exercise

If darkness was all you could see, would you still work out?

Terry Garrett is blind. So what? He still does CrossFit.

Put on a blindfold before you start your WOD and you’ll get an idea of what Terry Garrett experiences every time he sets foot in CrossFit Crush.

Completely blind for nearly twenty years, Garrett (whose thirtieth birthday is this month) has been working out at CrossFit Crush since the end of 2013. He does all of the movements — box jumpovers, double unders, clean and jerks, wall walks — and only adjusts two of them due to his blindness:

  • When he runs, he holds onto another person’s arm for guidance.
  • He no longer tries to catch wall balls.

When he talks about that second one, he doesn’t mention his lack of sight.

“I can’t catch it because I’ve almost strained one of my fingers and I’ve hit myself in the head a lot with it, so I have to let it drop every time,” he says. “It’s throw, drop, pick it up. Then you have to stand all the way up before you start the next squat, so it takes me forever.”

In a world seemingly driven by visual stimuli — sparkling screens and flashing lights and solar eclipses — Garrett travels in darkness, guided by his seeing eye dog Hazel, his own keen sense of space, and the help of friends and family.

Originally from Fort Lupton, Co., Garrett grew up on a farm with his mom, dad, and two brothers. He was an active kid, but several eye problems led to a series of surgeries, and at the age of 10, Garrett’s eyes had had enough. Scar tissue took over and his sight was completely erased.

At the time, Garrett was relieved to be done with eye surgeries, but that didn’t make transitioning to a life of blindness any easier. He was a 10-year-old boy and an active farm kid who liked to run around, ride bikes. He hated being different from all of his peers.

“And then my parents sent me to the deaf and blind school which was a hundred miles away,” he said.

That’s a literal hundred miles. The Colorado School for the Deaf and Blind is in Colorado Springs. Fort Lupton is 30 miles north of Denver. Garrett only saw his family on the weekends.

Still, his time at the school was pivotal.

“They have some really gifted people who were able to turn … my blindness from something that hindered me to something that now strengthens me,” Garrett said. “It doesn’t define who I am, but it defines how I live my life.”

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Terry Garrett in front of the gorilla mural at CrossFit Crush.

If there’s one word to describe Garrett, it’s gumption.

As a CrossFitter, he’s competed in The Open, CrossFit Castle Rock’s Battle at the Rock, and the Festivus Games. Before CrossFit, he did triathlons. In high school, he wrestled and ran track. His Facebook cover photo is of him on the rocks at Windom Peak, the highest peak of the Needle Mountains in southwestern Colorado, which he climbed in 2015 — his eleventh 14er (he’s climbed a total of 12).

He enjoys pushing himself physically, but those aren’t the only challenges that call his name. Garrett works as a second level software engineer for Northrup Grumman and hopes to become a third level engineer in the next year. He owns his own home and does all of his own lawn care, including gardening — vegetables in the backyard and what he calls “lookable plants” in the front.

“I also have a history of playing video games,” he said. In 2011, Wired published an article about his endeavor to play Zelda: Ocarina of Time. He beat the game five years later. “I really haven’t played video games a lot since.”

His attitude toward the challenges he faces is overwhelmingly positive. You get the sense that he enjoys engineering situations and circumstances in order to accomplish success.

“The world’s not going to bend over backwards to help me, so I have to do what I can to adapt to the world around me,” he said. “I’m not going to feel sorry for myself.”

When Garrett came into CrossFit Crush for the 4:30 p.m. class on a Friday afternoon this past July, he put his bag down in the same corner he always does and started joking with coach Travis Lay.

“Who else is here?” he asked, and Lay told him. Then Garrett started warming up, taking another member’s arm to run the first 400 meters. Strength was the deadlift, and Garrett loaded his own barbell. Before long, the WOD was on the screen, and a total of 400 double unders glared down.

The clock started and Garrett strung together his personal best of 100 double unders without stopping.

He’s a spirited competitor. Throughout the WOD, he kept tabs on where the other CrossFit Crush-ers were in the workout.

“How many is Gavin at?” he asked in the middle of his seated strict presses.

“28.”

“Okay, I’m fine then.” And he pressed on, throwing the bar from the front of his upper shins to his shoulders to pound out a few more reps.

Garrett is your typical CrossFitter. He loves (and hates) a hard workout. He enjoys joking with and razzing his coaches and fellow athletes. He’s got the shoes and his own jump rope.

Yes, he’s blind. Yes, he can’t see what he’s doing. But watch him navigate a workout and, except for when he’s loading the barbell or moving to the next movement, you can’t really tell. It’s enough to hear the rope click against the floor, to grip the bar with two hands, to pull and push.

“Just because my eyes don’t work doesn’t mean that the rest of my body should suffer,” Garrett said. And while those outside of CrossFit might consider a typical WOD straight “suffering,” the rest of us know better.

Know a Denver-area CrossFit story that needs to be told? Share it with us.

Denver’s homegrown team heads to the CrossFit Games for the second year in a row

CrossFit Omnia’s garage door is open. Music pumps through the air and you can hear the slamming of weights from inside. A couple dogs wander around the entrance, comfortable, like this place is their second home.

For the members of the CrossFit Omnia team—headed to the Games for the second year in a row—this place really is their second home. Other than work (they all work separate full-time jobs), the box sees most of their heartbeats, maybe even more since, you know, when they’re here they’re working out.

