Daily Independent (Ashland, KY)

Local News

June 23, 2013

Local athletes among ‘fittest in the world’

Smith, unknown in the sport, will go to nationals next month. Sasser is ranked 25th in the world

ASHLAND — Two local athletes are among the top CrossFitters in the world.

Both drew national attention earlier this month with their performances at the Central East Regional CrossFit Games in Columbus, Ohio. The competition was featured on ESPN broadcasts, with both athletes being interviewed on air.

Jennifer Smith, a Russell High School graduate who now lives in Lexington, won the women’s division earning a berth to the international CrossFit Games in California next month. Smith, 27, previously an unknown in the CrossFit world, led the women’s division through all three days of competition.

It was the first time she had competed as an individual and her performance surprised herself as well as the other athletes. “I am thrilled,” she said, “No one really knew who I was. I kept surprising everyone.”

Gerald “Ger” Sasser, 23, of Russell, also turned in a series of top-notch performances. He placed 7th overall in the Men’s division, narrowly missing a bid to the CrossFit Games.

Sasser owns and operates CrossFit Countdown, located on Greenup Avenue in Ashland, where he trains full time. He is well-known among CrossFit athletes in the area, and it was his third time competing at the regional level.

CrossFit is a high-intensity fitness program that combines functional movements from disciplines ranging from gymnastics and Olympic weight lifting to aerobics and body weight exercises. At the CrossFit Games, athletes compete for the title of “Fittest on Earth.” 

Following their regional performances, Sasser and Smith are ranked 10th in the world in their respective divisions. The Central East Region is one of the most competitive in CrossFit. Five of the top 10 ranked men live in the region, including two former champions, said Sasser. Athletes from 17 regions, including 12 in North America, compete to attend the CrossFit Games.

The sport has been growing exponentially every year since its founding in 2000.  Regionals, implemented three years ago, follow an “open” competition. More than 170,000 athletes participated in opens last year, up from 27,000 athletes in 2011, said Sasser.

Only the top 48 athletes in each region get to attend the regional competition. More than 7,000 athletes competed in the Central East open, Sasser said.

For the second year in a row, that stiff regional competition has kept Sasser out of the CrossFit Games despite his world ranking. Last year, he finished 7th as well, but was ranked 25th in the world.

While it’s disappointing he again won’t be competing in California, Sasser isn’t discouraged. He plans to continue working toward his dream of becoming a champion.

It’s a dream Sasser says he wouldn’t have imagined he’d be pursuing just three short years ago. Sasser discovered CrossFit it at the age of 20, while working out at a friend’s gym in Flatwoods. He had never played a competitive sport and didn’t consider himself “athletic” in high school.

“After I did the first workout I never looked back,” he said. “I thought I was in shape before and it put me on the floor for 20 minutes. I kinda had show muscles. I couldn’t do anything with them,” he said, “It just kind of made sense.” 

Sasser, then a math student at Morehead State University, dropped out of college and used the money he had saved for tuition to pursue his CrossFit training certification. He launched CrossFit Countdown last May and now has more than 80 clients.

CrossFit became a lifestyle for Sasser. The longer he trained and the more people he trained, the more it became a passion.

“That most rewarding thing is seeing people do things they never thought they would be able to,” he said, “It’s like seeing a kid on Christmas, except they might be 40-years-old doing a pull-up for the first time ever.” 

For Smith it was the upbeat, community environment of CrossFit that hooked her four years ago. A noted RHS track and soccer athlete she ran track at the University of Kentucky.

After graduation, though, she grew bored with running solo. She tried CrossFit at Lexington-based CrossFit Maximus and fell in love after one workout too.

“They played loud music and we had a coach to tell you what to do. It was what I was used too — having a plan and a coach,” she said.

Although she began competing as a member of a team in 2009, which twice has competed at the CrossFit Games,  last year she decided to try on her own. “I told myself I was going to train as hard as I could and see where it took me,” she said. Eight months ago she left her full-time job in medical sales, for a part-time job working for orthopedic practice so she would have more time to train.

 “When I found CrossFit it filled that void,” she said, “There are so many people in the class environment and you instantly bond over whatever this miserable workout is. You make friends. I’ve made friends at CrossFit that I will be friends with forever,” she said.

That sense of community is the essence of what makes CrossFit what it is, agreed Sasser. Because CrossFit workouts and movements are universally scaleable, athletes of all ages and levels of ability can workout together, and do.

Sasser has clients with multiple sclerosis, others who have had limitations from old injuries, yet on any given day they do the same workout albeit with different weights or adaptations of a movement. During a workout CrossFitters cheer each other on, pushing one another to do their individual best.

“Having fun is really what it is all about,” said Sasser. “CrossFit is always fun. Never monotonous, never boring.”

CrossFit workouts are rarely the same, a series of named workouts including the benchmark “Girl” workouts and those named for fallen “Heros,” exist but most workouts of the day are a varied mix of movements and disciplines.

That mix and the “surprise element” of workouts is why Smith believes she’s got a good chance of becoming a CrossFit champion herself. “I’m good across the board. I’m strong but not the strongest. I’m good at the gymnastics movements.” She can run, bike and swim, too.

Although Sasser and Smith are among the world’s top athletes in the sport, anyone can CrossFit, they stress.

“You don’t have to be fit to start,” said Sasser.

He invites anyone up for the challenge to try it out. The first workout at his gym free.

CARRIE STAMBAUGH can be reached at (606) 326-2653 or by email at cstambaugh@dailyindependent.com

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