I was really utilizing the Arsenal to not go crazy. - Coach Josh Winger

CrossFit Helps Soldier Through Life’s Challenges

I was really utilizing the Arsenal to not go crazy. - Coach Josh Winger

Was Coach Josh Winger born with that thing? You know, that thing, that desire to push through the pain, to stand up and keep going–is that something in his DNA or is that something life instills?

I had the honor of sitting down with Josh for nearly two hours (that might be a conversation PR for Josh) to talk about life and CrossFit. Josh told me that he’s been asked about “that thing” before from an Arsenal athlete.

“He came in the locker room one time and he’s like, ‘Coach you just have that thing. That thing that BJ has, that Brooke has. How do I get that?’ I was like, ‘I don’t know that you can. People just have it. I’m going to yell at you to get back on the bar when you feel like throwing up and you are going to do it or you’re not.’”


Josh, a Staff Sergeant in the Army, has been at The Arsenal from the beginning.

“The Army came to me in March of 2013 and said, ‘We think CrossFit is the way to go in the future, we want you to get [L1] certified.” My buddy Paul had told me in 2011 or 2012, I needed to do it, ‘You have to try this,’ [Paul said,] ‘this sport is Josh Winger! It’s running, it’s lifting weights, it’s being fast, it’s endurance, it’s everything!’

There are few things I enjoy more in doing these interviews than learning how much the people who kick my butt on a regular basis struggled in the beginning. Josh was no different.

“I decided to try it and asked Paul what I should do. It was when the Open was going on and 13.1 had just been released. It was a hundred million burpees and a hundred million snatches. I got to 20 burpees and literally had my hands on my knees wondering why anyone would want to do this; I couldn’t even breathe and I still had 20 more burpees to do. I did some of the other workouts and still wasn’t sure about it. But after the L1 certification, I was hooked.”

The military wasn’t sure how or if they were going to put Josh’s new-found understanding of CrossFit to use, but one of his Soldiers told him about The Arsenal opening in Muncie. The building was still being outfitted but a group was meeting at DC Barbell. Josh joined them.

“So I started coming, I was working out with Joe Ciuffo, Pam Peters, Jennifer Stanley, Aly Williams, Matt Carder, and [Coach] Adam. We were all a bunch of nerds trying to figure this thing out. I worked out for a week or two and got the feel for how it worked, and then I coached a little bit. I was fine with everything, but Olympic lifting was what intimidated me. I had done bench press and curls, I had never done a snatch, had never done a clean and jerk. I’d Google “clean and jerk” and watch every video that it linked to. A lot of my time the first few months of the Arsenal I would see the workouts and then go in there at 5:30 AM and try things. I did my due diligence in the evenings, too, trying to get myself up to speed.”

Josh was no stranger to training. He earned a black belt in Jazzercising before the age of 25 for instance. Just kidding, although he did get into jiu-jitsu for a bit. He started as a runner in junior high, and then became a protein-swilling, arm-curling gym rat, and eventually a personal trainer.

“In track, we did stuff in the weight room. I kind of liked it then so after high school I got a gym membership, just learning on my own. I’ve always been kind of obsessive compulsive, so I don’t really just go to the gym and lift weights. I buy all the magazines, the protein, and totally nerd out.”

“I have always been training for something. Spring and summer I’d run 5ks, 10ks, and I did a couple half marathons, too. In the summer, I’d always get down to 175-180 pounds, and in the winter I’d get up to 200 lbs from lifting weights.”

“After I graduated from high school in Lafayette, I didn’t really do anything my first year. I took a couple of classes at Purdue and a few at Ivy Tech, and my second year after high school is when I went to Ball State. I did a year at Ball State and got into a little bit of debt from school. I wasn’t really doing all the right things. I was at school, but I wasn’t really focusing on school. Partying too much. I had a couple buddies who joined the National Guard. They told me it would pay for my school, and I could get away. So I took the next year off and went to basic training.

And, boy, did Josh get away

Three weeks after Josh joined the Army, September 11th happened.

“I was pretty certain I was going to go to WWIII when I was watching that news. After basic, I went back to Ball State in August, and in November of 2002 my unit was put on alert . . . On January 4th, we landed in Kuwait. For two months, we were basically the security force for Shuwaikh Port, the only deep sea port in Kuwait.”

“During this time, we didn’t really watch the news or anything, but I’d call home and talk to my dad every few weeks. President Bush was like, ‘Just tell us you’ll surrender your weapons, and we will not invade your country.’  I was a roving patrol on this port, and I was watching gigantic aircraft carriers unload 2000 humvees and 2000 tanks one after the other so I knew in my mind we were going to be kicking somebody’s ass. I did that for two months.”

“The Iraq war started March 20th–my birthday. I had signed up to get my life straightened up and get my school paid for, and one year later, I was crossing into Iraq.”

“After I came back from Iraq, I didn’t want to go back to Ball State because the guys I had gone to school with had graduated. I went back home to Lafayette and got a job at a pharmaceutical company and did that for 4 or 5 years. I was single and my weeks pretty much consisted of go to work, work out, and then Thursday through Sunday I’d get really drunk with all my friends. I knew I was kind of spinning my wheels. My parents had some alcohol issues–in and out of rehab a couple of times. I didn’t want to get on that path.”

“In 2008, the gym I was working out at said they were opening a gym in Westfield. They hired me as a personal trainer there. It was a change of scenery, doing something I liked. That lasted for about six months until the owners came to me and said the gym was going under and we needed to try to find something else to do. By a stroke of luck, literally that week, one of the lieutenants from my platoon in Iraq said that he had got put on some orders to work active duty in Indianapolis. He needed a team to sort through medical records. My original set of orders were three months long, and since June of 2008, I’ve been on active duty ever since. They haven’t been able to get rid of me.”

