Next weekend sees one of the most prestigious events in the fitness calendar take place in London, with CrossFit Strength In Depth forming the second of two European semi-finals that will qualify five women, five men and five teams to the marquee competition that is the CrossFit Games in the summer.
Now, CrossFit might not be your thing when you go to the gym, but you cannot deny the individual athletes and those taking part in the four-person team division are impressively fit, strong, skilled and, often, seem not to feel pain like regular human beings. Their ability to endure is something we could all do with in our own training.
Ollie Mansbridge, the founder and event runner of Strength In Depth certainly has some endurance himself. The father of three boys, owner of two CrossFit gyms and European regional manager of affiliates in eight countries still, somehowhad the time and the (apparently unending) energy to speak to the MH Squad ahead of the event starting this Friday.
Men’s Health: Let’s start with your own sporting background. Where did your love of training and fitness stem from?
Ollie Mansbridge: I’ll I try and keep it short and sweet… When I was a kid, I was just fanatic about sports and did Taekwondo, football, swimming and rugby to name a few. At about the age of 14, I had to choose [between them], I was doing about four different things over the course of a weekend and it got crazy. So, I focused on rugby, and I was fortunate to play for England under eighteens, then went on to pay professionally for three or four years. If I’m honest, I just fell out a love with it a little bit. I had a bad run of form and was bouncing around different clubs. I was at Bristol and Gloucester, then went to Worcester. It was looking like I was going play for Plymouth, but I didn’t want to go and live there and drop down a division. After a bit of soul searching, I decided I was done with it. So, I moved back in with my parents in our hometown of Bath.
I was trying to figure out what to do. I still played semi-professional rugby but I was only committed to two training sessions and a match on Saturdays, so I needed a job to help with money around the margins. I needed somewhere to train and I was speaking to some people I knew. One of them worked at a country club gym on the reception and then the club paid for them to do their qualifications to go on to be a personal trainer. Literally next week, a reception job comes up. I apply for it, take the job and three months down the line, they asked if I would like to do my fitness instructor qualifications.
While all of this was going on, there was a group of us in the gym that were playing around with CrossFit. This was in 2008/2009, so very, very early days and there wasn’t a box, or a gym, or somebody you could go to and learn from. It was kind of really like taking what you saw online and in videos, then trying to replicate it. Fun, fun times.
I can’t imagine there many people doing CrossFit at the country club. How did that work?
There wasn’t many people using the country club gym at all, to be honest with you. The pool was popular and the cardio bits and pieces, but we almost had free rein, particular in the middle of the day. We had a set of rings up in the dance studio and would play around with muscle ups. We were doing double-unders. On the sprung floor and one of us, now one of my business partners, put his foot straight through the floor. We looked at each other and decided that maybe we should look at alternatives. We started training people in a little community center but there was a yoga class downstairs, so that didn’t really work out. For a while we were trading out my other business partner’s parents’ garage, which they were delighted about. It just came to the point where we realized we could probably do this full time. We had enough clients between all of us that and with a little 500 square foot unit, we could train small groups doing CrossFit. It was mainly friends and family to start with and we just kind of grew from there. We didn’t really have a business plan. We were trainers, but we didn’t know how to operate a gym or anything. Very quickly we had about 50 people training with us and outgrew that location, so we looked for somewhere with double the space. That was the point where we took it on full time, rather than it being a hobby.
You must have opened during the infancy of CrossFit in the UK. Do you know what number gym to open you were?
I think we were ninth. But no one was really doing it and the others weren’t like the affiliates today. I remember CrossFit Bristol, as an example, was a Krav Maga club but they did a little bit of CrossFit at the end of their sessions. They kept the name for a long time because it drove people into their facility and people were turning up to do CrossFit and ended up doing Krav Maga. So, it was a mixed bag with a truly diverse group of people. We’ve got two gyms now, one in Bath and another in Trowbridge.
What attracted you to CrossFit, personally?
