In 2015 Arsenal Coach Skyler Finnerty finished 107th in the Central-East region in the CrossFit Open. He placed higher than any other Arsenal athlete.
This has motivated me to get busy on that time machine I’ve been working on since I was 8.
Let me explain.
Just two years ago Coach Skyler, who can clean and jerk more than I can deadlift, tried Fran in his home gym for the first time alongside Arsenal athlete Dakota Steed.
“We’re just like let’s go out to the weight room and do it,” Skyler told me. “When I first looked at it I was like, ‘We’re supposed to do 21-15-9 of thrusters and pullups and that’s all my workout for the day?’”
“Halfway through the round of 21 I started dying. I think that’s when I started falling in love with CrossFit.”
“My mom [Arsenal athlete Kristi Trissel] came home and I was laying inside on the kitchen floor and she was like, ‘Did you know that Dakota is inside his car unresponsive in the driveway?’ We had been done for 30 minutes, and I couldn’t believe he was still there. He said that he was in and out of consciousness and that his legs didn’t work. One leg was in the car and the other was hanging out. We weren’t leg guys. The thrusters smoked us.”
“I think it took us between 15 to 20 minutes to do it.”
Fifteen to twenty minutes! That means when I finish my time machine and Present-Day-Kelsey challenges 2-years-ago-Skyler to a Fran competition, I would complete the WOD almost twice as fast.
Let that sink in.
I don’t mean to brag, but I dominate the bottom fifth of the Leaderboard at the Arsenal, and I would’ve smoked Skyler. Before stepping back in my time machine to return to 2015 (and reality), I would’ve looked at him and said, “Remember this day!”
I guess I assumed that Skyler’s momma gave birth to a tatted-up baby boy with washboard abs and a viking beard. I assumed that he was born doing CrossFit. But while chatting with Skyler I found many aspects of his journey to becoming the “Fittest Man in Randolph County” and one of the fittest men in our 5-state region unexpected.
145-lb High School Skyler
“I played basketball in 6th and 7th grade. I came in for tryouts during 8th grade, and I had real long hair. The coach told me to cut my hair so . . . I quit and joined the wrestling team. I didn’t win a match my entire first year. After that year, I don’t know why I stuck it out. I just got murdered all the time.”
“Wrestling really taught me how to train and work toward a goal.”
“I see why people stick with CrossFit even if they can’t do an air squat when they come in. I had that same experience in wrestling.”
After a winless season, Shane Trissel, an Arsenal athlete and Skyler’s step-dad, talked Skyler into training at an elite wrestling academy in Indianapolis that worked with many of the state champions — Central Indiana Academy of Wrestling.
“To take this kid who never won a match and throw them into the shark tank . . . I’m not sure what they were thinking. I just got beat on for the entire summer. And the first half of my freshman year I still didn’t win a match. Finally, I won and hard work started to pay off. The summer after my freshman year, I kept going to CIA and kept doing judo and I made varsity as a sophomore and moved onto Team Indiana as a junior.”
Skyler learned that hard work doesn’t negate failure, but goals aren’t reached without failures.
He also learned how to eat and how not to eat.
“I wrestled at 135 lbs in 8th grade and wrestled at 145 lbs as a senior. I would come in on Monday at 160 and have to cut down to 145 by Saturday morning. It was terrible. My mom hated me for five years. I would come home and just lay on the couch. I had no energy. I would watch the Food Network and for some reason just seeing it kind of satisfied some cravings. I would open the fridge or the cabinets and go make lists of what I was going to eat after wrestling season was over.”
“After my senior year I went off the rails. I vividly remember one of the meals I had planned out was two Milky Ways and a Mountain Dew. I took that to an extreme and I got up to 205 lbs right after my senior year.”
“I always said I’m going to get fat after wrestling and that’s what I did. But then I would drive and I could feel my gut shaking . . . that’s when I knew I had to do something. I just started doing normal 3 sets of 10 bench presses in the gym and some bicep curls. That dropped me down to 170. I wasn’t so much for the legs in the beginning. I did situps and the ab wheel. I really liked the curls though! I didn’t do hardly any squats. I didn’t do that until I started coming to the Arsenal.”
