Wednesday, October 21, 2009

What I learned in Berlin, Prague, and Ansbach

My impressions from the 5 days I spent in Germany and Czech Republic are immeasurably positive.
From a personal standpoint, I could not have been better cared for, reaffirming my faith in the qualities of hospitality and generosity so often maimed and left for dead by popular culture.
Further, I was exposed to a range of histories and cultures (German and Czech, urban and rural) about which I previously knew very little. If I had only ridden the train to Prague and back, never getting off, I would have experienced growth.
But from a broader, more global, fitness perspective, I think this trip taught me even more.
First, the motivating forces that propel people to train and keep them coming back are not cultural, they are natural. Cultural forces simply meter the availability of the outlets needed to discover one's natural physical drive. I heard the same success stories and saw the same pride in accomplishment this weekend that I heard and saw during 3 years of personal training in D.C. Miraculous cures for knee pain, decreased lower back stiffness, increased shoulder mobility, strength on the job, increased vitality... these were the things that had made people believers.
I saw the same effort and felt the same enthusiasm here that I saw and felt when I trained at Crossfit affiliates in Fairfax, Virginia or in East Sacramento, California. People were working to exhaustion, breaking through barriers, and building confidence in their ability to achieve. If nothing else, this weekend convinced me that these qualities/motivations are in everyone, regardless of the thick layers of social propriety, cultural taboo, and relative ignorance under which they may be hiding.
Second, Crossfit is growing from the bottom-up. There is no concerted, connected effort through which these various affiliates are being organized. They are pockets with loose, peripheral knowledge of one another, at best. It is through the effort and inspiration of a few individuals that the groups I visited this weekend have come into existence. Yet, they follow similar paths. In what turned out to be a divine stroke of luck, the order in which I visited the three locations (Berlin, Prague, Ansbach) mirrored the relative stages of development each are currently in.
The Berlin group organizes itself through email and facebook contact, with no regular location from which to train. They have Level I certifications but are not official affiliates. They train in parks, schools, and firehouses; in good weather and bad. Their number is modest, but dedicated, and it is held together by the commitment of the trainers, the merits of the program, and the community that is starting to take hold. It doesn't get more grassroots.
The Prague affiliate is a similar product, just slightly more advanced. Zdenek Weig and his wife Keri used Crossfit when they were living in the state of Washington, and didn't want to stop when they moved back to the Czech Republic earlier this year. Soon, they had a group to train with outdoors and around town, but with winter coming they needed a place to call home. After much trial and error, they were able to land a space (which I've previously described) and opened just last week. Zdenek told me his goal was to have 5 full-time memberships by the end of the first month. He had 10 in the first 5 days. His and Keri's dedication, plus the quality of the product, have proven, thus far, to be the foundation for something more than either expected.
Crossfit Ansbach more closely represents what we see in the States. It began when Robert Powell and his training partners Ralph, Simon, and Rolph got "asked" to leave the local globo-gym for making too much noise. Rob is an ex-marathoner, an ex-cyclist, and an ex-body builder. He told me he came across the program in his search for a workout more complete and more fulfilling. In his words, "there had always been something missing, no matter what program it was." When he and the group got bounced from the gym for doing Crossfit WODs, their only goal was to find someplace they could train their way. The purpose for starting the affiliate was simply to offset the cost of the lease and the equipment they would need to escape the silent whir of treadmills and elypticals. Quickly things mushroomed, and, now in their second location, Crossfit Ansbach is over 30 members strong and rising. The community there is so strong that they couldn't stop, even if they wanted to. The classes show up 20 minutes early just to cheer on the group before them...
The third and final thing I'm taking with me from this trip stems from this last observation: Shared physical burdens build community. This is no epiphany, but it warrants attention, nonetheless. Any athletic team I was ever on grew closer after a tough practice, or a hard fought game. There's something about being totally physically committed, and recognizing the same commitment in another, that breeds mutual respect. This is the case in group dynamic fitness as well. My old gym, Balance Gym in Washington, D.C., was more like a family than a business. Members that went through the bootcamps together during the week organized rafting trips, cookouts, and birthday parties together on the weekend. When one member was competing or performing somewhere, everyone was interested, watching, and involved.
The same elements are present and building here. A short example: During the morning session in Ansbach, two “friends of the program” wandered in to check out what was going on, having seen Rob’s car out front. These guys are local painters, and semi-regular members at the affiliate. They did a few workouts early on, after which they chose to contribute their time and effort to helping put the place together for nothing in return. They enjoyed training and wanted to help. The morning I saw them they were messing around on the rings, one doing muscle ups, the other trying, failing, and laughing. They hung around for about an hour and even encouraged Rob, Stefan, and I while we did the Workout of the Day. Their presence was a reminder of how communities can galvanize around just about anything, fitness being no exception.
None of this is meant to say that building such a community is easy, regardless of the location. There are certainly challenges. Resources are scarce (try finding a Dynamax ball or a <$1000 barbell in continental Europe), social structures are resistant to change, and times are tough financially. But, thus far, these are challenges that are being met and overcome, even in the most adverse situations, because the product is valuable and necessary.
Each of the places I visited this trip had a personality. They each had their own distinct interpretation of what it meant to be fit and of what they wanted to offer those involved, while still being under the Crossfit umbrella. This is, without doubt, the strength of the program in my eyes. The principles are strong enough to give guidance, yet broad enough to leave room for creativity. I think this is one reason why there is a promising future for affiliates like Berlin, Prague, Ansbach, and others in Europe. As long as there is a method substantive and flexible enough to challenge the existing "A-physical" culture, there will be individuals and communities willing to embrace it.
From Prague


  1. nicely put, thoughtful, and heartfelt.

  2. Outstanding post! Submit it to the CrossFit Affiliate Blog?