Kelly Stone is new to the team this year. A doctor of physical therapy who swam Division One at the University of San Diego and grew up doing competitive gymnastics, she’s only been doing CrossFit for a year and a half. This year, she qualified for Regionals as an individual. She gave that up to compete with the team.

“They almost killed me the first time we touched the slug,” she said, referring to what is also called the worm, a 17-foot-long cylindrical sack that weighs 435 pounds.

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Worm-wrangling at the 2016 Games.

It was the first day of training for Regionals. She was the only one who’d never worked with the worm before.

“The first rep we did … we flipped it onto Kelly,” said John Birkmeier, a returning athlete who describes his athletic background as nonexistent—he was a skater boy. Not the flat-brimmed hat kind, more the long-haired surfer kind. He also did competitive sailing.

“I got talked into buying a Groupon,” he explained, and he and a few friends dropped into a CrossFit box. “I got my ass kicked for a month and I looked at myself in the mirror and I said, ‘I’m going to get really good at this.’”

That was the beginning of 2013, before Omnia opened, at owner RJ Smith’s first box. When Omnia opened, Birkmeier followed RJ.

“I’m the Omnia OG on the team,” he joked.

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Laughs at the 2016 Games. Birkmeier front and center.

A few minutes with the team and it’s clear they’re a bundle of laughs—despite near-death experiences with the worm.

“We don’t take each other too seriously,” said John Carter, an Army veteran and former wrestler who also grew up playing baseball. Carter got into CrossFit in 2011 while he was in the service, stationed in Colorado Springs. He’s been at Omnia since the end of 2015.

“We don’t stress out a lot,” he said. “We’re pretty cohesive. We’re really good at communication.”

“We laugh,” Birkmeier added. “We’re constantly making fun of each other.”

“We’re proud of being a homegrown gym, too,” Carter said. “A lot of gyms out there will—”

“Assemble a team,” Birkmeier said.

“Yeah, assemble a team. Fly people in from across the United States to be on a team. We’re all from the area.”

“It’s a hobby to us,” Birkmeier said.

A hobby that requires a lot of time, effort, and willpower. Or, for Jeff Schuette, just more of what he loves. The exercise physiologist who played football for Minnesota State Moorhead also coaches at Omnia a few hours each week.

“Everything I do is exercise related, one way or another,” he said. With the exception of reading. He takes pride in the fact that he, unlike the Johns, has actually read George R.R. Martin’s Game of Thrones.

“We’re kind of like a family, I guess,” he said. “We fight. We get along. For the most part, we don’t have any huge egos … We all kind of understand each other’s limits.”

“People underestimate us—I feel like they have, last year, this year,” Carter said. “But we like that. It gives us a little chip on our shoulder that we can use in competition.”

The team’s time to train together has been limited. Six people, each with their own full-time jobs, schedules, and commitments. They’ve had to be strategic about what they do when they’re together and what they do when training alone or in smaller groups.

Ashley Gaillot, a former volleyball player for St. Louis University, works as a firefighter in Thornton.

“I do 48 hours on, 96 off,” she said, “so when I’m at work, I can’t spend time here with the guys training … but my days off are really good ‘cause I can spend more time training.”

It was actually through firefighting that Gaillot got into CrossFit: one of her classmates at the academy coached at Omnia and invited her to try it out. She had familiarity with some of the movements, but not the barbell work. That was almost three years ago.

“The learning curve for the Olympic lifts is so huge,” said Sarah Manuel, the sixth member of the team, “and everybody feels like a baby deer for like a year, until they actually learn them.”

Manuel did track and field at Colorado State University and didn’t start CrossFit until she moved to Denver after college. Manuel remembers the first time she snatched 120 pounds and how heavy it felt. Now, she warms up with that weight.

Looking back at last year’s Games, the returners recalled a few favorite moments. There was the time Carter’s calf cramped up and he couldn’t keep running, so they threw him on the litter that they were supposed to carry a teammate on anyway. Then there was the swim-and-run in the Pacific.

“We’re a landlocked state, and we got fourth [place],” Manuel said.

400 meters: swim 300, run the last hundred. In pairs. Cross the finish line together, all six holding hands. Birkmeier and Schuette were the last pair to go.

Manuel saw Birkmeier come out of the water and Rich Froning pop his head out right after him.

“Birk is half dead and we’re dragging him across the finish line, trying to run as fast as we can,” she said, “and Rich Froning’s team is also half dead.”

CrossFit Omnia beat Rich Froning’s team.

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From left: Jeff Schuette, Sarah Manuel, Kelly Stone, John Carter, John Birkmeier, and Ashley Gaillot.

The 2017 Games are this week, August 3-6, in Madison, Wisconsin. The team is gearing up and ready, but they’re not exactly sure what to expect other than that, as Berkmeier said, “It’s gonna hurt.”

Regionals this year, they agree, was harder than last year. They knew they had the ability to get to the Games, but they had to dig deep and fight hard.

“CrossFit is so definite and indefinite at the same time,” Manuel said. “You can train every energy system, every movement pattern, and then you can think, ‘Okay, what kind of weird shit can they throw in this week or this year?’ And it shows up.”

“I’m looking forward to seeing how well we can stack up against other teams,” Carter said, “after being together for a year and having the experience of not being a rookie team like we were last year.”

“I think we’ll be more consistent across the board,” Schuette said. “I just think experience pays off … and we’ll just carry Kelly through.” He tossed a joking look to Stone.

In a few days, they’ll know for sure.

Know a Denver-area CrossFit story that needs to be told? Share it with us.