The Biggest Heart in CrossFit Belongs to Chandler Smith

Just a few weeks ago, Chandler Smith came out of nowhere and made a splash at the CrossFit Atlantic Regionals. At the end of Day 2, Smith found himself in Games qualifying position. After a devastating Event 6, we all knew it wasn’t going to happen for him….this year.

Though he didn’t qualify for the 2016 CrossFit Games, the 22 year old West Point graduate won over a host of new fans, along with around 15,000 new Instagram followers. Smith’s charisma and genuine attitude are already making him one of the athletes to root for in the next year.

Currently a Second Lieutenant in the U.S. Army’s Armor branch, Smith’s long term fitness focus has always been qualifying for the 2022 CrossFit Games. I was lucky enough to spend some time with Chandler in the days after his Regionals experience. I set out to figure out what the big deal was about 2022, and to figure out why he’s just so gosh darn likable.

Turns out, Atlantic Regional commentator Chase Ingram said it best, “The kid is raw. He’s all heart. He’s all guts. There’s a bright future for Chandler Smith.”

ChandlerSmith (3 of 4)

Hey Chandler! Thanks so much for talking with me even though it’s the Memorial Day holiday. You’re a newfound celebrity, so you have to take interviews.

I get to take interviews! I get to.

It’s been a little over 10 days since your Regionals whirlwind ended. Have you come down from that experience? How was your life changed?

I’m still moving around for the Army, and I’m just now getting back to everyone who reached out. It’s been cool to see the worldwide impact that CrossFit has, because now I have fans from all over the world. It’s cool to see how excited they are and how passionate they are. I’m connected to more passionate people than I ever thought possible. I’m already working to make sure next year has a happier ending, you know?

You’ve said that your goal was to make it to the CrossFit Games by 2022. Why 2022?

I watched the Games for the first time in 2013 and figured a decade was enough time to become great at something.

What are you going to do if you reach your Games goal before 2022? What happens if you reach it in 2017 or 2018?

That’s the weird part, because I still don’t see myself as being ready. If I do [qualify for the Games before 2022], then that’s good, but what comes after that? I was a double major in American Politics and Spanish, with the intent to ultimately become a politician in an urban area and make fitness knowledge easily available, or at least give people affordable access to it. I guess I’d work at trying to make that happen sooner or later, but fitness wise, I don’t know what my plan would be after going to the Games.

I never thought winning the Games would be possible. I think I’ll get to the Games eventually, but if winning is an option, maybe I’d try to reach for that.

A photo posted by Chandler Smith (@blacksmifff) on

We know you were a wrestler at West Point. When did CrossFit come into the picture?

February 22, 2015. I was the captain of the wrestling team, and on that day we beat the Navy for the first time in like 17 years or something. It was huge! As soon as I’d finished up with that, I said “it’s time to get good at CrossFit.” I’d had a torn ligament in my thumb, so when the thumb healed up I started going to competitions and started to train for Games 2022.

You were profiled in an article in 2014 that was specifically focused on you and your wrestling career, and one of the questions was “Who is your favorite athlete?” You answered with “Dan Tyminski,” which was amusing because it was supposed to be about wrestling.

Yeah! The article that CrossFit HQ did for me talked about how I was the biggest fan, and it’s true. It’s my favorite sport. It wasn’t the NFL, it was one hundred percent CrossFit — even though I didn’t have the chance to do it very much at the time.

Once I switched over [from wrestling], I started gobbling up information and started to get to know myself better as an athlete.

What is your current training situation? Do you have a coach or a particular gym?

No, m’am. Because of my army obligations, my schedule is really unpredictable. I pretty much just program for myself off of feel, based on time and equipment availability. I can only train at a CrossFit box when I can get down to Philly on a weekend, so there are things I don’t get a chance to do very often. I don’t row. I don’t do wall balls….

Wait, if you’re weren’t training at a box with the right equipment during the week, how did you make this work? What were you actually doing on a day to day basis that translated to CrossFit so well?

