thing exists. This was the 2013 Working Wounded Games, a grueling event for amputees and severely wounded veterans that is as unforgiving as it is rewarding.
Held at the newly expanded CrossFit Rubicon gym off Leesburg Pike, the Working Wounded Games brought together a diverse group of disabled athletes from all corners of the country to compete in several knee-buckling CrossFit exercises. Many of the participants were former soldiers who had undergone amputations after incidents incurred during service in Iraq or Afghanistan. Others were congenital amputees or victims of traumatic brain injury or cerebral palsy, helping to nearly double the amount of people who took part in last year’s inaugural competition.
David “Chef” Wallach, owner of CrossFit Rubicon and lead organizer of the event, said his team aimed to find a way for adaptive athletes to rekindle their competitive spirit. They viewed the numerous demonstrations geared toward adaptive athletes as too specialized, as categories were often so specific to certain injuries that only a few competitors ended up in the same events. Some athletes were going home with first-place medals despite having no one else in their category, making those events seem more like dog-and-pony shows than actual competitions.
“We wanted to come up with a way to try to level that playing field and give these athletes a chance to compete head to head,” Wallach said. “Age group, weight class, gender, injury classification—all of that aside, how could we find a way to give them an opportunity to compete on a level playing field?”
The process for developing that level playing field began five years ago when Wallach and company started gathering data on movements, time under tension, scales, weights and other factors that could determine specific workout templates. Eventually they came up with 20 different workouts and had the adaptive athletes choose which ones best suited their own preferences. Athletes worked with the gym’s staff to whittle it down to three workouts that could be contested between all participants, topped with a concluding eight-minute session on the dreaded legless row.
The event was a smash success last year, prompting participants to spread the word to adaptive athletes far and wide so that this year’s version could be even better.
“They were saying, ‘We’ve never had an opportunity to compete with another adaptive athlete,’ or ‘We didn’t think that we had the capacity to continue to be competitive after our accident or injury,’” Wallach said. “But some of the most profound stuff were the connections made during the day on a social level. We had athletes saying they were side by side with people who get where they’re coming from.”
No one was more floored by that social connection than Kendra Bailey, a congenital amputee who traveled from her home in Portland, Oregon to participate in last year’s Games. Bailey loved her experience so much that she quit her corporate job in Portland, packed up all her stuff and moved to Virginia.
“There’s so much here in terms of the adaptive community that gives you a sense of belonging that I just didn’t have back in Portland,” said Bailey, who now serves as Executive Director of the Crossroads Adaptive Athletic Alliance, Wallach’s nonprofit headquartered at CrossFit Rubicon. “I had contact with many of the adaptive athletes who came to the Games this year who weren’t here last year. If I have the ability to network with these people and find these people and put them all in the same room at the same time, then this is where I need to be.”
Nick Thom has been similarly swayed by the gym’s communal feel. A Lance Corporal in the Marine Corps, Thom became a double leg amputee after getting hit by an improvised explosive device (IED) while conducting a clearing operation in Afghanistan in April 2010. In the months after the accident he became bored with his one-hour physical therapy sessions and soon followed his therapist’s suggestion to join CrossFit Rubicon. The 23-year-old has been a regular ever since, shuffling around on prosthetic “house legs” that he modified with specialized sockets.
Burpees, a difficult full-body movement involving a squat thrust, are still Thom’s favorite workout, largely because it was the only one he could do when he first started at the gym. At Saturday’s Games Thom was crushing the Gates of Hell, a brutal exercise that saw athletes combine as many burpees and cleans as they could fit in a 10-minute span.
“For us I think it’s more of a community thing,” Thom said. “We’re letting each other know that, hey, you’re not the only one trying to do this. There’s a lot of us trying to do this.”
Thom’s recovery from an IED accident relates to the mission of the event’s main sponsor, Lanmark Technology Inc., a Fairfax-based contractor that uses statistics to calculate the safest travel routes for U.S. Troops in Afghanistan and reduce the number of IED-related casualties. LMT Founder and CEO Lani Hay, herself a wounded Navy veteran, has become a fitness fanatic since beginning to work out alongside adaptive athletes at CrossFit Rubicon a few years ago. She is one of many who have demanded more of herself after witnessing what can be accomplished by her less able-bodied workout partners.
“I think people have preconceived notions when they see someone who is a single or double amputee and what they’re capable of doing,” Hay said. “This event helps them see that they’re really capable of doing anything that they put their mind to.”
Wallach hopes the Wounded Games will again double its number of participants next year. More than that, though, he’s focused on letting the event’s message go beyond the confines of his gym.
“That won’t just help the local community; as this thing spreads, the degrees of separation become less in the process,” Wallach said. “It’s going to help the community at large. That’s ultimately the goal: to turn the focus away from the athlete to how can they help us all.”