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CrossFit phenomenon pushes athletes to push themselves

Andrea Scalici heaves weights during a CrossFit training session at the Gym on East Sprague Avenue in Spokane Valley.  (Tyler Tjomsland)
Andrea Scalici heaves weights during a CrossFit training session at the Gym on East Sprague Avenue in Spokane Valley. (Tyler Tjomsland)

The CrossFit gym in Spokane Valley is hard to find, but it’s no place to hide.

Tucked in the back of a strip mall on East Sprague, it looks more like a garage. Even the door rolls up, revealing ropes, rings and sleds – but no gleaming machines. Think “Rocky IV” without the snow.

Members lift and leap and push – mostly themselves.

Those who pushed themselves hardest compete in regional and world events. The Spokane Valley team recently finished third at regionals and qualified for the world CrossFit games, but was later disqualified when one team member tested positive for a banned stimulant.

“I had no idea what being fit really meant,” said Alicia Staton, a former track star at Central Valley and the University of Montana.

While working at another gym, she met Dan Staton.

“He asked me how many pull-ups I could do, and I struggled to do just one,” Alicia said.

“Next thing you know, he’s putting me through a workout.”

Next thing she knew, they were married.

The WOD squad

CrossFit was founded in 2000 and has since grown to more than 3,400 gyms worldwide, most of them in the United States. The company describes its strength and conditioning program as “constantly varied, high-intensity, functional movement” with the goal of improving all-around fitness.

Workouts are short – 20 minutes or less – but intense, demanding all-out exertion and combining sprinting, jumping rope and weightlifting to produce the ubiquitous “Workout of the Day,” or WOD.

“The workout you do at the gym?” Dan Staton asked. “That’s our warm-up.”

Hour-long classes at affiliated gyms, or “boxes,” typically include a warm-up, a skill-development segment, the high-intensity WOD, and a period of individual or group stretching. Performance on each WOD is often scored on a whiteboard to track progress and encourage competition, a big part of the CrossFit experience.

“People will die for points,” said Dan Staton, who with Kenton Clairmont is co-owner of the gym, one of five in the Spokane area. “I don’t know what it is about a whiteboard, but people will work very hard for those points.”

CrossFit has used almost 10,000 WODs. The most popular are named after women, the way they once named hurricanes.

For example, there’s “Angie,” which includes pull-ups, push-ups, sit-ups and squats – 100 of each for time and points.

Then there’s “Helen,” which features a 400-meter run, 21 swings of the kettlebell and 12 pullups – three sets of each.

A new workout is “Kelly,” which demands a 400-meter run, followed by 30 jumps onto a 24-inch box and 30-wall-ball shots with a 20 pound ball – and gimme five of each.

Before the newcomer feels tempted to rechristen these ladies “Agony,” “Hell” and “Kill Me,” – all can be modified according to a newcomer’s ability – by reps, weight, intensity and other methods.

“CrossFit is growing because it works,” said Staton, a former baseball player at Mead High who holds a master’s degree in exercise physiology.

That made it doubly embarrassing when it was Dan Staton who tested positive for methylhexamine, which is found in the over-the-counter diet supplement ACG3 available at GNC.

“I’m not a drug or steroid user,” Staton said, “But what I did fail to do was research a particular drug.”

‘We punish the specialist’

Dan Staton admits that he first thought the CrossFit workouts were “insane” and not applicable to the general population. Further study showed it to “line up with my science,” he added.

“When you walk into a big-box gym,” Staton said, “You get your iPod on, scan your membership card, and you’re off the hook. You’re on your own and you’re relying on your own ability.

“When you walk in our doors, the workout is already made up. You come as you are. The coaches will warm you up, you’ll see the clock. We tweak everything so people still get the best workout possible.”

That workout varies every day, and is influenced by the CrossFit corporate virtual community website that encourages members to post workouts and advice. One WOD will emphasize strength, another focuses on flexibility.

The Spokane Valley CrossFit holds classics beginning at 6 a.m., with anywhere from 10 to 20 per class, mostly middle-aged types with “a lot of moms.”

“We don’t make them make appointments,” Staton said. “But we never know how many people can buzz in at any time.”

CrossFit’s critics say that being a fitness jack-of-all-trades makes you a master of none, but that’s precisely the point.

CrossFit preaches 10 keys to physical health: endurance, stamina, strength, flexibility, power, speed, coordination, agility, balance and accuracy.

Top athletes seeking peak performance don’t need cross-training. They want to avoid it the way a marathoner would avoid a free weight.

“We punish the specialist,” Staton said.

The WODs are calculated to root out weaknesses, whether it’s lack of strength or stamina, and elevate it to a strength.

Team member Andrea Scalici joined two years ago, partly as a preventative move because her family has a history of obesity.

“There was a big sign here, so I pulled in,” Scalici said. “I got a lot of encouragement, of keeping me on track. It’s a gym that holds you accountable. If you miss, you’ll get a text or a Facebook message.

“It’s been a real confidence-builder.”

Scalici moved up from alternate last year to full team member. But at least she wasn’t juggling weights and family at the same time.

Salem Giampietro, a former trainer at another gym, was eventually “lassoed” into a CrossFit workout, which only served to “expose my weaknesses.”

Soon Giampietro not only competed in the CrossFit regionals in Seattle in 2011, but did so 10 weeks after giving birth.

For former athletes, the CrossFit offers a renewal of athletic purpose.

Jason Uberuaga, a former baseball player at Gonzaga University who graduated in 1997, “had been doing the gym thing for 10 years” when he Googled “extreme workouts” and found his niche.

“Once you walk in the door here, as a competitor and an athlete, this is what it’s all about,” Uberuaga said.