In college, most mornings I got up and we would run, or do some sort of army PT similar to some hero workouts. Most mornings I’d do something like that, and then lift during the day — just regular lifting. I’d try to get in a WOD if there was equipment or if I had the time, and then in the evenings I’d wrestle.

You’re telling me that leading leading up to Regionals, you were still only working out at a CrossFit box on the weekends?

Friday, Saturday, Sundays, and Monday mornings.

That’s insane.

It’s definitely not ideal for CrossFit, but I’ll take it as a compliment.

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I suppose it really is the basis of CrossFit — work with what you have and keep it unpredictable. Combine that with being an incredible athlete to start, and it worked out well for you this year. But with the goal of Games 2022…or 2017, are you going to change up your strategy?

As long as I’m in the Army, I don’t really have another option. If I get deployed or go on a mission, I don’t know how that will affect my training. Training has to take a backseat.

There’s only room for so many priorities, so the way that I keep up with other athletes is by having a one track mind. I do my work and everything else I do is to help me get better at CrossFit. Adding anything else is going to make the gap impossible to overcome. It’s already going to be very difficult to overcome. I have to make sure I’m cutting zero corners. It has to make me better, or I’m not doing it. That’s the only way it’s going to work.

I think that’s what made you interesting to people. On the Regionals floor, you seemed like a three-dimensional person. Your identity goes beyond training, bodywork, training, go to bed, do it over again. There’s a whole actual person and experience behind your performance, and it got everyone excited.

That’s nice to hear, and I think that’s part of why I can connect with people. It’s not ideal for training, but it puts me in a unique position to inspire people and help them on their fitness journey.

How did you end up at West Point to begin with?

I read a book on war when I was 6 years old, and it made me want to go to the Academy. I also had some great coaches and mentors in high school. When I was wrestling, my coach was a West Point guy. When I was getting ready to apply for schools, Forbes said it was the #1 ranked public university in the country, so I wanted to go there and be challenged.

West Point has a pillar system: an academic pillar, military pillar, and physical pillar, and you’re constantly being ranked. I knew that there was always going to be something I was weak at and something to challenge me at West Point. I knew I’d grow the most as a person there.

You clearly do well with clear cut structure and quantifiable goals. Has that always been part of your personality?

Yeah. I was a weird kid. One of the pastors from my church gave me a verse that talked about writing your goals out, so I wrote out every goal I had for high school before I started high school. I kept them up in the mirror so I could see it when I was brushing my teeth. It helped me stay super focused on what I was working for and everything that was important. In college, I had a goal sheet for that year, and I’d keep it on my computer and look at it after practice every day. I keep it in my car now, so I’m constantly reminding myself of my goals.

A photo posted by Chandler Smith (@blacksmifff) on

Do you have other goals lists other than the fitness one?

Yes, I do, but that seemed the most relevant to now that fitness plays such a big role in my life.

Most of your goals are quantifiable, but then in big letters it says “DON’T SELL OUT.” Tell me more about that.

I don’t want to lose sight of who I am or become only a tool for people to sell products or an ideology. There are people who have supported me from early on, like my first gym owner, Ronnie Oswald. In 2011 I was getting ready to go to West Point, and I told him I really wanted to do CrossFit but couldn’t afford it. He told me if I helped him build the gym, I could come for free. Then there’s the guy who does my t-shirts. There are other people who can make shirts and might give me money for it, but this guy has supported me from the beginning and I want to be loyal.

I’m grateful for all who’ve helped me on my journey and pretty much any time I have opportunity to give thanks to someone, I try to do it. It’s never not warranted. Whatever it is I’ve done, there’s always someone who’s helped me do it.

Are you open to sponsors?

I am, but I’m not really worried about it. It would help for paying for the opportunities to train with folks and get to competitions and get food. Food is my biggest weakness in the performance triad, between nutrition, sleep, and training. It would be great to afford better food.

