A Letter To My Athletes

My journey in this CrossFit world hasn’t been an easy one. In fact, it’s taken me my entire life to get to where I am today. Isn’t that a funny thing to say? Of course it took my whole life to get here! But when I sit back and think about it, every significant event in my life has impacted my path to becoming an affiliate owner and coach in one way or another.

I suppose I’ll start with my story. It is, after all, important to understand the guy leading you through your own journey.

In the summer of 2001, facing my senior year in high school I needed to find a way to pay for college. I knew that there was no way my parents could afford college tuition so I was on my own. After talking with a recruiter I decided that my best chance to pay for college was to join the National Guard. That summer I joined a local transportation unit, the 1544th Transportation Company out of Paris, Illinois. After graduation in May of 2002 I shipped off to boot camp in Ft. Leonardwood Missouri. I learned all the things I needed to learn to become a good soldier. I learned to fight and shoot among many other combat skills. I would soon find out that a training atmosphere could never fully replicate actual combat.

My company was deployed to Iraq in the winter of 2003. We spent around a month at Ft. McCoy in Wisconsin training and preparing for our deployment. The dates and details have become fuzzy all these years later, but sometime in February of 2004 we hopped on a plane and flew halfway across the world to land in Kuwait. We spent another month or so there before convoying into Iraq.

I remember vividly the day we crossed the border from Kuwait to Iraq. I was scared to death, riding shotgun in a semi traveling into unknown territory. I remember feeling a bit of relief knowing that the other guy in the truck with me had some previous combat experience during Operation Desert Storm back in the 90’s. My biggest fear was not knowing how I would react when the bullets started flying and the IED’s started blowing up. I wasn’t sure if I was brave enough to do the job I needed to do while I was there. Luckily, nothing happened during the convoy.

We pulled into our permanent residence, Log Base Seitz, sometime in the mid-morning or early afternoon. It was lunch time and we were settling into our bunks when the sirens sounded for the first time since we had been there. It was day 1 and we were already being attacked with mortars. Not knowing exactly how to respond, I knew I needed to get to a bunker. It took me three tries to get out of the door. I ran to the door and realized I forgot my rifle, back to the door and realized I forgot my flak jacket, back to the door and realized I forgot my helmet, and out. Down the stairs, and finally into the sunlight I could see the rest of my company scrambling toward the bunkers. There was a mass exodus from the barracks that day. A flood of man confused, scared, and only able to react. What had we gotten ourselves into?

I crammed into a bunker suited for 10 with about 20 other people. The bunker was so full that I was actually lying across the laps of people seated on the benches. No one really said much. We didn’t know what to say. As the sirens continued to sound and the mortars continued to explode, we did the only thing we knew to do. We smoked. A lot. I bet I smoked a half a pack of cigarettes inside the bunker that day. It was the only thing that was familiar to me in that moment. It was the only thing that I knew to do. When the all clear sounded we crawled out of those bunkers and accounted to everyone in the company.

We were missing one.

Sargent Ivory Phipps was waiting in line to have some lunch after a long night of driving when those sirens began to sound. He immediately took action and began to direct the soldiers around him toward the nearest bunkers. He was struck by shrapnel and killed that day. I believe that we had been on our new base for less than 12 hours. It was a wakeup call that this was real. We are really here, and there are really people out there that want to kill us.

A few days later I attended the first of five memorial ceremonies our company would hold that year, each for a brother or sister of ours that was killed in action.

Phipps, Lamb, Cawvey, Morrison, and Riddlen.

Five names that are etched into my memory. Etched into my heart.

We would go on to suffer many casualties that year, with many soldiers in my company earning the Purple Heart for being wounded in combat. I was not one. I was never hurt in any way. Lucky.

We returned home from the war in February of 2005, and to be honest I was just as lost when I got home as I was the day I arrived in Iraq. In a weird way the desert became what was normal for me. I got used to the chaos. The sound of mortar tubes thumping, .50 cals, and AK-47’s firing, and explosions near or off in the distance had become normal. The sound of morning, afternoon, and evening prayer broadcasted through loudspeakers in the city was just a part of the way things were.

No one at home understood what we had been through that year.

I’m not sure they even cared. And why would they? As far as the people in my life were concerned that war was a million miles away and had no effect on their life. But it had totally changed mine. I began to feel the weight of survivor’s guilt crushing me. I just couldn’t wrap my mind around how I had managed to make it out of that place completely unharmed. Not even a scratch. Those friends of mine were dead. It could have just as easily been me at any point in time during that tour. I can remember several times when it almost was. Those are stories for another day.

