The Dedication and Discipline of Diane Fu

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This story first appeared in Tabata Times.

In the CrossFit world, the dominant voices when it comes to specialist coaches tend to be men with personalities so old-school and brazen they somehow remind you of a mud-grizzled F-350 pickup truck. This especially applies to the weightlifting and powerlifting arenas, where heavy-duty names like Louie Simmons, Mike Burgener and Greg Everett resonate through the din. But a fresh new coaching talent is beginning to get global traction in CrossFit, a lithesome Olympic lifting specialist, just 31-years of age, with stylishly cut black hair,  known for being smitten with puppies as well as wielding a masterful sense of order and precision. If you were to pick a car this coach reminds you of, an artfully customized Mini Cooper might flash in your mind.

And then after you get to know this emerging star—a woman in a field that’s been dominated by men—and watch the speed and power of her lifting and the multiple dimensions and deep-draw of her coaching, it hits you: she’s one of those Mini Coopers super-charged up toward race-car power and speed.

One of the emerging star coaches in the CrossFit world, we’re getting to know San Francisco CrossFit’s Diane Fu.

“I thought she was just this skinny girl,” recalls Carl Paoli, creator of Gymnasticswod.com and a fellow coach at SFCF. “But she came to my first seminar ever and I saw her box squat 285 pounds.” On another occasion Paoli witnessed the skinny girl blast through a met-con. “It was two front squats at 250 pounds, followed by box jumps, about five or six rounds worth.” Later, others at the gym would notice the spare figure of Fu back-squatting 330-pounds.  “I realized, ‘She’s just a beast with these raw lifts,’” says Paoli.

But what really impressed Paoli and SFCF owners, Kelly and Juliet Starrett, is not just Fu’s surprising strength, but her coaching prowess, a skill that has Fu’s schedule completely jammed year after year.

“Diane is a fully-committed professional coach,” says Kelly Starrett, who teaches the Mobility Seminar for CrossFit, Inc and is author of the forthcoming book, “Supple Leopard.”  “Coaching is number one for her. She is the consummate teacher who brings everything she has to give in helping her athletes meet their potential. She works so incredibly hard. She is constantly learning about everything she can, improving and perfecting her work. She goes to every seminar she can, as many times as she can. She’s been to the Mobility Seminar 10 times. Each time she was working her ass off to learn everything she could.”

“One of the reasons Diane is so successful as a coach is that she’s extremely organized,” says Juliet Starrett, who first recruited Fu to become a part of the SFCF staff. “So many coaches and personal trainers fail to approach the profession with the sort of precision Diane gives to the work. And she’s there up to 12 hours a day. She’s extremely detail oriented as well as being one of the hardest working coaches we’ve ever seen.”

Although it was last month that SFCF moved from the so-called “Parking Lot of Dreams” to their new indoor facility in an historic building in the Presidio, for years Fu had been a fixture at the outdoor gym, up to 12 hours a day, coaching clients one-on-one, teaching general CrossFit classes and coaching the Olympic Lifting group that is now known as Fu Barbell. In the colder months of San Francisco, which is tends to be most months on the calendar, Fu could be seen wearing a puffy geese-down coat, so bountiful as to disguise the fact of her physical sleekness. What was equally common for regulars at the gym was the image of Fu’s workouts, where her disposition–friendly, smiling, calm and patient with her athletes–transformed and a Bruce Lee brand of intent would come over her face as she performed Olympic-lifting moves with lightning-strike speed.

But that wasn’t always the way it was. Before migrating into CrossFit, Fu worked in corporate for the fitness-center chain Bally’s, where in 2006 she had hired a new personal trainer that would later discover SFCF early on and later introduced it to his boss. Fu’s employee was Adrian Bozeman—who is now the head official at the CrossFit Games and a master teacher within the CrossFit certifications. Bozeman became a coach at SFCF, and Fu eventually joined up.

With a laugh, Fu recalls a time when Bozeman was coaching her on Olympic lifts.

“He watched me lift and then said to me, ‘You’re just so slow.’”

That would change. The myriad challenges of CrossFit appealed to Fu and her affinity for applying discipline and hard work to a plan. In addition to CrossFit classes, she sought out teachers and workouts throughout the city. “I was just trying to get a handle on things,” she says. “Kipping pull-ups, thrusters, front and back squats.”

The extracurricular work included Olympic lifting, and she began training at the Sports Palace in San Francisco with Jim Schmitz,  one of the most accomplished coaches in USA Olympic lifting history. “The ‘Dungeon,’” Fu remarks.

Although at the time Fu had progressed into being one of the top female athletes at SFCF, the Sports Palace gave her a reality check on her Oly lifting.

“I was blown away at how strong the women were,” Fu says. “Even in the lighter weight classes. I would see a 125-pound female power-cleaning double her bodyweight—for work sets.”

Eventually, Schmitz convinced Fu to take a break from CrossFit and give her full attention to weightlifting. “He told me, ‘You can always go back to CrossFit once your strong enough,’” Fu recalls. Fu went all in, dropping CrossFit and everything else and focusing squarely on lifting, eventually competing on the national level. In competition Fu would achieve a 67kg snatch and an 83kg clean and jerk, with out of competition PRs 71kg and 95kg respectively. The intensive focus, Fu says, enabled her to connect the dots in a different way, a mixture of her new education at a pure Olympic lifting gym along with the knowledge she had been gaining coaching at SFCF where Kelly Starrett was leading the staff into new lines of thinking in how position and moving between positions related to performance.

“I feel like I’ve become a bridge between two worlds,” says Fu, speaking of how she’s been able to draw from both Olympic lifting and CrossFit to the benefit of her athletes.

Christine Carosi is one of those athletes, a regular now at Fu Barbell for three years. “She’s not like some of the old-school Olympic lifting coaches where the answer is to always lift more,” Carosi says. “She has such a great eye for seeing things. She can pick out the problem quickly and see deeply into it. For example, let’s say she sees that you’re not locking out the jerks at the top. She’s bringing so much to her coaching she can tell that the problem isn’t in your elbows, it’s in your shoulders.”

Paoli agrees. “She’s innovative. She’s bringing something into CrossFit that we’ve never seen before.”

And, Carosi says, despite an overloaded coaching schedule, Fu executes the same programming that she lays out for her weightlifting athletes. “She programs for those of us who are gearing up for competition with a five-day-per-week program and she follows it too,” Carosi says, adding that Fu’s strength wow’s the whole crew.

“Diane may only have a 40-minute hole in day of coaching,” Kelly Starrett says.  “And she never lets things slide. She takes that 40 minutes and gets her training done. That’s how disciplined she is.”

It was thanks to Paoli and Kelly Starrett that a young and talented coach is being discovered globally. Frequent appearances on the MobilityWOD.com have given her exposure and–thanks to some social media advice from Paoli–she’s gaining a large following on Instagram.

What sort of advice does she have for the CrossFitter looking to improve on the Olympic lifts?

“First, find a coach,” Fu says. “New weightlifters don’t know the difference between good and bad form or what to feel. They need feedback.”

Fu adds that practice is where the magic is. “Practice often and spend more time on the snatch than the clean and jerk.”

Finally, pay additional attention to your mobility and range of motion. “If you’re lacking any corners, the weak spots will be expressed in the movement. Especially when going at full speed.”

For more, visit www.fubarbell.com or follow Diane on Instagram: @DianeFu

TJ Murphy is the author of “Inside the Box,” a runner’s journey into the CrossFit world. 

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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.

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