Social Power of Adaptive Athletics (with Jedidiah Snelson)

Today I’m talking to Jedidiah Snelson, a former Pro Motocross racer and trainer to action sports athletes. When it comes to sports like motocross and CrossFit, Jedidiah says the training can be very similar between the two; enduring a 35 race is a bit like a long Hero WOD. After an accident left him paralyzed, Jedidiah turned to adaptive CrossFit for an athletic and competitive outlet. Quickly, he became a top Adaptive Athlete in the Seated division and is still elite as he nears his mid-40s. We cover a lot of ground in this episode, and I hope you enjoy!

Jedidiah Snelson on the BarBend Podcast

In this episode of The BarBend Podcast, David Thomas Tao and Jedidiah Snelson discuss: 

  • Jedidiah’s athletic background and his entry into motorcycle racing (2:45)
  • Finding CrossFit (4:00)
  • Jedidiah’s background coaching both action sports and CrossFit athletes, along with MMA fighters (6:00)
  • The unique rigors of motocross, especially on multiple 35 minute races (9:00)
  • How to train specifically for motorcycle racing when it comes to strength and conditioning (12:30)
  • His early perceptions of CrossFit, and how those perceptions (public and private) changed (14:30)
  • “I have to have a competitive outlet” (18:30)
  • Jedidiah’s hopes for both adaptive and able-bodied CrossFit (22:00)

Relevant links and further reading:

 

Transcription

It was funny because I got in a CrossFit about 10 months after my paralyzing accident. It was interesting that I didn’t know anybody else in a wheelchair. As I got to know other people in my same situation, there was these natural conversations of navigating daily life.

 

I would say, “I do this” or “I do that.” They’re like, “Whoa, wait, what? You can multiple times get in and out of your chair and get down on the ground, and then get back in easily?”

 

I’m like, “Yeah, that’s not a normal thing?” No, because I found out I had this fundamental independence and strength that I had built through the CrossFit methodology that was allowing me more independence that these guys even understood was possible.

David TaoDavid Tao

Welcome to the “BarBend Podcast,” where we talk to the smartest coaches, athletes, and minds from around the world of strength. I’m your host, David Thomas Tao, and this podcast is presented by barbend.com.

 

Today, I’m talking to someone with a pretty interesting background in athletics. Let me tell you. Jedidiah Snelson got his start as a Pro Motocross racer. Then he transitioned to being a strength and conditioning coach for action sports athletes. If you ever needed to know how to prepare the body for a 35-minute motocross race, Jedidiah is the person to talk to.

 

After a paralyzing accident some years ago that left him dependent on a wheelchair. Jedidiah turned to CrossFit to satisfy his competitive urges, and also to live a more independent healthier lifestyle. Now, he’s one of the most elite, most competitive seated adaptive CrossFitters in the world.

 

We talked about a lot in this podcast. We talked about connections between CrossFit and action sports, training the body for the rigors across both types of athletic endeavors. We talked about the past, present, and future of adaptive athletics.

 

We talked about why Jedidiah continues to compete at such a high level into his 40s and, frankly, how he’s able to keep up with some of the top CrossFitters from any division. He’s a super interesting guy. He’s got a truly fascinating story, and I hope you get a lot out of this podcast. I sure did. Now let’s get on with the show.

 

Thanks so much for joining me today. For those who aren’t sure who you are and might be new to following you on social or just listening to this podcast, discovering you through the BarBend Podcast, give us a background. Who is Jed? Come on.

I appreciate that. Thanks, David. [laughs] That’s a loaded question. [laughs]

David TaoDavid Tao

Let’s start with athletic background. Let’s narrow it down. It’s like two existential here. Sorry about that. [laughs]

Perfect. Played a lot of sports growing up, dabbled here and there, but always excelled in individual sports. I did wrestling at a high level for a while. I started when I was four years old. Worked up through that. Was good in track in high school and whatnot, and then done motorcycle racing.

