The King of CrossFit: Rich Froning's Last Pursuit of Fittest on Earth
The best way to watch the CrossFit Games is to just shut up. As a spectator you could tell yourself it’s not a sport because all they’re doing is working out. You could let the voice of your annoying coworker who won’t stop evangelizing the fitness craze spoil your opinion. You can scoff at a sport comprised of upside-down pushups and one-legged squats or workouts dubbed Naughty Nancy and Double Banger. You can remember that news story you read suggesting CrossFit is dangerous. You can do all of this.
Or you can just shut up and marvel at the incredible fitness of Rich Froning.
Though he’s widely unknown to the average American, Froning has reached mythical status in the incredibly tight CrossFit community. CrossFitters travel from all over the world to visit his gym in Cookeville, and he's traveled the globe as an ambassador for the sport.
Froning, 27, is the prohibitive favorite to win his fourth-straight CrossFit Games title over the next few days at the StubHub Center in Carson, Calif. His supremacy in the sport is so thorough, the Games each year are more coronation than competition. This year appears to be no different. Froning sits in the top tier through three days of competition.
“There's never been as dominant an athlete in this sport as Rich Froning has been and I think, honestly we'll never see an athlete as dominant as him in the future,” says CrossFit Games director Dave Castro.
Froning is less the Michael Jordan of CrossFit than the George Mikan: an athlete that so thoroughly conquered a sport’s early years he grew to define it. He signed a long-term contract with Reebok this week to be the face of its CrossFit promotions. Though the details were not disclosed, the contract allows a CrossFit athlete to earn at a rate comparable to that of athletes in the four major U.S. sports.
Mikan was Mr. Basketball. Froning struggles with being Mr. CrossFit. So much so that—despite significant financial incentive to compete—he’s chosen to make 2014 his final attempt at the title of The Fittest Man on Earth.
“I just need a different challenge,” says Froning. “I still want to compete. I still love CrossFit. I still love training, but I just need a change of pace.”
CrossFit is, at its core, an intense set of workouts focusing on functional movements to create real-world fitness. The bizarre names of the moves and flurry of acronyms might seem foreign to the outsider. But most workouts are comprised of the same things the average gym-goer would do—only with the difficulty level cranked to maximum. For instance, the most popular and feared workout in the CrossFit rotation, Fran, involves rotating sets of thrusters (a squat with a weighted bar followed by a standing overhead press) and pull-ups. Each workout is done to the limit, either as fast as possible or for as many repetitions as possible. They are simple, but brutal.
The CrossFit Games takes those workouts and creates a multi-day gauntlet designed to break its participants by finding the holes in their fitness. The strongest are betrayed by their bulk during uphill runs and distance bike rides. The swiftest are defeated by pull-ups and power cleans.
The programming can be ruthless. One suboptimal exercise can end an athlete’s season. Defending women’s champion Samantha Briggs looked on course to repeat after finishing first in the opening qualification round. She won three events at regionals but couldn’t perform a serviceable handstand walk and was eliminated from competition.
“CrossFit is a very humbling sport and you can be really good at something and look like an idiot doing another movement,” says Froning. “It's a nasty thing, but it makes it a little more fun.”
At 5’9” and 195 pounds, Froning is by no means overwhelming in stature. He looks no more ridiculously in-shape than any of his ridiculously in-shape opponents. He is neither the fastest nor the strongest. He wins because he is the most steadfast.
“He is actually bred to be the perfect CrossFitter. It's like he was made for it,” says Froning’s cousin and training partner Darren Hunsucker. “He's not too tall, but he's not too short. He doesn't have any off features. It's not like he has extremely long arms or a short torso or anything like that. It's almost like this was meant to happen.”
Each year Froning starts slowly—averaging 22nd place after the first event the past four years—and performs solidly in event after event as his competitors invariably find a challenge that defeats them. Froning averaged a ninth place finish in the first nine events in 2013 before handily winning each of the final three workouts.
“You have to just keep the thought in mind its on to the next thing the next rep the next workout,” says Froning’s close friend Dan Bailey, who’s finished in the top ten at the Games each of the past three years. “The minute you start feeling bad for yourself and thinking about how tired or sore you are, you’re probably done.”
Even Froning has been burned by an unlucky draw. His only loss in CrossFit competition came when the last event of the 2010 Games included a rope climb. Froning had the strength, but had never learned proper technique. He tried to power through using only his arms, but fell multiple times as his competitors passed him one by one. He finished 12th in the event and narrowly landed second in the final standings.
Were it not for that rope, Froning would be chasing his fifth title this year. But he doesn’t lament the loss, rather he counts it as one of the most important moments of his life.
“That event changed my CrossFit career, [and] it changed my faith too,” he says. “I put way too much pressure on myself and put too much into CrossFit. It had become who I was. That's really when I figured out I don't want my identity to be CrossFit.”