But, whatever the situation is, I’m going to make it work. Even if I can only work out by my M1A2 SEP tank at 3 in the morning, I’ll do it, because that’s what I gotta do to get where I want to go.

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Another interesting mention in your goals list is, “practice accountable training.” What do you mean by that, and how do you mentally keep yourself in the game?

Even if I don’t have the ability to get with a training partner, it helps to have friends who know what’s going on training-wise. It’s easy to do things you like to do all the time. If it was up to me, I’d never do another wall ball or thruster in my life because I hate them. If I’m programming for myself, I need to be cautious that I’m not just programming what I like to do all the time.  

I’m not training to be happy in my training. I’m training to reach my goals. It’s irresponsible to do that by myself, so I keep some people in the loop. Even if they’re not making all the decisions, I’ve got to recognize that I’m not the smartest guy in the room and that an outside perspective can be very useful.

Also, there’s no sport in the world where people go 100% every day. I think too many CrossFit athletes go too hard, too often. For most days, I think the right call is to treat MetCons like track and field athletes treat the majority of their workouts: aim for a percentage of a max effort and have a specific response you are trying to elicit for each workout/session. All of our efforts should be reserved for (infrequent) testing and competition, assuming you know you can push yourself when the time is right.

One of the things I noticed most about your Regionals performance was that we couldn’t get a good handle on what you’re really good at, since everything seemed to be in your wheelhouse. What are you really good at?

Long stuff, really long stuff. We joke at West Point that we’re “West Point Slow Twitch University.” In the summers, we’ll be walking around all day ruckin’ and doing things that demand slow twitch muscles, not explosive stuff. The longer the workout, the better for me. I was super happy with 16.1 because it was 20 minutes, and I’m a very aerobic athlete.

I think traditional cardio is so important. All of the big programs have active recovery days that are highly cardio focused, but I think Low Intensity Steady State work needs to be done more than that. It doesn’t fit in well to the traditional CrossFit class model, but our sport is an endurance sport and quality percentage work will do wonders for you if it’s not in your program right now.

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Your strength is pretty notable as well, though. Your numbers aren’t the highest, they’re certainly respectable, and those 405lb deadlifts during Event 5 looked ridiculously easy.

Deadlifts are good for me from a physiological standpoint because I have really long arms, but my clean isn’t notable, for example. It also comes from having trained for a very long time. I’ve been doing “CrossFit” even before I started doing CrossFit, and it’s kept me from having any super big weaknesses.

As you get higher and higher up, the top level athletes don’t need a general coach — they need coaches for specific things. That’s why you see them working with Chris Hinshaw for running and Dusty Hyland for skills. They get specific coaches to work on weaknesses, because even though they’re not bad at it, they need every little technical advantage they can get to make sure the “weakness” isn’t exposed.

Let’s talk about Regionals. What really happened in Event 6?

This is going to sound like I’m making excuses, but this is what happened. In practice I’d crushed that workout and was expecting to go top 5, but I got no repped on my first overhead squat, and then my overhead position failed on rep 11, technically rep 10. It took me 30 seconds or so to shake it out, pick up the bar, and finish that squat.

Coming into the rower I was behind, so I had to row faster. I was already planning on going fast on the burpees, but I had to go even faster than what I wanted to do, so my heart rate spiked which made the last set of overhead squats go poorly. More or less, getting no repped on that one overhead squat was the exact moment when my whole weekend went down the drain.

You never really know how you’ll handle that sort of situation until it happens in competition, during a clutch moment.

It was a weird spot, because once that happened, I had two options: go faster, or keep the same pace that I’d planned on keeping before it happened. If I’d done that, I probably would have finished exactly as slow as I did. There was no coming back. I got no repped a bunch in Event 2 as well, but my general life attitude is “don’t’ get upset about things you can’t change.” There’s no sense in getting mad about it.

We saw Noah Ohlsen talking to you on the floor, at the end of Event 6. What exactly did he say to you?

