No Excuses: Beating Back the Limitations of Age

jim baker

Last Thursday I spent some time at CrossFit Santa Cruz Central with Jim Baker. As many in the CrossFit community know, Baker goes back a long ways within the sport. He was a client of Greg Glassman’s when Glassman was still personal training out of a fitness center and not in the prototypical box.

I met with Baker to work on a story for WOD Talk Magazine. Baker specializes in training senior CrossFitters and I had the pleasure of meeting with five of his clients in a new space at CFSCC, age range 62 to 86.

It was a notable group considering that a 74-year-old CrossFitter was mentioned in the NYT story yesterday–a mention that I wondered if it might have surprised some people given the general working impression of CrossFit in the public domain. Indeed, CrossFit isn’t just for kids. The case can be made that the simple value of retaining functional strength and movement is why CrossFit can become a more vital utility as one ages. It’s a fine thing to be an athlete and to be super healthy, strong, ripped etc. But imagine if it simply allows you to be independent and continue to enjoying everything that life has to offer. When Vilma Siebels–the 86-year-old in Baker’s contingent–left the interview last Thursday, she was on her way to a line-dancing class.

Baker is on a mission to get the word out to other owners of CrossFit boxes: Don’t just let your gym languish silently in the middle hours of a weekday. In addition to having a noon workout for all-comers, build a personal training clientele and classes for folks that are retired and can easily make it to the gym at 10am or 2pm.

One thing that was clear in the talk with the older CrossFitters at CFSCC is that Baker is a master coach, and that helps make all the diffference. Older CrossFitters, for one, are going to require a longer amount of warm-up before a WOD. And scaling and being tuned to the a senior CrossFitter’s mobility challenges are paramount to success. Each of the athletes I spoke to were sort of wow’d by Baker’s ability to read things and make necessary adjustments to the workouts. Yet the athletes were definitely being pushed enough to make gains that were surprising to them. Rosemary Sarka, 67—a cancer survivor who has worked with Baker for years and credited the CrossFit training for helping her recover from the exhaustion and atrophy–just recently got her first unassisted dip, an achievement that clearly surprised and delighted her. Such surprises at what they were accomplishing in the gym were common among the group.

To me it’s always extraordinary to meet and talk with people that are helping us reshape our ideas about the various physical limitations that are sometimes imposed on us from the collective. SCCFC has it’s share of inspiring athletes, including the legendary Annie Sakamoto. Siebels, I was told, was right up there in terms of blowing people’s minds.

There are those routine occasions where I’m introduced to someone in their 20s or 30s and the subject of running or exercise or CrossFit comes up, and I’ll hear them say about something like a 5k run or some similar entry-level exercise challenge, “I could never do that.” I really wish at that moment I could introduce them to Siebels, just to see what she might say to something like that.

In Inside the Box, veteran journalist and marathoner T.J. Murphy goes all in to expose the gritty, high-intensity sport of CrossFit®. From staggering newcomer to evangelist, Murphy finds out how it feels, why it’s so popular, and whether CrossFit can fix his broken body.