Faith drives accidental champion

Rich Froning hopes three CrossFit titles serve as testament to his Christian faith

Updated: September 30, 2013, 10:37 PM ET
By Doug Williams | Special to ESPN.com

Rich FroningDario Cantatore/Getty ImagesRich Froning's success in CrossFit is no surprise to those who know him best.

Rich Froning had no idea he would one day be dubbed "the fittest man in the world."

When he went to his first CrossFit Games in 2010, Froning didn't have lofty expectations. He'd been doing CrossFit only a year and simply hoped not to embarrass himself.

"My whole goal that first one was not to finish last," he says.

Instead, he came in a surprising second and had a shot at the championship going into the final event. But that event included a rope climb, something he hadn't practiced. His skills were more spider crab than Spiderman.

"I'd rope-climbed, but it was elementary school, middle school, and I'd never had to use my feet, so I didn't really know what to do," he recalls.

So he finished 12th among the 16 finalists in the event, which left him just three points behind the overall CrossFit Games winner in a grueling three-day, nine-event marathon.

"It was just one of those things that wasn't meant to be," Froning says.

But the near-miss was a catalyst for success. In 2011, Froning returned to win the CrossFit Games. In 2012, he became the first man to repeat. Then, this July, Froning won his third straight. Today, the 26-year-old former firefighter and baseball infielder makes his living as a professional athlete, with his endorsements and CrossFit winner's checks paying the bills, along with income from his own CrossFit gym in his hometown of Cookeville, Tenn.

His success allows him to do what he loves most: train and compete.

"I get to do what I love every day, and I've got a great group of people around me that I have fun with," he says. "And working out is something I'll do for the rest of my life, so I might as well try to be as good at it while I can."

From the diamond

Though Froning may have been surprised by his meteoric rise through the CrossFit galaxy, others knew his competitive zeal and work ethic would lead him to success. At Cookeville High School, Froning started his baseball career as a 120-pound freshman infielder, then grew to a 160-pound senior captain and team MVP. His coach, Butch Chaffin, once said Froning had "the best work ethic in the history of the school."

In his senior year, in fact, Froning played the entire season through the pain of a torn labrum in his throwing shoulder (which later required surgery). Froning has credited Chaffin's rigorous training regimen for leading him in the right direction.

"Coach has since told me that he put us through that grind in part to see how far he could push each of us mentally," Froning wrote in his autobiography, "First: What it Takes to Win," which was published this year. "He kept emphasizing the need for mental toughness regardless of what would come our way."

After high school he played a year of college baseball, but then gave it up to become a firefighter for the city of Cookeville while he attended Tennessee Tech University. The city had a program that paid Froning's school expenses while he put in four years as a firefighter, and he was able to follow in the footsteps of some uncles while also loving the work.

It was while studying at Tennessee Tech for his degree in exercise science that he took a class from Chip Pugh, head strength coach at the school, and learned about CrossFit. Pugh, who followed the CrossFit program and encouraged some athletes to incorporate it, talked about it one day and caught Froning's interest.

"He said, 'Well, let me give that a try,' and sure enough, he gave it a try all right," Pugh said.

The next year, Froning advanced through regional and sectional qualifiers to get to the CrossFit Games at the Home Depot Center in Carson, Calif. To Pugh, Froning and CrossFit were a perfect match. Pugh watched Froning work out regularly -- particularly after making him an assistant strength coach for about 18 months -- and saw his effort.

As a coach, Froning would come in before the athletes, do his own workout, then do a workout with the athletes and work out again after they left.

[+] EnlargeRich Froning
Dario Cantatore/Getty ImagesRich Froning's tireless work ethic has him at the head of the CrossFit pack.
"As I talked to people who knew him growing up, everyone has said he has just been the kind of kid who would give everything he had to everything he did," Pugh said. "His baseball coach just swore up and down how hard he worked. The people around here, around town, said no matter what he did, he was always trying to do the best."

Pugh says the athletes who worked with Froning at Tennessee Tech said, "He's hard to hang with." Pugh laughs and agrees.

"I was never able to even stay in the same workout with him very long," he says.

