Raphael Durand is a Crossfit Athlete who recently competed for NorCal Crossfit at the Reebok Crossfit Games
“Every day I look forward to going. Find something that makes you feel that way, and you’ll succeed.”
I first met “Rapha” at Crossfit Typhoon in Hong Kong. At the time, he was a regular member of the box and the crossfit community. By regular, I meant – he wasn’t a trainer, he had a white-collar job which had brought him to Hong Kong, and he worked out for personal goals. This by no means didn’t mean that Rapha was a phenomenal athlete, with a drive and focus that suggested he could do big things in Crossfit if he had the opportunity. He had already been training in California where he was first introduced to Crossfit before continuing it in Hong Kong.
It was no surprise for me to then learn that after leaving Hong Kong, Rapha moved back to California and began to see how far he could push himself in the sport of Crossfit. I was curious, as he had a unique perspective. What was his attraction to the sport of Crossfit? Are there differences in sports culture between the East and West? What did it take from going from a “regular” member, to making it all the way to “The Games”. I caught up with Rapha and began to harass him with some questions:
Tell us a bit about your background?
“I was pretty good at a few sports, but my childhood dream was to be a professional ice hockey player.”
I was born in Avignon, France. When I was just 3 months old, I moved to California where I grew up in the San Francisco Bay Area. I played a lot of sports growing up, I was pretty good at a few sports, but my childhood dream was to be a professional ice hockey player.
When I was 14 I moved to the East Coast, and played hockey at a boarding school. In college, my chances at becoming a professional hockey player had passed. A friend of mine introduced me to this thing called CrossFit. I had heard about it since I had been doing the Paleo Diet for about a year at that point. CrossFit was love at first sight, if you believe in such a thing.
What brought you to Asia?
When I graduated school, I got a job at Duty Free Shops Headquarters in Hong Kong. I knew the first thing I would have to do to on arriving to Hong Kong was: meet people, and join a CrossFit gym.
I will never forget the first time I walked into CrossFit Typhoon and was greeted by the head coaches, Pat and Steve, who took me under their wing immediately. Talk about making you feel welcomed in a foreign world! It’s funny when I think about it, I joined a gym to meet people.
People asked me “what do you mean you meet people at the gym?”. They must have thought I was one of those annoying bros at the gym that talks to everyone while they’re trying to workout.
The truth is, the CrossFit community is a naturally social environment. It’s a huge benefit, because your friends count on you to show up to the gym, it keeps you committed. Some call it a cult, which is fine with me, it’s the best environment I could surround myself in.
When did you first hear about the Crossfit Games?
“I was crushed.
In that moment, I figured my chances of ever making it as a Regional athlete were through.”
In 2013, I watched the CrossFit Games for the first time. I was enamored the idea of being able to compete at this. Ever since then, I wanted to compete at the CrossFit Games, to fulfill that childhood dream of becoming a professional athlete.
After that, I had my eyes set on the Asia Regionals. Then, the CrossFit Games announced they would create ‘Super Regionals’ and instead of 60 athletes from Asia, they would only invite 10, to compete alongside the Australian Regional.
I was crushed.
In that moment, I figured my chances of ever making it as a Regional athlete were through.
When did you return to the US?
In late 2014, I had moved back to San Francisco.
In 2016, a few of us at Norcal Crossfit Redwood City were pretty fit, and decided to try to compete as a team. We qualified for Regionals, and took 11th that year in the California Regional.
Did you think this team had a shot at “The Games”?
“I would be the replacement for Jason Khalipa, 2008 CrossFit Games Champion. Talk about some big shoes to fill!”
The week after the California Regional that year, I was back to training for 2017. I knew that we could make another push and have a shot at qualifying for the CrossFit Games (top 5 teams).
I trained seriously for months, without a break.
By December, I had run myself into the ground, and had to take a week off to let my body recover.
It’s easy to get overexcited by the thrill of opportunity, and lose sight of taking care of yourself. I imagine people do this in ordinary life as well. Even so, the hard work made an impact.
I improved a great deal over a year, and our most competitive athletes at NorCal CrossFit asked me to compete on their team. I would be the replacement for Jason Khalipa, 2008 CrossFit Games Champion. Talk about some big shoes to fill!
What was that like mentally – to be replacing a Crossfit legend?
I struggled to find confidence for a while, and felt that I needed to prove myself to be on the team. I remember asking my teammates if they thought I could really do this. Luckily, our teammates are incredibly sincere and fun people. They reassured me that I was an asset to the team.
Every day of training was fun, even when we didn’t want to be there.
What is the biggest difference in sports culture between the US and Asia?
“The accepted female body types are changing. Being physically strong is becoming an attractive and desired image.”
United States sports culture feels like it’s evolving, and it’s in part due to CrossFit.
The accepted female body types are changing. Being physically strong is becoming an attractive and desired image.
Compared to Asia, when I was there, a few were afraid of becoming ‘bulky’ or too ‘masculine’.
Unfortunately, becoming bulky is challenging for women, and doesn’t happen overnight.
I’ve noticed that different cultures seek different results. Most visitors we have from Western Europe are extremely skilled at gymnastics, but lack in strength. This gives them a slimmer, but still lean, build. In the US, there is a bias towards the heavy lifting, strength, side of things.
Don’t get me wrong, I understand not every woman wants to look like a CrossFit Games athlete. These athletes focus on performance, but they also love the ways their bodies look.
CrossFit is a vain activity, many of us do it to look good, whatever that means for you! CrossFit is big in the US because it started here. Even in the US, you see the strongest adoption of CrossFit in it’s home state, California, as it is the only state that essentially has it’s own CrossFit Region.
It has deep roots in the military community and honors United States soldiers with ‘Hero WODs’. So the bonds between American citizens is typically stronger than they are in other countries.