 

I raced motocross, which is a closed-course-dirtbikes on dirt tracks with obstacles and whatnot. Then I also raced Supercross or Arenacross. That was the main sport that I’ve done the longest. I was involved in Motocross Supercross for 17 years. I raced professionally as a minor-league athlete.

 

Then, when I retired from my racing, I transitioned into being a strength and conditioning coach at the highest level in that sport. I traveled the Pro Circuit at the major league level, worked with some of the factory riders.

 

On the Pro Circuit, I did it for four years. I did a total of 12, working with different athletes, coaching them, and working with them at various levels — guys that race the Canadian Nationals. Guys that were the highest level as amateurs, getting them ready to go pro, all those kinds of things.

 

Then, when I got injured when I had my accident on a dirt bike that paralyzed me, that’s when I found CrossFit. It started out as a way to get myself healthy again, get back in shape. I actually had some other goals.

 

I did my first open, which was technically not even…It was ran by WheelWOD. Chris Stoltenberg, we did a spreadsheet in 2015 to track everybody. He adapted the workouts, was just the seeded division at that point because he’s in a wheelchair, so that’s all he knew at that point. [laughs]

 

That first Open, I was hooked. I was like, “Oh, this is where I’m meant to be. This is my sport.” I got bit with the bug with that one. Attended the first WheelWOD Games, which was our first version of the CrossFit Games in 2016. Again, it was only the seeded division at that time, but it quickly developed. 2017, there was other divisions, and it’s taken off since there.

David TaoDavid Tao

I’m curious, you were a strength and conditioning coach for Motocross. Are you still an active strength and conditioning coach today, or has your day job and career transitioned away from that?

So funny you should bring that up because I did. I got serious into CrossFit in 2018. I stopped coaching at that point. I didn’t have time because I wanted to…I’m older. I’ll be 43 next month and…

 

In 2018, I did not have a whole lot of time, and I wanted to give all my energy to being not only a serious athlete as far as a CrossFit Games athlete, but also to do my best, to be an ambassador for the sport on the athlete side.

 

There’s a lot of people that are trying to educate people from the gym side or from the coach side. I wanted to be an ambassador for the athlete side where I could help athletes grow and understand what it took to be a high-level adaptive athlete, build a platform for that.

 

I quit coaching for a while, but actually, I’m in the process of talking to some people I want to start not only coaching some action sports athletes again. I did primarily work in Motocross Supercross prior, but also, I worked with X Games athletes.

 

I work with some MMA fighters. They’re very similar as far as the demand and the requirements for the strength and conditioning program. Now, with my knowledge in CrossFit and being involved in the level that I’ve been for a long time, I want to start working with some elite CrossFit athletes, both able-bodied and adaptive, and start pursuing coaching again.

David TaoDavid Tao

You’re trying to synthesize your knowledge and experience across these different modalities now, and come back to that as far as coaching. Cool.

Exactly. There’s a lot of knowledge that I’ve been blessed to gain through working in action sports that I think applies to CrossFit. Especially from the mentality side, and I want to be able to share that with athletes.

David TaoDavid Tao

Talk about some of those things, some of the aspects. We talk a lot about on this podcast when I talk to CrossFit athletes and coaches about “Oh, CrossFit can teach you things about how to train athletes for this sport, or how to train athletes for this sport.”

 

We don’t often talk about the other way around. We don’t often talk about what knowledge and experience at high-level in other sports can bring to CrossFitters the implications or lessons for high-level CrossFit athletes coaching. I’m curious about your perspective there.

The biggest thing that I’ve learned is, it comes down to the mentality side to on strategically building the right mentality around execution. That is such a big thing in racing that you have these guys that on any given training day, they’re the fastest but then when it comes to execution on a race day when everything’s on the line, there’s a lot of struggle there.

 

I worked with these guys that they were the fastest day in and day out on the practice track and couldn’t execute that or transition that fully to having that same success during a race with all the other pressures that come about and whatnot.

