We all remember the first time we walked into a CrossFit gym. The story is different for all of us – but similar in so many ways. Your first CrossFit gym is like a drug addict’s first high. Something you will never feel again – but you’ll keep chasing no matter what.
My first gym was like that – a complete high – and after years of training at other gyms – one I know I will never experience again. CrossFit Sua Sponte in Raleigh, North Carolina in 2013 was a bro paradise (and I don’t use that term exclusively to describe males). Training was about one thing – getting heavy and going hard. The owner, John Dill, a former Army Ranger who came up through CrossFit with Rudy Neilsen of Outlaw Barbell – is one of the most intense people I have ever met in my life. He was building something special at Sua Sponte – and when I joined he had been open for about 6 months. He had already assembled a group of athletes who were pushing towards the goal of making to Regionals as a team. He had a teenager named Nathan Trevillian training there who would go on to qualify as an individual every year after the team achieved their goal in 2013.
I was part of the 9:30am crew – I worked at night so this class time was perfect for me. It also meant I was in the gym with a lot of younger guys who were either going to school at NC State – or guys my age who were very successful businessmen who made their own schedules. For that 90 minutes or so every morning – it didn’t matter who you were – all that mattered was how hard you were willing to go.
Every Saturday morning we either maxed our snatch or our clean and jerk. Those mornings were nothing short of epic. Music blaring, Dill screaming in your face as you prepared for a PR attempt – it never mattered what the weight was, if it was a PR – Dill and the whole gym made you feel like it was a fucking world record. Chalk was flying everywhere – the atmosphere was absolute insanity. The first time I snatched 200 pounds was on one of those mornings - and despite the fact that I look back at the video and wonder how in the hell I was able to hit that weight with such terrible technique - I love the video because it takes me back to those days.
We had a group within the 9:30 squad that would rather die than lose a workout to one another. I still remember to this day performing 14.5 in the CrossFit Open – and realizing about three-quarters of the way through that I wasn’t going to beat one of my 9:30 rivals. I almost quit in the middle of the workout out of pure frustration. When people failed to win a workout, missed a PR attempt – you’d see shit getting thrown, people storming out of the gym in pure rage. It was nothing short of amazing. I rage quit a session after missing a squat PR - nobody walked after me when I left the gym. Nobody told me it was gonna be ok. I failed - in that moment, everyone knew the kind of anger and frustration I was feeling. They had all been there - and they all knew kind words weren't gonna cut it.
One of my 9:30 teammates was as terrible a runner as I am. I still remember him almost passing out from heat stroke on a final 800m run - he pushed himself so hard - all because one of the crew had already posted a lower time and there was no way he was gonna let himself lose.
That was just how we did it. It wasn't that any of us were particularly awesome athletes - but we all gave everything we had. If you didn't give 100% of what you had on that given day - you might as well walk the fuck out of the gym. It didn't matter if your Fran time was 2 minutes or 10 minutes. If you didn't give that workout everything - just don't bother even showing up. You would have shit talked to you so bad you would never half-ass a workout again. It wasn't about your "feelings" - in fact, it could be a brutal place if you were thin-skinned enough to let someone's shit-talking get to you.
2013 doesn’t seem like that long ago – but this was still in the “CrossFit is sort of punk rock/rebellious” phase. This was before CrossFit was about appeasing everyone, not eating sugar, giving credit to God for your fitness abilities on Instagram – it was about going so hard you puked, not giving a fuck what anyone else thought and throwing around as much weight as you could. CrossFit was proud of the fact that people outside the “cult” hated us – we were brash, cocky, arrogant – however you want to define it, that’s what we were.
People outside of Sua Sponte also had their own thoughts about this crew. When we all went to comps – we wore the signature black gym shirts. This prompted some of the other gyms to refer to our athletes and cheering squad at events as “The Vampire Crew.” No matter the level of athlete you were – you were part of the Sua Sponte crew – and that meant something. We reveled in being seen as the Outlaws of the CrossFit scene in Raleigh. If someone left the gym to train elsewhere, they were dead to us. Why in God’s name would you leave?