He said “remember this feeling. Think about it it when you’re training and so you make sure it doesn’t happen again.” That’s already been a big motivating factor. It’s motivating me to remember how bad that felt and make sure I never feel like that again.

I’ve been following Noah for years. He’s impacted my life without him ever knowing it, and he went through something similar at the 2013 Regionals. It gets me excited for the prospect that maybe one day, I can pass the same advice along to another athlete. You’re never doing it just for yourself. Being in good shape is a benefit to my unit. It’s a benefit to the US Army. You have to approach it unselfishly, because it’s no good if it’s just for yourself. I want to be able to pass the knowledge along to other people so they can pass it along, so we all make the world a better place.

Moving on from Regionals, you once said the most heartbreaking song of all time is “Traveling Soldier” by the Dixie Chicks…

Yeah, me and my roommates used to listen to it all the time and have a great cry. If you saw my iPod, you’d be like “that guy right there? that’s what he’s listening to?” People at the gym hate working out with me, because my thought process is if it’s a slower song, then it’ll help keep my heart rate down. But if it’s a shorter workout, it’s straight 90s pop and punk. The music is almost more of a priority than the workout itself!

Do you pre-plan your music?

Uh, absolutely. During 16.5, I ended up doing it twice, and I went through the night before and picked 5 songs. I did a walk through the workout and tried to envision myself hitting certain songs at at certain points during the workout so I’d hit exactly 9 minutes. It didn’t happen the first time, because I’d planned my music with some slow songs to keep myself from coming out too fast, and someone…who will not be named…changed it! We got in an argument in the middle of the workout, which was super out of character, but come on! During most workouts I’m dancing in the middle of it. If I can’t dance to it, it’s a major problem.

I have to ask, were you named after Chandler Bing?

I think Chandler Bing was named after me, even though Friends started before I was born.

What are your predictions for the Games? Who do you think will do well?

I have so many friends now, so it’s going to be tough to do, because all those guys in the Atlantic Regional who qualified are super cool dudes. I’ll go with the guys I hope will do really well. Brent Fikowski, he’s an animal. I reached out to him on Instagram when I was still in early fanboy stage, and he actually responded back and was super influential in helping me craft my training. Noah, obviously. Scott Panchik. We had a wrestling tournament out in Nowhere, Ohio, but it was close to CrossFit Mentality, and he let me come in and train there. Ben Smith is the nicest guy alive and helped me calm my nerves a bunch. He also just doesn’t lose. Travis Williams was at one of my first competitions, and he wasn’t put off by my fanboy reaction. So that’s five guys right there who helped me out on my journey, in some shape or form, so I wish them nothing but successes.

What was the advice that Ben Smith gave you?

This was before Event 5, and I said, “Ben, I’m super nervous right now.” He said, “Dude, we all are man. I’m going through it right now too. I freak out before every workout. Go out there and do your best.” I’ve heard that advice, but it was the timeliness of it. On Day 2, when people are rising and falling through the leaderboard and things are starting to get a little more serious about what spot you’ve locked in, he didn’t have to take the time to respond that way. It showed me so much about his character and gave me even more respect for him than I’ve had before. That’s why I let him beat me…kidding!

What movements would you like to see eventually make it into the CrossFit games?

I’d like ruck march in there. Throw on a heavy backpack, and move some stuff over a long period of time, like for 12 miles. It’s a time domain that’s not really tested in CrossFit. It probably would not be a highly entertaining event, but it’s tests something that hasn’t really been tested. Also I’d do very well in it, so maybe I’m a little bit biased, but a ruck march would be awesome!

Anything else you want to tell the world?

I’m still in the process of getting back to everyone, but I don’t want people to be shy about reaching out. People taking time to help other people has made a huge difference in my life and career as an aspiring Games athlete. If people have questions, I’ll do everything I can to answer them as long as they promise to pass knowledge onto the next person and make someone else better.

Photos by Siem Photography