 

I think between me working with those athletes prior, between my own racing, and then what I’ve learned competing at a high level in CrossFit, that I’ve been able to transition some of that into learning how to build strategies around execution when it comes to competition.

 

The other thing is that kids that raced their bikes Motocross, it’s a different mentality from any other sport. The amount of suffering involved. Obviously, there’s a high level of suffering in CrossFit.

 

CrossFitters as well are built differently in how they know how to hang onto that barbell or just push themselves a little bit harder than the average person would think they need to. Motocross has that suffering level higher than anybody. Even when I was racing professionally, you do 235-minute motos on a track that is ever-changing.

 

You’re talking anywhere from 6 to 12-inch ruts that you’re trying to navigate. Braking bumps that go from six inches going into a corner that by the end of the day, if the track’s soft enough, they’ll get as deep as two feet.

David TaoDavid Tao

Just from them getting dug out by laps and laps and laps. OK.

Exactly. Then you’re doing this in 100-plus degree heat like I said, twice for 35 minutes, and you compare it to CrossFit. You put a workout together like Double-Unders and Toes-to-Bar, and that grip gets smoke. For a while, your forearms get so locked up that you’re like, “I can’t hang on anymore.”

 

That same thing with the roughness of a track and nerves can happen on a…You can get 10 minutes into a moto and your forearms are locked up, and you feel like you can’t hang on. There’s this mentality in that sport that I would have that happen, and it’s not like “Oh, I better pull over and shake my arms out.” That doesn’t exist.

 

You just, “This is going to suck, but I have to ride it out.” You continue to hang on whether you feel like you can or not. That’s helped me in CrossFit as well where other guys are like, “I can’t hang onto this barbell anymore.” It’s like, “No, you can, [laughs] it’s just going to suck.”

 

There’s a lot of that mentality that translates into CrossFit, where with learning proper breathing techniques, with learning proper mental strategies, you can do a lot more than you can, and a lot of that knowledge is based on what I did it in racing.

David TaoDavid Tao

 Let’s talk about some of the physical demands that you…when you were coaching and I guess might be coaching it again, that you’re preparing action sport athletes for specifically when it comes to Motocross?

It’s a lot like doing a longer Metcon. Like a MIRF or something like that where not only do you have these high demands on the body physically and cardiovascularly, but you also have this high level of endurance that you have to hang on doing these motos for 35 minutes on these rough tracks.

 

There’s not really a set position. That’s the other thing is that, it’s overall building those fast-switch muscle fibers and whatnot so that you can flow with the bike.

 

There’s a lot of reflective response with racing, where the bike because of the weight and the engine power and the different obstacles that you’re being thrown all over the place and you have to naturally one, physically be able to keep up with that, but two, also be able to flow with it.

 

That you’re not fighting the bike. You’re not trying to muscle it too much, where you’re over-attacking yourself, because you’re trying to hang on too tight, or you’re trying to manipulate the bike instead of being in this position where you can flow with it and naturally let yourself go with where the bike goes, and that doesn’t combat you, if that makes sense.

 

There’s a lot of that coincides with CrossFit in the sense that, the way I would train athletes was very similar to CrossFit in that it was a lot of constantly varied high-intensity movement.

 

We tend to use a little lighter weights because we didn’t have to be as strong as a CrossFit athlete. In trying to fuel those muscles, it could become too demanding for the longer duration period of what we were doing racing, but the longer Metcon, we did a lot of that.

 

What I tell people is, it looked very similar to CrossFit, but the difference was it was lighter weight and a higher level of coordination and balance. We would do kettlebell movements. We would do dumbbell movements, but I would literally train my guys doing these standing on a plyometric ball, a stability ball. A full one.

 

We’re doing squats like kettlebell snatches, while balancing on a stability ball in the middle of this circuit, and it would bring all those fast-twitch reflexive muscles into it while having this high physical demand in preparing them to be able to flow with the bike more while getting that conditioning done.

 

Then we did most of our endurance work was involved with actually practicing on the bike and putting in the motos during the week and whatnot on the bike as well as the gym work.