It didn’t take long before I spent more time drunk than sober. I had totally separated myself from the other members of my company out of shame. I was struggling, and I knew that this man wasn’t the man they knew. I just couldn’t let them see me like that. I was drowning those memories in a haze of booze and drugs in my attempt to deal with it all. I became angry at the people around me for not understanding my problems. I was miserable to be around.  I spent three years in that haze, much of which I can’t remember. There are literally years of my life that I cannot recall. The pain was so real, and so sharp this was the only thing I knew to dull it.

In 2008 I met my wife, Lindsey. Somehow, I managed to hide all the things I was going through from her. If she had known the person I was hiding I doubt she would’ve stuck around. We fell in love with one another, and it wasn’t long before she ended up pregnant with our first child. It was a sobering moment for me; the day she told me she was pregnant. I knew right then and there I had to get myself together because it wasn’t about me anymore. There would be other people depending on me to provide for them.

I did manage to get myself cleaned up. My wife and children are my saviors. Surly, if it weren’t for them I would have been found dead either by accident because of my lack of control, or my own hand. As I started to sober up, the memories of that deployment began to rush back and the feelings were renewed. No longer did I have to booze or drugs to dull that pain. It was real and it was sharp. Again, I wasn’t sure how to deal with any of it so I didn’t. My wife is a very strong and determined woman. I was a real jerk to her. Often times flying off the handle at the smallest most innocent thing. I was again completely unable to control my emotions and anger. I was beginning to feel a rage burn inside of me that I had never felt. My wife loved to run and suggested to me at some point in some way, that maybe I should take up the habit. I did. I was probably one of the best decisions of my life. That was the beginning of the healing process for me.

At first the runs were hard. A mile was pretty tough and all I could think about was how hard it was. As my body began to become conditioned and my runs got longer and less difficult I began to think about my time in the war and process the memories. This was me beginning to deal with my issues. The runs gave me a chance to reflect on all the things I had seen and done, both good and bad. It was the first time in my life that I started to actually confront the issues I was facing. But it wasn’t enough. I was still angry and couldn’t figure out how to fix myself.

My best friend had moved away to Florida to chase his dream of living in the sunshine. While he was down there he got a job as a coach in a gym. He came home for a visit one year and was telling me all about the “box” where he coached CrossFit and was trying to talk me into a workout. He knew exactly how to get me to buy in when he started talking about Hero WODs. Workouts dedicated to service members who had been killed. He pulled on my heart strings. I don’t remember the exact workout he talked me into, but I know it had 800m runs and power cleans involved. All I saw was the run and thought this would be no problem, as I had built my aerobic capacity up to be able to run 10+ miles at a clip. Needless to say, I was smoked in the first round. I was totally exhausted and don’t think I even made it through the workout. But what he did for me that day completely changed my life.

He introduced me to a program that would allow me to take out all my pain and aggression on an object other than the people close to me. He reintroduced me to the barbell and I fell in love with it. I realized that the barbell doesn’t care about my problems, it just is. It always stands in front of me begging to be lifted. Some days the weight goes up, some days it doesn’t. But the weight never changes. 300 pounds is always 300 pounds no matter what. It doesn’t care if I had a bad day or week. It doesn’t care if I’m happy, sad, or angry. It just is.

As I began to build strength and work capacity with CrossFit, I began to build a new mental toughness that I had never had before. As my mental toughness grew, so did my strength. Then I started to realize that because I spent time suffering and taking out my aggressions with the barbell, my life was getting better. Facing my day to day problems wasn’t as hard anymore. Bad news didn’t affect me the way it used to. My thoughts, memories, and emotions weren’t controlling me any longer. All of a sudden I was in control. That, my friends, is a very liberating feeling. To regain control and develop myself as a husband and a father is indescribable. I realized that the strength I was building transcends the gym walls. I was bleeding into every part of my life… my being.

I want you to know that what we do is more than just getting fit or strong. It’s about more than movement and proficiency. It’s more than barbells and bumpers, running and jumping, lifting and throwing. It’s about building yourself. It’s about becoming the very best version of yourself that you can be both mentally and physically. There is almost spirituality about the process. There’s something more than what we can put our hands on and touch. There is a strength we can build that has nothing to do with muscles. It’s about becoming the person you want to be. The person you need to be.

So when you find yourself struggling through a difficult workout or lift I want you to remind yourself that there is more to it than what you’re doing in that moment. It is about your life, and what you want your future to look like. often times I find myself thinking in those tough workouts, “If I quit now, what else will I quit on in my life?”

“If I quit now, what else will I quit on in my life?”

It is my hope that when you step into this gym you find what you need. If you’re like me, you might find something you didn’t even know you were looking for.

 

Always ready,

 

Coach Matt

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