The Power of Two. Couples make a CrossFit love connection

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Long, long ago, before there was even CrossFit, a poem was written with this famous line: “In the spring a young man’s fancy lightly turns to thoughts of love.” If the poem had been written today (and by a much less talented poet), it might read something like, “In the spring is Open season. I’ll be at the gym until July, my love.” What to do if your soul mate is totally enthralled by CrossFit, whereas you, on the other hand, don’t know a chipper from a kipper? Lots of couples have merged their devotion to CrossFit and to each other by enjoying the sport together. Outlaw North box owners Jay Rhodes and Lacey Van Der Marel and CrossFit Markham owner Chris Cristini and fiancée Maria Nahri, along with hundreds of other couples around the world, have done just that.Jay and Lacey, who’ve been together for six years, met on the track and field team of the University of Western Ontario. Rhodes was in his third year and Van Der Marel her first. Neither was doing CrossFit at the time. When track ended for Jay, he went looking for the next challenge and found CrossFit. And although she was already an athlete herself, Lacey was struck by his instant obsession with the sport.

“When Jay would come home (before I started CrossFit) and talk about his workouts, I thought it was a little strange to talk about exercise so much . . . [she laughs].” Just a few months later, she was incorporating some CrossFit workouts into her pentathlon training, and today the sport is a centerpiece of their life together. Maria Nahri entered her relationship with Chris Cristini fully aware of his passion for CrossFit. “Chris was in the process of [developing] CrossFit Markham when I met him,” she recalls. “I kept hearing [that he trained] people in his home garage. Chris asked me to come and try a class when his new facility opened; that’s where I got involved in CrossFit and got addicted.” The couple, who became engaged in January, first met three years ago. When couples say they do CrossFit together, it can mean different things. For Jay and Lacey, co­owning a business means that working out in the same room at the same time is rare. “Normally one of us is running a class while the other is training and vice versa,” says Jay. “Every now and then we’ll get to train together, but usually we just put up a number to chase for one another.” Lacey adds that when they do work out together, there’s a good natured sense of competition. “If I ever beat him, I won’t let him live it down; I think that’s why he never lets me get him. If I do the workout before him, he usually changes my number and vice versa. We’re slightly competitive, but it’s all fun.” Jay diplomatically counters, “I’ll usually get Lacey by a bit because, based on the CrossFit scaling, men’s scores tend to be slightly faster. But I know when certain movements come up that I’m going to have to work my ass off if I want a chance at beating her.”

For Chris and Maria, who are also both trainers, the story is similar: “We both have very hectic and busy schedules,” says Maria. “If Chris is coaching a class, I am usually with him coaching, or I’ll end up working out. And the same goes for him. The only time we will WOD together is at the end of the day when all our members leave. Chris will program a WOD and we’ll do it together.” For these two, the issue of competition is a bit more serious. “Let’s just say I think there’s a fine line when competing with your spouse,” says Maria. “For some it works and for some it doesn’t.” Chris, perhaps working on perfecting his happy marriage skills, declined to comment on this point.

So during those precious times when both partners—who are also coaches—do get to train together, is there room for a coaching hat and a partner hat on the same head, or is that like teaching your loved one to drive (which everyone in the universe knows is a bad idea)? Jay says there’s a huge up­side to working out together, and he’s quick to add the “but clause”: “BUT don’t attempt to coach each other, even if you are coaches.” Speaking from experience, he explains, “Every now and then I’ll give her cues on things during workouts, but most of the time I’ll get the look; so if anything, I’ll try and broach the subject after the fact and hope I don’t get punched.” Lacey insists that a little friendly advice is appreciated, but timing is everything. “I do give Jay a death stare when he tries to help in the middle of a workout. When I’m fatigued, I know my form isn’t perfect . . . [But] he has helped my Olympic lifts over the years and I can credit a lot of my PRs to him.”

Maria and Chris are no strangers to those moments when a helpful suggestion has the potential to spark a powder keg of relationship doom. During one particular competition at Tidal CrossFit, Maria remembers, “I wasn’t physically or mentally ready and it showed. While I was competing, I was talking to myself in my head, saying ‘there’s so many people watching; what movement am I doing right now,’ having a full­fledged conversation with myself. Then I would look at Chris and I felt like I was disappointing him because I wasn’t performing well. He saw I was struggling big time and he was shocked! I was shocked! At that point Chris stepped back from coaching and told Steve, his brother and coach, to go coach me ‘before Maria breaks up with me.’” Powder keg dismantled, relationship saved, thanks to some empathy and quick thinking.