David TaoDavid Tao

Let’s talk a little bit, or at least go back to you as an athlete. How quickly after or in what timeframe after your injury did you discover CrossFit and start using that as a physical outlet?

A funny story. My first introduction to CrossFit was when I was working on the Motocross circuit. That sport the main hub for it is in Southern California at the highest level, so I was living down in Southern California. As you know, that’s where the origin of CrossFit started, was in that same area.

 

This was back in 2007. I started to really hear about CrossFit as you know, it started to blow up during that time. At that time, I thought it was the dumbest thing ever.

David TaoDavid Tao

[laughs] I think a lot of people did, by the way.

The reason was, was a lot of the mentality around it in that, there was no scaling. At least in that area and the gyms that I was experiencing.

 

I was training MMA at that time for my own leisure. I was doing a lot of Muay Thai and jiu-jitsu. A lot of the guys that I was rolling with in jiu-jitsu, and we’re also doing CrossFit for their supplement strength program.

 

They were constantly getting injured, because it was whether you had been there for two years or whether you’d been there for two weeks, there was this idea you would come in. Here’s the workout, here’s the weight. Whether you struggle with it or not, that’s what you do, and you try to do it as fast as you can.

 

I thought CrossFit was the stupidest thing I’d ever heard of just because of this mentality. I was like, “I want nothing to do with it.”

 

Fast forward to 2014 when my injury happened and I was looking for different ways to train as an athlete in a wheelchair because while I had a fundamental understanding of strength and conditioning programs, I didn’t know anything about training in the wheelchair.

 

I’m looking for YouTube videos and whatnot. That’s when I found some WheelWOD videos that Stouty had made. Some videos that Kevin Ogar had put on YouTube about doing CrossFit in a wheelchair. That’s when I was like, “OK.”

 

That’s when I started to learn more about it and the evolution of CrossFit and where it got that scaling had become a thing, that it’d become more focused on general health at whatever level you are and building to a higher level as you get into the gym. They had adapted to fit the masses from where they started in my opinion.

 

That was my first real introduction to CrossFit as far as understanding where they had come and how it was beneficial to everybody at that point, just from the methodology involved.

 

It changed my life, especially somebody in a wheelchair. I always explain to people because they’re like, “OK, CrossFit, I have this fundamental understanding of what CrossFit is, but how is that possible in a wheelchair?” I always explain it. CrossFit does a lot of awkward movements. Life in a wheelchair is a lot of awkward movements.

 

If you can build that same strength with those awkward movements, then it’s going to help in day-to-day life especially living in a wheelchair. It was funny because I got in a CrossFit about 10 months after my paralyzing accident. It was interesting that I didn’t know anybody else in a wheelchair.

 

As I got to know other people in my same situation, there was these natural conversations of navigating daily life. I would say, “I do this” or “I do that.” They’re like, “Whoa, wait, what? You can multiple times get in and out of your chair and get down on the ground, and then get back in easily?”

 

I’m like, “Yeah, that’s not a normal thing?” No, because I found out I had this fundamental independence and strength that I had built through the CrossFit methodology that was allowing me more independence that these guys even understood was possible. I didn’t know any different because I had purely started with it as part of my recovery program

David TaoDavid Tao

That’s interesting. Now, talk about your evolution in utilizing CrossFit as part of your recovery to becoming competitive in CrossFit. You seem like someone who gets bit by the sports bug pretty easily.

 

I know that competitor mentality, I can see it churning in your head when you talk about a lot of these different modalities you’ve competed in. Talk about that transition where you’re like, “Hey, I actually want to be not only good at this, good enough to improve my quality of life, but I want to be good enough at this to be best at this.”

They went hand in hand. Because the one thing when I did have my accident…and I was in the hospital at that point going to recovery, and a lot of that was mental acceptance. “OK, this is my situation. This is the card that I’ve been dealt, and I’m going to have to move on from that.”

