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Rich Froning talks faith, family and fighting for the 2012

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Winner of the 2011 Reebok CrossFit Games and the title of ‘Fittest Man on Earth’, Rich talks to Sweat RX about faith, family and fighting for the 2012 title

I can’t see his cape or the signature ‘S’ on his chest, but Rich Froning Jr definitely reminds me of somebody. You know, faster than a speeding bullet, more powerful than a locomotive and leaping buildings (ok, boxes) in a single bound…

Winner of the 2011 Reebok CrossFit Games, Froning Jr, 24, is undeniably a tough competitor and obviously a pretty tough cookie all-round, but he exudes a strikingly calm demeanour for the ‘Fittest Man on Earth’. His 5’10 frame, although physically chiselled to perfection, is not overly imposing and his relaxed character reveals a quiet confidence free of pretence. That’s impressive, not only considering the heady title and the $250,000 prize that came with it, but to achieve it all after only two years of CrossFit training.

After witnessing the warm-up session featuring pull-ups, push-ups, squats, snatches, bench press, dead lifts…and the list goes on, all at a lightening pace, I ask him how and where it all began.

“I was always into sports and enjoyed physical activity,” he says. “But when I was getting my undergrad in Exercise Science, one of my professors, who is the head of strength and conditioning at Tennessee Tech, showed us CrossFit videos and suggested we try it out. So my cousin and I started doing CrossFit with some things we set up in my dad’s barn in 2009.”

It was this makeshift set-up on a farm inCookeville,Tennesseethat laid the groundwork for a future champion. “CrossFit is a real life fitness program,” he says, “combining weightlifting, gymnastics, running, biking, rowing, swimming – it’s the full gamut of fitness activity in one program. It’s a lot like most competitive sports, you are always getting better comparing yourself to others and to your personal best – so there’s actually a goal, rather than just working out to workout. That’s what I like.”

While it started out as a new workout regimen, Froning Jr quickly realized that he had what it took to compete on a serious level. “We started comparing ourselves to the best times on CrossFit.com and saw some of our times were pretty good, so we decided to go to Sectionals and we made it into the top 15 to compete at Regionals, and it took off from there.”

It was a meteoric rise, that saw Froning Jr clinch 1st place at the 2010 CrossFit Deep South Sectional, then 1st place at the 2010 CrossFit Dirty South Regionals, and 2nd place in the 2010 CrossFit Games, before taking the ultimate title in 2011.

But our superhero confesses he is not without his kryptonite. “Anything long distance is not my friend,” he laughs. “Any running really,…but I just do it. Anything I don’t like to do, I just push past the weakness and make myself do it.”

As I listen to him say it, I recognize that this is the distinction between mere mortals and superheroes. In fact, it is the mantra of all champions. It suggests we all have the potential to achieve greatness, it’s always within our reach, and Froning Jr, with his endearing modesty, offers up the key.

“Mental strength outweighs the physical by far. There are people who are a lot more physically gifted than myself, but you have to be able to push past that point when you want to quit, when you think you can only do so much, when you think you can’t do anymore,” he says. “The mental aspect is huge.”

His steely determination and mental might is drawn from a deep well of inspiration that he wears like a badge of honour. “I’m pretty strong in my faith,” he explains, evidenced by the cross he has tattooed on his back and ‘Galatians 6:14’ tattooed on his side. “Actually, during the games I put Bible verses on my feet – Matthew 27:17:56– which is the Crucifixion of Christ, so when I was getting tired or feeling weak, I would look down and think ‘what I’m going through is nothing compared to what He went through for us’. So that was great motivation.”

For Froning Jr, there’s another important component to his CrossFit craving. “Obviously doing these workouts you get physically fit, but there is also a great sense of community in the gym, people working out together in a group setting or with a partner, so you develop good friendships.”

“It’s an individual sport, but it’s not really, because you can’t train by yourself. I train every day, multiple times a day, and surround myself with people who are going to help me push past my limits.”

Indeed, no man is an island and Froning Jr graciously acknowledges the encouragement his family provides as well. “My family is a huge support system for me. My cousin competes with me and my mom does CrossFit every once in a while, but both my parents were very influential when I was younger because there was no sitting around inside, we always had to get out and do something.”

Although his wife doesn’t compete in CrossFit, she too has demonstrated her unyielding support, most notably during last year’s CrossFit Games as the couple’s wedding was a month before the Games. “We had to postpone our honeymoon,” he says. “But she was great about it, and this is my job now – so I’m focused, and she enjoys watching it all.”

With the 2012 Games just around the corner, Froning Jr is confident. “My goal is to win the CrossFit Games again in 2012, and I feel good about it,” he smiles.

“You have to enjoy it. You can’t put too much pressure on yourself. With CrossFit you never know what’s going to happen and that can be pretty nerve-wracking, but you have to put that stuff aside and just do it.”

And who’s going to give him a run for his money? He points over at Graham Holmberg, the 2010 CrossFit Games Champion and his close friend.

“Graham is a tough competitor,” he says, as we look across to see Holmberg clean and jerking something in excess of 250lbs I’m guessing.

He also concedes Dan Bailey, who finished 6th last year, is one to watch in 2012. “He actually lives with us because he’s a graduate assistant at Tennessee Tech. So we train together, but it’s not competitive, because we’re all trying to get fit and get other people fit, that’s our main goal.”

When it comes to being an inspiration to other competitors, he humbly contends, “As long as I go as hard as I can I hope that motivates others.”

Ultimately, Froning Jr is part of the CrossFit movement that is sweeping through the sports world attracting top athletes from every sporting background. “I hope CrossFit keeps growing at the rate it has,” he says. “I think everyone should do CrossFit.”

But asked what one word describes how he feels about the CrossFit Games this year…? “Ready,” he says, without hesitation, and a winning grin.

And while I could be accused of developing a little crush on Froning Jr in the short time I had to interview him, I think it is the mark of a gentleman (who shakes my hand, looks me directly in the eyes and even asked me to repeat my name when he didn’t hear it amid the cacophony of 200+lb weights crashing to the floor) to achieve such quick success and carry it so well. Or maybe it’s just the Southern drawl that makes him seem so gracious, polite, and likeable, but as he demonstrates his superpowers cutting through WODs and reaching from within to achieve his personal best, I can’t help but think I’d sure like him to be around if Lex Luther needed foiling.

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