John had everyone in the gym adhere to the same program. It was his way, or the highway. You wanted to "do your own thing?" Find another fucking gym. You were in class or you were part of the comp team. Comp team workouts were by invite only. I asked John one day how to get an invite - he looked at me and responded, "You want to workout with that crew, go start taking podiums."
John refers to any heavy lift as “Cake Weight” – a moniker that now adorns a number of t-shirts from the gym. I still wear my Cake Weight shirt on most days that I test my max. You would hear people yelling that term across the gym any time a lifter stepped up to a heavy barbell. I still yell it to any of my teammates testing a heavy lift.
To this day – even living halfway across the country from Raleigh – I tune in to Regional live streams every year – searching for the recognizable lightning bolts and double “S’s” on the Sua Sponte shirt. I cheer on the athletes from the gym – even though some of them joined after I moved away. I still feel a connection to them in some small way.
When I hear someone tell a negative story about Sua Sponte – or explain to me why they left to train elsewhere – there is still some of that feeling like when your friend talks shit about your family member and you immediately want to smash them in the face for their disrespect.
I remember my first competition – it was a scaled division event that I teamed up with another member on. It was the first competition for both of us. He was 18, I was 32 – but it didn’t matter. We were Sua Sponte guys – and we were there to win. After posting a score in the clean and jerk complex that would have placed us 4th in the RX division, we were sitting pretty on the leaderboard. Ill never forget John Dill leaning over my rower as I pulled the chain – screaming at me that it was “time to fade to black” – or the disappointment I felt when my partner and I got no-repped a bunch of times on hand-stand pushups in the final – and moved us to 4th and off the podium. It was an AMRAP and I wanted to win so badly that even after the no-reps, when it was clear we had worked our way out of the top 3 – with 20 seconds left I sprinted to the 315# deadlifts and pulled 10 touch and go reps right before the buzzer. It wasn’t enough. I felt such a sense of failure – like I had let my dad down or something. It made me even hungrier to compete again. My partner and I promised each other we would come back and do the same event next year in the RX division.
We would never get that chance – John Taylor died a few months later in a tragic car accident. Walking into the gym the next morning – I took one look at the regular 9:30 coach – and we both started crying. There were a lot of tears that week – I stepped up that first morning and squatted my one rep max for 5 reps – for John. We hung a “To The Lost…” memorial day event shirt over the barbell and left the weight on it for the entire week – so everyone who walked in the gym remembered what we had lost. It was a lot more than just someone you knew who had died – it was losing a family member.
I took a job back in Wyoming – and the hardest thing about leaving Raleigh – was leaving Sua Sponte. I arrived in Wyoming and immediately sought out a new gym – I was naïve and didn’t realize how special CFSS was. I thought I would roll into town and pick right up where I left off. It took a couple months to realize that would never be the case. After my first Saturday morning one-rep max session – which I did by myself at CrossFit Cheyenne – I was able to recruit a few of the guys into a group that would max out on Saturdays. It almost felt like being back in Raleigh on some of those mornings – until I was taken aside by one of the owners and basically “lunk alarmed.” I was told that my attitude would need to be “toned down” some because I was “intimidating some of the other members.” We were also not allowed to play music with profanity in it – because there were kids around. I realized pretty quickly this was not the old stomping grounds.
Since I moved away and started my own company – the wild/STRONG Liftoff series was designed to replicate that Saturday morning atmosphere at Sua Sponte. We invite as many people from the community as we can get – and we simply throw down, one rep max snatch and clean and jerk. The music is loud, chalk is everywhere and we haven’t held an event where there not multiple PR’s being hit.
I even traveled all the way back to Raleigh to compete in the Sua Sponte Games – an annual partner workout hosted by my old gym. It gave me a small taste of what I remembered from that time.
When you push at the level we all did back in those days – it forged bonds that are more than simple friendships. John Dill was creating something bigger than just a gym – and we all were happy to be a part of it. I still own more Sua Sponte gym shirts than any other gym – the reason? When I put that shirt on I remember what it stands for – and I remember what I had and the experiences I got to share. I remember all the people from that 9:30am group – many of us who moved to other states, train in new gyms, got deployed, etc. I stay in touch with many of them to this day – a conversation with one of them this morning prompted me to write this article.
I remember that first high like it was yesterday – and I know I will never feel it again.