When it comes to Athletes, the US has an advantage when it comes to experience.
Do you see the culture of sport changing in Asia?
When I got to Hong Kong in 2013, there were 6 CrossFit gyms in both China and Hong Kong.
Today, there are over 90, so there’s a fast growing community, and growing in experience quickly.
On the men’s side of competition, you’re seeing many US (and North American) athletes dominate the top of the competition. I believe that this is from most men training in some sort of sport for most of their lives, and having more experience in CrossFit competition.
We also have access to great CrossFit coaches, like the legendary Chris Spealler, who coached us this season.
“I believe the same is true for women, that they’ve practiced sport and training for longer periods of time, because in their countries, it has been socially acceptable for women to be physically strong athletes.“
On the women’s side of the sport, you’re seeing athletes from Australia and Europe dominate. I believe the same is true for women, that they’ve practiced sport and training for longer periods of time, because in their countries, it has been socially acceptable for women to be physically strong athletes.
Tell us about the 2017 Crossfit Games?
So many great things to say…
Everything I imagined: competitive sports camp for very fit adults, what could be more fun?
A highlight for me was the ‘Burpee Litter’ workout. We were sitting in 8th place going into the last day. In order to make it to the final event, we had to stay in the top 10. Our team, NorCal CrossFit, is comprised of some very strong people, but we are not all built for burpees with a weight vest on.
“I remember shouting out ‘blood in the water!'”
We had to do 3 rounds of 18 burpees, and a 250m run while carrying a partner on a stretcher they call ‘the litter’. Our strategy: go hard. When carrying our partners, we weren’t walking with the litter, we were running, and passing teams.
I remember shouting out ‘blood in the water!’ as we passed CrossFit Mayhem on the litter run. We were amped up. We took 4th in the event, and it moved us up the leaderboard to ultimately finish 4th overall.
What was your toughest moment?
The worst pain I experienced at the Games was on the final workout. Where 4 teammates held the 17ft worm on their shoulders, while the other 2 teammates completed handstand push-ups and rope climbs.
“She started with kind words, ‘you got this, you can do it’ and I remember later on her saying ‘pick up the fucking bag’.”
I underestimated how hard holding that bag would be. I could barely feel my upper back by the time we moved onto the ‘heavy worm’ and had to perform 30 complexes of 1 worm clean + 2 worm squats. About 6-8 reps in, I turned to my teammate Molly Vollmer, and told her ‘I can’t keep holding this pace’. She encouraged me to keep moving on. She started with kind words, ‘you got this, you can do it’ and I remember later on her saying ‘pick up the fucking bag’.
We love each other as teammates, so this was purely motivational for us to put our minds over matter. It was one of the most painful workouts I’ve ever done, but it was some of the most fun I’ve ever had. I can say, I gave the competition everything.
Any advice to young athletes?
I’ve heard time and time again: “You can be whatever you want to be”. I never really believed it, I always thought I was only listening to those who had been successful, so of course they would say that.
“If you want to go the the Games, it requires sacrifice, and you need to make your own luck.”
So, with that being said, I don’t want to say ‘you can do it, be whatever you want to be’. If you want to go the the Games, it requires sacrifice, and you need to make your own luck.
I don’t think it was coincidence that I came back to NorCal CrossFit, and started training with my teammates as workout partners. I wanted that all along, and I constantly pursued opportunities that would put me in the situations to train with those better than I was.
I’ve lost a lot of workouts, but I have never let that effect my effort level. If you want to go to the Games, find people better than you, and train with them. Keep going until you’re training next to the guy or girl that won the Games last year, and then beat them.
Wherever you are in the world, if you are training for the Games, you need to look at your environment. What is helping you achieve success? Can you get regular access to good quality nutrition? Can a coach give you regular feedback, can they visit you/you visit them? Is your work conducive of training? Are your training partners positively fueling your progress? The list goes on.
Is there more to overcome for Asian athletes?
In Asia, you can certainly do all these things, there are some great athletes coming from Asia. That being said, in the current state of CrossFit, it’s easier to train in the US, because it’s more established.
In the right environment, an athlete can certainly excel in Asia and go to the CrossFit Games. It’s no small feat wherever you live, so you have to optimize your training environment in every way, because that’s what your competition is doing. Personally, I love CrossFit.
I’ve always enjoyed the challenge of getting better at a movement, or setting a new PR. I love to learn about how my body moves through space, and how to be technically better. There’s always a new challenge in CrossFit that can bring you to learning something you’ve never done before.
At the end of the day though, I love the feeling when I’m in that dark place. I find that if I’m willing to spend a little more time in the dark place than my competition, I’m going to win. When the workout is over, there’s a certain amount of pride, and sense of accomplishment, that you’ve pushed your limits, and were willing to outwork the competition.
When my friends ask me how I can go to the gym every day, and put in the hard work that I do, I tell them that I have never forced myself to walk into the CrossFit box. Every day I look forward to going. Find something that makes you feel that way, and you’ll succeed.
What’s next for you – will you return to “The Games”?
I would love to go back to the CrossFit Games. It’s too early to tell if we will go back this year, or another year down the line. I accomplished a big goal of mine that I’ve had since I was a kid.
Unfortunately, CrossFitters aren’t getting paid $100 million USD to show up to the fight like Floyd Mayweather. So, I have to look for how I want to be able to balance life and my love for CrossFit. I haven’t quite got it all figured out yet, so I can’t say what the future will hold for me.
As an athlete, I’ve taken away so much that can apply towards the rest of my life. I have learned perseverance, problem solving, and creating your own luck. It was lucky that I was asked to be on NorCal CrossFit’s team this year, but it wasn’t by accident. In the future, I will continue to create my own luck.
You can follow Rapha on his instagram: @raphdurand