 

The one thing that I did understand in knowing myself is that I have to have a competitive outlet. I have to have something to be able to put that focus into if I’m going to stay whole as an individual. If I don’t, that’s when this will overcome me rather than me overcoming it.

 

At that point, my real drive was in playing those steps in my head was, there’s a big world of downhill mountain bike racing in the adaptive world, and that’s what I’ll get into. It’s very similar to dirt bikes. It’s very similar to Motocross, but it’s still different enough that it’s its own thing.

 

That was my goal was I wanted to get into downhill mountain bike racing, but I understood that I had to like I said, build my strength back up, build myself to be in a good spot before I tried to dive into something like that.

 

That was my motivation, the carrot that I put in front of myself to really recover well from this accident and proficiently was, I’m going to get into this downhill mountain bike racing, so what can I do to strengthen myself? What can I do to build that conditioning program again?

 

Like I said, that’s when I started looking for videos. I found CrossFit. I was like, “This is great because it’s very similar to even how I used to train my athletes.”

 

I’m understanding and learning the movements through WheelWOD and Kevin and Stouty to apply this to myself. Then like I said in the meantime, even a downhill mountain bike, everything’s expensive adaptive. I was looking at having to save up to buy $12,000 bike to be able to do this.

 

In the meantime, I was paying doctor’s bills and hospital bills for my accident. I was like, “This is going to be a while down the road.” Then there was the invitation to do that first open that Stouty was putting on. Like, “Well, in the meantime, I’ll give this a try.”

 

That’s where those two coincided was doing that first open. I was like, “Oh, this is where it’s at. This is where…” It really naturally like the…Yes, there was a strong desire to recover and to rebuild myself. The motivation for myself was around a competitive outlet. That just shifted as I got into it.

 

Then the happy by-standard that I learned and understood was by competing in CrossFit and really training under this methodology, I was building myself to be more independent than most other people that I had learned in a wheelchair, which is common for any CrossFit athlete.

 

You get into CrossFit and you learn, “Oh, you’re not just fit, but you’re fitter for natural function in life.” That you can handle weird things. You’ve got to move, so you’re packing the house.

 

You’re carrying all this stuff out. Your friends come over to help. Those that don’t do CrossFit are dying, and they’re like, “Man, this is really taking a toll on me.” As somebody that does CrossFit, you’re like, “Yeah, it’s not that bad. I’m built for this.”

 

That same situation was what I was learning in just day-to-day life being in a wheelchair is that I was doing it to compete. But by doing this, I was having more independence. I had more functional strength than most people in my situation by doing CrossFit.

David TaoDavid Tao

We’ve been fortunate enough to have a number of adaptive athletes at actually some of the highest levels, including yourself, adaptive CrossFit athletes on this podcast. It’s given, I think, our listeners, it’s given me an interesting look into how the sport has evolved in the adaptive divisions from being very grassroots to getting some official recognition to expanding at the CrossFit Games.

 

Where would you like to see adaptive CrossFit and the adaptive divisions go in the coming three to five years?

Whether it’s competition or whether it’s just doing CrossFit as a health benefit as part of your health program individually for yourself, I just want to see it grow overall. It’s like rising tides raise all ships. I don’t necessarily have to push people to compete. There will be those that naturally, as they get into CrossFit, want to compete. That will grow the depth of the competitive side.

 

If we just get more people involved, whether they just do CrossFit, like I said, as their gym time versus going to a regular global gym, and really embracing the methodology of what CrossFit can do for them. That’s going to naturally grow the sport overall.

 

It’s just going to change…Like the impact that CrossFit has had for so many people in day-to-day life, we’ve all heard multiple stories and how CrossFit changed people’s lives, who never compete. It’s going to have that same impact even more so for those in the adaptive community. The more people that embrace that and find that and join the “cult” per se is going to get more people involved.

 

There’s a level of excitement around CrossFit. Yes, there’s the community standpoint, but people, the reason that CrossFit becomes such a focus for people in life is because when they’ve done it for so long, they see the impact, they see the change that it’s had on their lives, and how they feel mentally, emotionally, physically.