Ironically, I wasn’t a massive fan of training when I was playing rugby. I just wanted to play. But CrossFit gave us the opportunity to compete every day. You got that little butterfly feeling and the rush of adrenaline that you get on a sunny day when you play a rugby game. When we started digging into it as coaches, digging into the journals that CrossFit used to produce back in the day, they were lightbulb moments for me. When I was playing rugby, I did a part-time, foundation strength and conditioning course, but I learned more reading free journal articles from CrossFit than I did in two years at college. I was also well and truly drinking the Kool Aid, so fully immersed myself into and became almost cultish about it.
So much so that you now also work for the company. What is your role?
I hate the title, but I’m European regional manager. When I joined three years ago, there were six country managers scattered around the world, mainly non-English speaking. Now we have 21, so it’s really gone from strength to strength. I was UK and Ireland country manager first, then they promoted me to look after the eight, Western Europe countries. I basically look after the country managers and support them to make sure they got the resources they need to then go and support their communities.
And that’s on top of the two gyms, the events you run and your family life? Do you have any kids?
Three boys. And an amazingly patient wife, let me tell you.
When do you sleep? Do you sleep?
Believe it or not, I actually sleep pretty well. Basically, I have unbelievable people that support us. Take the gyms as an example, we have an amazing team of people that pretty much run them for us. That’s something we’ve learned the hard way over the years, especially as we were growing as a new business 10 years ago. As soon as you start taking on new people, there’s a certain skill set that you need to learn. We had the realization that we needed to get better at being leaders and supporting people, both to deliver on what the business needs, but also aligned with their values and what they want to get out of their careers.
I love what I do, so it makes it very easy. My world, as sad as it sounds, is fully immersed in CrossFit. It’s a lifestyle for me and the value I get out of it every day just makes it that much easier. The event stuff is harder, as it’s very seasonal. It drops off and it lulls you into a false state of security, but as soon as the events start picking up, before you know it, you’re eight weeks out and it becomes incredibly stressful.
How many Strength In Depth events are in the calendar now?
I think in 2019 we did four. We have pairs events, which are very inclusive. We don’t have a rig and try not do anything too technical. It’s a great opportunity for somebody who has maybe done a few in-house comps at their affiliate and wants to be brave and go and do something away from their local area. The original event that we did is our 12-person event, which is usually in Bath at the end of the year. Then the semi-final about to happen, one of two happening in Europe this year
Do you feel the extra pressure programming the workouts for a CrossFit semi-final?
Yes, it is difficult. I always take inspiration from elsewhere, and I’ve been fortunate to be involved in the sport from the very from start, so I’ve been a fan and tracked the sport and watched its evolution. Dave Castro obviously did a very good job of setting the standard. There’s been more than enough good workouts and tests in the past, so I take those and just tweak them to bring the up to date for 2022.
I know now that you’re not always going to nail it, and I’m okay with that. You can never predict what’s going to happen on the floor when the workout start and the athletes always exceed our expectations and bring an extra 5% on the floor. So yeah, those are some of the challenges. And I think for us, it’s just hugely important that you get the test and a balance of tests right first. Ideally, you want to have more athletes on the field at one time because it’s just not as exciting for the spectators to watch heat after heat and it takes up a lot of time in the schedule. You’ve got to think about kind of telling the story of a workout and the flow of it, but you can get trapped into just thinking about the spectacle, rather than getting the test right and reverse engineering so it’s easy to follow. You want somebody to switch on and know where the athletes are in the workout and how they’re doing.
The more local events have a reputation for being hardcore and setting out to break people? Do you aim to let the athletes excel more instead?
I think there are moments to really test people’s mental fortitude, and there will definitely be moments of that during our weekend, but you don’t want every workout to be like that. You don’t want it to just be absolute grind and a beatdown, so the athletes haven’t recovered for two or three weeks afterwards. You need to think about where your are in the progress of the season – Open, quarter-finals, semis, the CrossFit Games. You shouldn’t try and be the CrossFit Games. We are a semi-final. We’re a stepping stone for qualification.
Finally, there is a cohort of new British women who are competing at your event. Do you think any of the rookies can qualify?
They might not make it this year, but they need those experiences. They need to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with the best in the world and actually believe that they can do it. I think that’s half the battle. It’s going to be super-competitive and it’s going to be tough to get any Brits onto the podium, but breaking down that boundary and having that belief that they can do it is a great opportunity. They deserve to be there and anyone can win a workout. It’s certainly going to be exciting to watch.
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