On the home front, partners can keep each other honest about what they’re eating . . . or they can help each other off the wagon. Having similar ideas about food has helped Maria and Chris stay committed to their diet, which they like to call “Paleo­ish.” “We are both clean eaters and very consistent,” says Maria: “High protein, fruits, and vegetables. Chris refers to his diet as ‘Italian Caveman,’ because he loves cheese and bread. I love my wine.” Chris chimes in, “One thing Maria doesn’t share is her food,” and says she’s “definitely not the girl that [leaves food] on her plate; in fact she finishes her plate and starts on mine.”

(Back to happy marriage school for you, Chris.) In Lacey and Jay’s camp, both admit to being less committed to a strict eating plan. “

We do like ice cream and make frequent trips to the 24hour grocery store. Whenever I feel like I am not eating the best, Jay kindly reminds me that obviously I’m doing something right because I’m getting stronger. About himself, Jay
says, “I guess I ‘fall off the wagon’ more often, but then again, I don’t consider myself to be on the wagon when I’m eating well either. I eat to perform, and for me that usually means more food in general, including some things every now and then that I wouldn’t recommend to everyone.”

It could be said that even in the best partnerships, each member shares the joy of the other’s triumphs — even if the “triumph” comes in the form of, say, a bloody hand. “

I remember the first time I got a rip in my hand from pull ups (CrossFit badge of honour), Chris was so happy,” Maria confides. I think anything you do together, whether it’s working out or taking dance lessons, the fact that you are spending time together and learning a skill together is something to look forward to; it draws you closer.” Taking the blood­and­guts romance theme just one step further, she adds, “CrossFit definitely tests your strengths and weaknesses, and that bleeds into your relationship and social life.”

Great partners recognize each other’s strengths and aren’t threatened by them. This can be hard for anyone with a naturally competitive streak (and how many CrossFitters don’t fit that description?). They also know their weaknesses and can sense when their partner is struggling. Where CrossFit is concerned, what have the couples learned about one another over time?

Jay and Lacey’s experience coaching comes through in their answers. Jay says, “ For me, a lot of the time I’m in awe of how fluidly Lacey moves. Most of the time I have a huge sense of confidence and I know that she’s going to make her lifts or crush a workout. I can also tell when her back or something is bothering her in a workout, which happens from time to time, and it sucks because there is nothing I can do.” Lacey echoes this kind of sixth sense that lets her know whether Jay is flying high or going down in flames. She says, “ Whenever Jay is enjoying himself, I have nothing to worry about; he always performs well.”

Chris says that when he watches Maria training, “What goes through my mind is, ‘F*&K, I wish I had her genetics.’ She runs like a gazelle, works out like a machine, and I honestly think she can jump higher than me. I know it may seem a little weird [to think] this, but what I am mostly thinking is, ‘Man I can’t wait to have kids with Maria because my three sons—yes, three sons—will be making it to the Games by the age of 10 with our genes. She’s a hard worker in and out of the gym, so watching her during a workout shows me how her work ethic shines through all aspects of life, and I’m happy to be a part of it.”

Maria’s answer, while less focused on reproduction, is no less complimentary. “

I’ve never met a more dedicated person in my life. And like I said, I’m a very competitive person; however, recently (and I’ll share this with you), I have been in a place [that] is foreign to me. I’ve lost some inspiration. I stepped away from training for a while and just recently got back into it. When I watch Chris train and compete, I think of how blessed I am to have such an admirable person in my life. I look at how hard this man works to make it, and that in itself makes me the happiest woman. I use his drive and his passion for success to inspire and push me.”So should you sign up your DH, DW, or SO to be your CrossFit buddy ‘til death parts you?’ Not necessarily.“It all depends on what you want,” says Chris. “Don’t force your partner. You get nothing resolved by forcing, and in fact, it will eventually hinder what you wanted to achieve in the first place.”

And remember, not everyone’s heart is set aflutter by the sight of a bloody hand.

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