Froning shifted his priorities to faith, family and fitness—in that order. Devaluing CrossFit didn’t cause him to decrease his efforts to win. Froning sees his top mission in life as the glorification of God and believes the best means to do that is by winning the CrossFit Games. After all, the guy who finishes 12th doesn’t get much of a platform to spread the Gospel.
Froning’s success is a counterpoint to the modern athletic norm of regimented training schedules and diets calculated to the calorie. He follows no specific training schedule, choosing rather to create his workouts on the fly. He ignores conventional thinking on recovery and overwork, working out up to five times a day in the lead up to the Games. He doesn’t follow a specific diet. He rarely even eats lunch. Doing things his own way allows him to push farther than his more structured competitors.
“A lot of people out there let's say they have coaches, let's say they have experts that come in and tell them what to do. Rich has never had that,” says Hunsucker. “When there's somebody there, they're telling you what they think your limits are. When there's nobody there, you don't know. You're just going. You're just trying. Until failure.”
Froning grew up in the blue-collar factory town of Cookeville, Tenn. with the type of father who had a zero tolerance policy toward laziness. It was under his strict discipline, years before CrossFit even existed, that Froning unknowingly started his lifelong training for the Games.
“I've been doing functional movements my entire life,” he says. “Hard work is just something that my parents, when I was young, they made sure that we knew what hard work was and that it was okay to work hard and okay to sweat.”
Most of the time it was hard work to keep the family’s sprawling property running. Sometimes it was hard work just for hard work’s sake. Froning recalls being told to remove hundreds of nails from a stack of old lumber, only to watch the pile be set on fire after he finished. He once had to move a mountain of cinder blocks from one location to another for no discernible reason other than the effort involved.
Froning dreamt of playing professional baseball, but gave up the sport after a brief stint on the team at Tennessee Tech. He worked as a fireman, a personal trainer and nearly tried out for the Navy Seals before entering the 2010 Games sectionals on a whim. He left those Games with a second place finish, sponsorships and a new vision that CrossFit would be his future.
Froning’s rise in the ranks of CrossFit was matched by the growth of the sport itself. CrossFit has exploded in popularity since the first Games in 2007, which took place on a private ranch in Aromas, CA. There were 300 competitors at the 2008 Games with a $1,500 grand prize. In 2013, more than 130,000 submitted attempts to qualify for regional competitions with the Games winner taking home $275,000. There were 13 CrossFit gyms in 2005. Today there are more than 10,000 worldwide, and Froning’s achievements have undoubtedly contributed to that success.
“It's impossible to put a true number, but I can say he is definitely a galvanizing force for people who are fans of our sport to rally behind,” says Castro. “There's an overweight person walking into a gym right now. They're using Rich Froning as their inspiration to start CrossFit.”
Froning is always gracious and welcoming to his fans, but the idolatry wears on him. He loves having workout partners, but hates being watched while he trains. He’ll talk fitness all day one-on-one, but loathes public speaking. When sponsors tell Froning he’d be more visible and celebrated if he moved to CrossFit’s epicenter in California, he sees that as reason to stay just where he is.
“I like coming home because nobody knows who I am,” he says. “In Cookville, I'm Rich. I'm not a big deal. People like Peyton Manning, Tom Brady, they just can't live a normal life and you do feel sorry for those guys.”
Fame can be a burden, but Froning knows the notoriety he’s gained helps further his true priorities. His celebrity status gives him a platform to share his faith. The Reebok contract allows him to provide for his growing family—he and his wife Hillary welcomed their first child, a daughter, just two weeks ago. Providing CrossFit with a marquee face helps spread fitness by drawing new customers to gyms.
Though he no longer defines himself through his athletic achievements, he also understands it’s hard to stay anonymous when your face is plastered on the JumboTron advertisements for the Games. Relinquishing his title will help. When someone else becomes the Fittest Man on Earth in 2015, a few lumens of that blinding spotlight may shine elsewhere for a change.
Froning will likely never give up CrossFit. This is a man who snuck in secret workouts on his honeymoon while his bride was in the shower, after all. He’ll continue to compete in team events, appear in ads and promote the sport through speaking engagements.
A return to the quest for the individual title is also not out of the question. His contract includes significant bonuses if he does pursue it in the next two years. Froning is also ruthlessly competitive. The sight of someone else standing atop the podium, his podium, may be enough to get him back onto the mat.
If he does abstain, the Games may suffer from not having its biggest star in its marquee event. How can someone be called the fittest on earth if the true fittest is watching from the stands? But Froning believes that his absence won’t hurt CrossFit as a whole. To him, the Games are just a showcase.
“It's not about who wins the CrossFit Games,” he says. “The CrossFit Games are just cool to watch. People going to gyms and doing all of that stuff, that's what CrossFit is all about.”
To Froning, CrossFit has never really been about the competition. CrossFit as workout program, a lifestyle, an obsession starts in local gyms where the gospel of perfect fitness is spread.
CrossFit can’t be all about one man because he won’t let it be.