 

They want to share that with others. That’s where that “cultish” [laughs] atmosphere comes from. We see that, the same with adaptive athletes. That’s my focus, is the more people we can get involved, it’s going to raise everything from the sport in general and from the competition side.

 

It’s a very small pool at this point on the competitive side comparatively to able-bodied CrossFit and those elite athletes, and comparative to other sports outside of it. CrossFit is still a very small sport.

 

At the highest level, there is a segment of us that take it very seriously. We trained at a level that we’re no less elite than the top games athletes. I know for other people that don’t understand, that seems like a very bold statement.

 

I’ve trained with several high-level games athletes and the volume that we put in some of what we can endure. Some of what we can physically do is no different what we’re capable of is at that elite level, and what we do to train is at that elite level.

 

For me, I want to see that grow, so that people understand that we are doing some pretty crazy things physically in fitness wise, and what we’re capable of, is at that same level. It’s hard when a lot of people don’t understand it to get that. That’s one of the reasons I have worked out with games athletes.

 

I’ve spent some time with Justin Madera, with the Underdogs Athletics athletes. When they see it, they’re like, “OK. Wow.” I guess, I want to see that respect level grow for the sport. This is going to take time because there’s an education aspect that comes involved with that, that is hard when you don’t have people tuned into it.

 

There’s a lot of people that are tuned into CrossFit but that doesn’t mean they’re tuned into what’s going on in Adaptive CrossFit. That’s a hurdle that we have to continue to push to overcome.

David TaoDavid Tao

Where is the best place for people to follow along with you, not only as an athlete but as a coach and ambassador to the sport?

The best as far as getting that knowledge is my Instagram. My Instagram is dedicated to education, motivation, and inspiration. That’s all solely built around CrossFit.

 

I try to post as many workouts but not only posting the workouts but breaking down a lot of times the understand of what it feels like, what I’m trying to do, what I’m trying to accomplish, just to continue that education.

 

Then the inspiration side a lot, I love going into a gym and working out with able-bodied athletes. They look at the workout they’re like, “Oh, man, we’re doing squats again. My legs are so trashed from the volume that we’ve done this week.” I’m like, “Yeah, that must be nice.”

David TaoDavid Tao

I wish I could feel that.

At the same time understanding like, “You’ve done a lot of legs this week, but you still done upper-body too.” I’ve just been doing upper body. [laughs] I feel you and then some. [laughs]

 

I make those jokes one, to have a good time and lighten the moods of people who don’t feel uncomfortable with me around the chair, but at the same time, there’s a perspective to that. When I do work out in boxes, the owners and the coaches always love it because they’ve got that person that comes in, “I can’t do this, or I can’t do that.

 

CrossFit? I don’t know that it’s for me because I have this old knee injury or whatever.” They’ll point to me in a wheelchair. They’re like, “Well, he can do it so there’s a way. We can work around this.” They really have no excuses to try and combat those coaches or those owners in those situations. It’s give them an outlet.

 

The other side of that, too, is that when they do have somebody that’s in CrossFit and they want to suspend their membership or whatever because “I’ve tweaked my knee, or my ankle’s not quite right, or I got something going on with my wrist.”

 

They now have an outlet not only for adaptive athletes, but for these able-bodied athletes that may have a temporary injury that go, “No, we can work around this.” Working around it will not only allow you to keep some level of fitness but allow you to heal faster because you’re keeping that blood circulation going.

 

There’s an understanding for that now because of adaptive CrossFit that people didn’t really know. They just thought, “Well, I got to take a pause and step away from this for a while.” That’s like the worst thing ever because sometimes they never come back.

 

When you have that education and understanding to go, “We can work around this,” it’s better for everybody.

David TaoDavid Tao

Amazing. Jed, I really appreciate your time. Thanks for sharing a little bit about your journey and goals in CrossFit and beyond. I hope we get to talk again soon.

Yeah, thank you very much. Appreciate it.