Zack George has reached peak fitness, but he is determined to go further still. In the autumn of 2019, he finished first in the UK region in the 2020 CrossFit Open – an online competition consisting of five vile workouts. Out of the 126,461 male athletes listed on the global leader board, he came 26th.
His victory had been six years in the making. An ordinary lad from Leicester, George had poured in thousands of hours of hard work and, aged 29, had finally made it. Winning in the UK qualified him for the 2020 CrossFit Games – the marquee event of the “sport of fitness”, incorporating strength, gymnastics, stamina and mental grit.
Softly spoken and quick to laugh, George looks like a walking fridge-freezer of functional muscle. He is 6ft and 100kg: huge for a CrossFitter. His back squat sits at 210kg and he has a 127.5kg snatch, but he can run 5K in 19 minutes and 20 seconds. His mile PB is a lung-busting five minutes and 25 seconds.
Supported by his family, friends and girlfriend, and backed by big sponsors such as Myprotein, Hyperice and G-Shock, 2020 was shaping up to be his year: the year in which he’d go head to head with Mat Fraser, Noah Ohlsen and friends, competing on the biggest stage in their sport. Then everything changed.
Change is not new to George, who was born in Evington, on the outskirts of Leicester. “I was very different as a kid,” he says. “I was overweight and ate sweets constantly. I’d have fast food six times a week. I was quite sporty and had good co-ordination, but I’d get tired and out of breath easily. If my mum parked too far away in the supermarket car park, I’d complain, because I was too lazy to walk.
“The biggest thing, for me, was how conscious I was of my own body. My school had swimming lessons on Thursdays. I used to pretend to be ill, so I wouldn’t have to take my top off.” It’s hard to imagine the man in these pictures being insecure about his body. George recognises the irony that he now has the CrossFitter’s allergy to T-shirts when working up even the slightest sweat.
The catalyst for his weight loss came in the unlikely form of a PlayStation 2. When he was 13, he asked his dad to buy him the console, and they struck a deal: eat more healthily for a month and he’d get one. “I stopped eating McDonald’s six times a week and went twice instead. And I’d have a bag of Haribo every other day, rather than every day. Just that decrease meant I lost weight.
“Dad bought me the PS2 and I loved it!” George remembers. “Instead of being active, I was stuck in front of a screen. But I carried on looking after my diet. By the time I was 15, I started wanting to lose weight and didn’t need an external reward.”
The benefits of a healthier lifestyle began to bear fruit. Between the ages of 15 and 18, he represented Leicestershire at rugby and became a sport captain at school. His visits to McDonald’s dropped to once a month, then he cut out junk food altogether. The child who had once complained about walking too far across a car park became known locally as the “fitness kid”.
Around this time, George started going to the gym. “I didn’t know what I was doing,” he recalls. “I’d try to go as heavy as I could every day: stick as much weight on the bar as possible and curl it as many times as I can. Whoever curls it the most wins. It was just me and my mates having a laugh. Weirdly, now, I pretty much do that for a living.”
When ankle injuries forced him to hang up his rugby boots at 18, George went to college and became a qualified personal trainer. For five years, he taught six kettlebell group sessions a week, while running his own fitness classes out of his parents’ house. Again, his father provided a new stimulus for growth.
“He knew how competitive I was and always thought I’d become a professional athlete,” says George. “He’d seen this video of a 2013 Games event with swimming and bar muscle-ups. There was this shot of [CrossFit icons] Rich Froning, Jason Khalipa and Matt Chan standing at the side of the pool, and they looked as jacked as hell! I didn’t know what they were doing, or why they were doing it. But it looked cool.”
After finding a CrossFit box 45 minutes away in Northampton, he started doing one-on-one training sessions and entered a local competition, Battle for Midlands, after only two months. It wasn’t the debut he’d been hoping for.
“There was an event with a lot of toes-to-ring. Everyone was doing them unbroken, so I figured I should, too. But I couldn’t get my feet to the rings. I had no experience. My strength, my basic movements and fitness were fine. Anything technical was not.”
He continued to train hard, on a schedule of 14-hour days, six days a week, running fitness classes and squeezing in two workouts of his own at the gym he then owned with his sister. His body and mind were being crushed under the weight of his ambition. Then Harmeet Singh, a CrossFit athlete and coach who had just moved to Leicester from Dubai, walked in during one of George’s CrossFit sessions.
“He saw me strict-pressing 100kg and said, ‘I’ll coach you and we’ll train together.’ I told him my goal was to get to the Games. He said, ‘If we sort your technique and get your capacity up on the gymnastics side, we’ll get there.’”
The Dividing Line
George and Singh opened a gym, CrossFit BFG, in 2017, and with the classes covered by a growing team of coaches, George could focus on his own development as an athlete. He’d come in for his morning session, stretch, head home for some food and repeat that process in the afternoon. Progress came quickly: he qualified through the Open for the 2018 European Regional, at that point the second and final hurdle en route to the CrossFit Games.
“I was super-happy to have qualified. I didn’t care if I came fifth or last. I was celebrating the whole time. After the first day, I was with a few friends chatting until midnight. Suddenly, I said, ‘Lads! I’ve got to be up in six hours!’ That was my mentality. But I wouldn’t change that experience for the world.”