Pugh says Froning is just a down-to-earth guy who just likes to focus on the task at hand. What separates him from other athletes, he says, is Froning's ability to train to peak efficiency and to stay calm even under adverse conditions.

"What's interesting about him, you'll see him in the competitions, you might be able to hang with him for the first part of the workout, but then it goes on and he just hits another gear and everybody else seems to just kind of fade," Pugh said.

Yet Froning says his attitude can sometimes get off track. At this year's CrossFit Games, he had a bad start and was in third place going into the second day of the four-day, 12-event competition. He needed some tough love from his wife, Hillary.

"I was just not in a good mood and my wife comes down, and my wife's very … She'll tell you how it is." says Froning. "We're sitting there and I'm just kind of complaining about something and she says, 'You know what? If you're not going to have fun, let's just go home.'"

Froning laughs, but says it was just what he needed. He got his mind right, battled back and won a third title by 72 points.

"She'll let me know when I'm being a baby," he says.

Physical and mental test

CrossFit, founded in 2000, is a workout regimen that tests the whole body, and the games -- begun in 2007 -- test the best of the best at it. The workouts are incredibly varied and include power lifting, pull-ups, push-ups, running, sit-ups, rowing (on a machine), throwing a medicine ball, flipping giant tires and box jumping.

At the finals, the contestants never really know what to expect, and are challenged by combinations of the exercises and surprises -- such as the rope climb in 2010, or an open-ocean swim. The multiday, multievent format is taxing physically, but Froning says it's tougher on the mind than the body.

"Mentally it's really grueling," he said. "It's a grind of a weekend. You're going to get so hyped, and then let down. Then hyped and let down. Everybody talks about how we don't have a long, pure endurance (event), but we have a four-day competition with three or four events a day. It's a pretty good endurance competition if you ask me."

To stay atop the CrossFit Games pyramid -- and fend off new challengers every year -- Froning's training is broad and intense.

"You do a lot of stuff every day," he says.

In the run-up to the Games, he'll train six to eight hours a day. At this time of year he'll do four to five hours a day. But the man who's dominated the competition three years running says he generally has "no plan whatsoever." He works out with a group of men and women and they come up with a plan to start the morning, then adapt it as the day goes on.

The fact CrossFit requires him to do a variety of workouts is exactly what he likes about it, though. No two days are the same. 

"There's so many possibilities of stuff you can do," he says.

And keeping his edge isn't a problem. Because Froning is competitive by nature -- "I'm a bad loser," he says -- he has the motivation. Plus, he says he feels a higher calling. His Christian faith is an enormous part of his life, and he can spread his message through his success. He believes, too, that his second-place finish in his first CrossFit Games was a message to get his priorities back in order.

"I'd kind of put CrossFit on a pedestal and it had become who I was, and I needed to remind myself that Christ is who I am, and not CrossFit," he says.

Before the 2011 games, he had a large tattoo inked on the right side of his torso, running from hip to armpit that reads, "Galatians 6:14," referring to this Bible verse: "May I never boast in anything except for the cross of the Lord Jesus Christ which has been crucified to me, and I to the world."

He says that message, his wife, family and his friends keep him grounded. He's competitive and wants to do everything he can to win, but he knows he can't make winning or fame his end goal.

"I do this to glorify God and show people what Christ has done for my life, and I feel this is my service," he says.

He's been married just over two years, and says that Hillary also keeps his head on straight. She's supportive of what he does and hopes he wins because it's what he wants, but she's more concerned about his safety than winning. Mr. Fittest Man in the World is simply her husband when he walks in the door.

"She couldn't care less about anything CrossFit," he says. "I'll come into the house from a day at the gym and say, 'Hey, I did this.' And she's like, 'That's cool. Go take out the garbage.' "

USA versus the World

Froning is part of a three-man, three-woman U.S. CrossFit team that will take on an international team Oct. 26 in Berlin in Team USA vs. Team World in the second CrossFit Invitational.

Last year, the U.S. team beat a team from Europe over 10 events, and Froning told reporters in London that the team championship meant even more to him than the individual titles because he was competing for the U.S. and his teammates. Now, he's eager for another U.S. win.

"I'm going to give it my best to have the same outcome," he says.

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