After a few months of doing CrossFit in his home gym with Dakota, Skyler heard about the Grand Opening of the Arsenal in 2013.
At the time he was on summer break from college (he has a degree in agriculture from Ivy Tech) and was working at the glass factory in Dunkirk, which he says was like working inside a volcano. He got one weekend a month off and by luck the grand opening happened to fall on the right weekend. He came to the event with his then-girlfriend and they won a one-month couple’s membership.
Skyler remembers watching Coach Greg clean and jerk 315.
“At the time I was blown away a human could do that. But I just clean and jerked 315 and snatched 240 a few weeks ago.”
“Once I won that membership, I came every day for a month. I’d come after 12-hour days at work. I couldn’t overhead squat. I couldn’t do a lot of the basics. It was a journey.”
“After 4 months I started to help some. I got my L1 [CrossFit Coaching cert] all on my own so if the opportunity arose to be a coach, I’d be ready. I went to Rogue in Columbus. Three weeks later, I covered a class. I kept sticking around. They couldn’t get rid of me.”
And since they couldn’t get rid of him, they hired him.
“When I have to wake up at 4:50 AM to coach the 5:30 AM animals, I always think that I could be waking up to go do 8 hours in the glass factory where it is 130-degrees and there is just glass flying all around you. I worked there and saved my money until I found what I really wanted to do and that was CrossFit.”
“This is what I want to do. Ten years from now I want to coach athletes to the CrossFit games. Right now I am slightly concerned about myself as an athlete. But the real goal is to coach athletes. As an athlete, when I get better I think I’m a much better coach for other people.”
“Honestly, coaching people helps me, too. I’m forced to talk through something so I see it different than if I’m just in the gym throwing around a barbell.”
“When someone is having a problem and I can’t help them get past it. That’s the most frustrating. But the best part is seeing people have those breakthroughs or seeing how far people have come from the beginning like Pam Peters.”
Skyler talked about helping me get my first strict handstand pushup.
“I remember things like that.”
“On Saturday, we had a foundations class that just started and this kid couldn’t squat to save his life. He was all up on his toes like a baby deer fresh out of the womb and yesterday — two days later — I worked with him on some squat progressions. He was just smashing them. He told me he went home on Sunday and did hip stretches and ankle mobility. One day! One day increased how efficiently he could move!”
“Nat Carpenter. When he came in he couldn’t squat to save his life. He couldn’t maintain an overhead position. And now he’s clean and jerking 225.”
“When do you see a group of people celebrating accomplishments daily? At the Arsenal individuals are celebrated every day.”
“Very rarely do people push themselves to maximum exertion or try to learn a new skill — a rope climb or a muscle up. It takes people back to the days of being kids and trying and failing and trying and succeeding.”
Tips from the Coach
“You have to break through the ego. At first, I had a little distorted perception of what was success. I think ego gets in the way of getting better, of setting and reaching your training goals.”
“In the beginning I felt like I had something to prove to all the guys. But now I don’t feel that way, and I think that has made me a better athlete and a better coach.”
“I’m learning that it’s not always about winning, it’s about you individually getting better.”
I asked Skyler to share three tips to make us all better:
- Master technique. If you don’t master form and fundamentals, everything is going to be harder.
- Make sure that you have all the mobility to reach full range of motion in all of these positions we do. If you don’t over time it will take a lot of wear and tear on your body.
- Get a coach. Listen to your coach. There is a reason we program certain things on certain days and how we lay out the weeks. Having a good coach will definitely push you toward your goals faster than you could achieve on your own.
Inspired by Failure
I’ve had the pleasure of learning from Skyler. Small little tweaks here and there have helped me with my overhead squats and my handstand pushups. We started CrossFit at about the same time, which could be depressing, if I think about it. But what I find inspiring about Skyler’s story is that he wasn’t born a Viking-bearded, muscle-chiseled CrossFit beast. He worked at it and continues to work at it.
Skyler sucked at overhead squats. Just like me. Just like you.
He cursed thrusters. Just like me. Just like you.
He didn’t just learn from failure, he let it shape his ego. He let failure inspire him to succeed.
And that, in my opinion, is one of the most important skills we all can learn from CrossFit.