“It’s a good life. The Army has definitely been good to me. July will be nine years of active duty and 14 years total in the Army.”

“Spend a year in Iraq in your 20’s . . . you can’t go through those things and not come back different. It definitely changed me. It forced me to grow up.”

Forced to grow up

That’s happened to Josh a lot.

“I lost my mom when I was 15. I draw a lot of my strength from that. I’m 34 now and I still think about her every day. I lost her when I was a sophomore in high school. My dad was always the worker bee and my mom was the admin at home, so it forced me to be a grown up as a 15-year-old. I had a younger brother and sister I had to help with. Whether that or Iraq, I’ve always had to live a few years ahead.”

Josh never knew his biological father, but he credits his dad Larry, who adopted Josh when he was one, for teaching him a lot about overcoming adversity. He worked 40 years as a laborer for Norfolk Southern railroad, battled an alcohol addiction, and lost his second wife just a few days before Josh shipped off for Iraq.

“I’ve tried to emulate him. I love and respect him so much.”

While in Indianapolis, Josh met a girl who became his wife and they had a baby boy together–Layten.

“Having Layten was awesome. It’s still awesome. Being his dad is my favorite thing about being me now. I take it 100% seriously. It’s a whole different ballgame when you have someone else to take care of. Your needs start to go by the wayside.”

But his relationship with Layten’s mom was a struggle.

“It was kind of trying to fit a square peg into a round hole. We separated a few different times and tried to make it work, but finally I decided that I wasn’t happy. . . Leaving my wife was the hardest decision I ever made.”

He knew that separating from his wife would mean that he wouldn’t see Layten every day.

“I’m not the same person when he’s not with me. I’m a little more at peace when he’s around me. I enjoy putting him to bed, waking him up, the little things.”

After his separation, the Arsenal and CrossFit became his refuge. He started to notice “that thing” in a fellow athlete–Brooke Bailey.

“One of the things that drew me to Brooke was how tough she is. She’s not afraid. She gets after it.”

Brooke and Josh started to chat about more than just squat form. Their backgrounds were really similar. They both lost their mothers when they were very young.

[Read Brooke’s story]

“Brooke and the community at the Arsenal is really what pulled me through that time. Brooke was always there to guide me and make sure I was going in the right direction. I had the Arsenal to go to, just to work out and clear my mind, take out some of the aggression. Going to see the coaches there, who I now consider to be some of my best friends, and all the people there really pulled me through. And now I’m glad that a year and a half later, I’m at a place where there’s a sense of normalcy. I can look back and just be really appreciative. At the time, you’re just going through the motions. I was really utilizing the Arsenal to not go crazy.”  

“It’s a little bit surprising how I bought into the community of the Arsenal because I was always kind of the lone wolf. I had friends, but I never had a gym buddy, never a running group; I did all that on my own. It’s been nice to listen to advice from other people and be coached by my fellow coaches. I’ve really grown as a coach at the Arsenal, it’s helped me to open up and help other people and use the knowledge I have. I was kind of in my shell in the beginning and wasn’t too good at it. Now I’m more comfortable with public speaking and seeing a deficiency in an athlete and communicating how they can fix it.”

“I remember doing wall balls with Pam Peters outside DC Barbell, and I had to make her stop because I thought her knees were going to snap. And now she does a perfect overhead squat. I’m really proud of everyone there and what I’ve been able to do there. I’ve never been a huge relationship person, but I kind of got some best friends out of the Arsenal and kind of got a future wife. It has given me a lot.”

I’m not sure there is any individual at the Arsenal who works as hard as Josh to improve. But during our chat, he wasn’t talking about personal PRs. He seems to have gained more from the growth of others than himself. And personally I’ve enjoyed watching Josh grow, and especially watching Josh’s and Brooke’s families grow together.

Josh and Brooke recently moved to Hamilton county for Brooke’s job. Josh will continue to work out of Muncie, and he’ll still be at the Arsenal on a regular basis, but Brooke will be settling into a new CrossFit community.

“BJ always tells us to coach every WOD like it’s our last because you never know who got a flat tire on the way to work, and they get to work and their boss gives them a demotion, and they left their lunch in the refrigerator at home and they had to go home because their kid was sick. So those four or five things you can say to them about their technique or encouraging them or telling them about the difference you see in them over a few months could be the make or break of a shitty day. We often don’t realize how much we can affect people by what we tell them. I need to remember and the coaches need to remember how seriously people take this. And I only need to look at my own story to see how seriously people take it.”

“The Arsenal is everything to me. Start to finish I’m really proud to be at the roots of something and be in that building [before it was done] and see what it was and what it is now.”

That Thing

Most of the time I don’t have “that thing” that Josh has. Although Coach Josh has pushed me to that place before. I remember a WOD early on where Josh told me to get back on the bar and I did every time. Afterwards, Josh told me he appreciated how I responded to his encouragement to push onward. Of course, part of me was hoping he’d go the hell away so I could bend over and sob quietly to myself. But I haven’t forgotten what Josh told me. Deep down I filed it as: “Josh thinks I’m tough.” So now I’ll be in the middle of a hard WOD trying to catch my breath, hearing the bars bang all around me, and I’ll tell myself: ‘Kelsey! Get back on that bar. Josh thinks you’re tough, remember?’”

That thing is in Josh’s DNA and it has been shaped and expressed by losing his mom when he was a teenager, by Iraq, by people, by places, and by life. You and I may never have “that thing,” that toughness, but we do have people in our lives with that toughness.

Josh’s toughness is contagious. He’s like a badass Jiminy Cricket with tattoos and washboard abs telling you to get back on that bar and be stronger than you thought you could be.