The CrossFit season was overhauled in 2019, with the Regionals scrapped for a system with three routes to the Games. The most direct was to become a national champion, the athlete ranked first in the Open in any country with at least one affiliated CrossFit gym. For George, buoyed by his success the previous year, winning in the UK was the golden ticket he’d been waiting for.
The 2019 Open started well. George won the first workout and finished as runner-up in the second. The third test was announced: 200ft dumbbell overhead lunges, 50 dumbbell box step-ups, 50 strict handstand press-ups and a 200ft handstand walk. There was a stumbling block in the middle, one that George had not foreseen. He tripped.
“I didn’t know strict handstand press-ups were my weakness,” he says. “I hadn’t prepared properly. I didn’t even get to the handstand walk before the 10-minute time limit was up. I did that workout six times, because I knew it would be the difference between getting to the Games or not. But every time, I got worse.”
George’s scores on the UK leader board in 2019 were two firsts, a second, a fourth and a 168th. He texted Elliot Simmonds, that year’s UK winner, to congratulate him. Simmonds replied, “Thank God you can’t do handstand press-ups!”
That failure would have been enough to derail most of us. But for George, it was an opportunity: he saw his weakness as a chance to reach for new strength. “Last year was a huge separator for me. I had to realise I was good enough to win the Open that year. One movement cost me the win. I knew I could make it to the Games if I sorted out this one weakness. You have to be obsessed with getting better. My training partners would ask, ‘What are we doing next?’ and I’d tell them handstand press-ups. They would roll their eyes and say, ‘Zack, you did them two days ago!’ But I didn’t care. I did them again.”
For the 2020 Open, he dropped to 96kg. He’d become a lot better at handstand push-ups, too, but the UK championship was a three-horse race, with Simmonds and David Shorunke in close competition. When the third test was announced, it had handstand press-ups right in the middle of the workout. George didn’t blink. His time of seven minutes and 36 seconds was almost 20 seconds faster than Simmonds’s. He had a full minute on Shorunke.
“I didn’t know this but Elliot thought he’d won when that workout was announced. Winning it in the UK was my proudest moment so far. Not only did I do well, I got the fastest score.”
George won the UK Open by a single point. Now, he could start training for the CrossFit Games, to compete against the best in the Alliant Energy Center in Madison, Wisconsin. He was excited. He was ready.
Winds of Change
George didn’t go to the Games. Because of the pandemic, the event in Madison couldn’t take place. In 2019, there were 500 competitors across all the divisions and 80,000 spectators. Reductions to those numbers had to be made to ensure that everyone was safe. Spectators were banned and the masters, teenage and team competitions were dropped.
The national champions were next, cut to further limit numbers. But George’s reaction wasn’t to rage on what might have been. Instead, he took the positives and used them as motivation to go into the 2021 season even stronger.
“I’d worked so hard to get there. I achieved that goal and nothing can take that away. Not being able to perform made me even more up for next year’s Games. People have asked me if I’m devastated. I think, ‘It is what it is.’ I’m not going to get upset about it or angry.”
Anger in the CrossFit community was directed elsewhere. Following the death of George Floyd and Black Lives Matter’s calls for justice, a racially insensitive tweet by then CEO and owner Greg Glassman resulted in everyone from CrossFit employees to CrossFit Games champions and partners such as Reebok distancing themselves from the brand.
“When I saw Glassman’s comments, it made me sad, as it doesn’t represent our community. It was one man’s view. There aren’t many black guys in CrossFit at the top of the sport. But I’ve never come across any racial abuse, either to myself or to other athletes. The community is what made me fall in love with CrossFit. It’s what makes most people fall in love with it. Every gym is a family. That’s what separates us from other sorts of gyms.”
Big-name athletes who were still due to compete in the Games boycotted the competition, as the CrossFit community called for change and the removal of Glassman as leader of the brand. It worked. Glassman sold 100% of the company to new CEO Eric Roza, who
has been lauded for the positive steps that CrossFit is now taking.
George, meanwhile, hasn’t just taken positive steps towards the 2021 season: he is running down the road at full tilt. He is still smiling. Preparation for the Open in February has been under way since he found out he wasn’t competing this year. His family and girlfriend, his sponsors and training partners are still behind him. You are, too. It’s impossible not to support a man who gets knocked down, laughs and relishes the process of getting back up and reaching ever higher.
“My goals are to win the UK Open again and finish in the top 10 worldwide. I want to be the highest-ranking British male athlete there has ever been.
“And I’ve got a book deal I’m excited about. It’s called Start When Others Stop. It’s a mantra that can have so many meanings – like starting on a fitness journey in middle age, when others think, ‘What’s the point?’ What you learn [from training] can transfer over
to every area of your life – from your job to your family, friendships and relationships. Take a simple running workout: you’ve got 10 sprint intervals to do and, even if you really want to, you don’t sack it off after the seventh or eighth. The more you do what you set out to do, the easier it becomes. It snowballs. And you begin to love it.”
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