On June 7, CrossFit athlete Chandler Smith posted to his Instagram that he would no longer be participating in the 2020 CrossFit Games. Twenty-six-year old Smith, who first entered the competitive CrossFit scene in 2016, made the decision after CrossFit founder Greg Glassman made comments surrounding George Floyd on Twitter earlier that same week. Inhis Instagram post announcing his decision, Smith quotes Ayn Rand, “I can find the joy only if I do my work in the best way possible to me. But the best is a matter of standards - and I set my own standards. I inherit nothing. I stand at the end of no tradition. I may, perhaps, stand at the beginning of one.” Smith further explains that his decision puts him in a vulnerable position, because of his work and his goals as an athlete, and that he must remain apolitical because of his job.
The best job in the world.
That’s because Chandler Smith is a Captain in the United States Army as well as the officer in charge of the U.S. Army Warrior Fitness Team. We spoke with Chandler in April, at the beginning of the social distance stay-at-home orders. Chandler was at home in Louisville, KY and working out at Ft. Knox, enjoying time with his younger brother who was also home for his own spring break.
Chandler laughed about enjoying the time off. “I’ll throw an occasional three-a-day in there, but for the most part the training has been pretty light,” he told me. “And coaching is a lot lighter right now too.”
Smith, on top of actively serving in the military and training at the elite level, is also the coach of the U.S. Army Warrior Fitness team. “Ostensibly, I am the coach, but to be honest I am not coaching a lot. It's more of like, this is what we’re going to do, unless there are some glaring flaws,” he told me on the phone. “I’m of the Froning camp of believing that you can get people up to a pretty high level of functional fitness without being coached as long as they’re training hard and being diligent as far as identifying what they need to improve and work on.”
Service First, then Fitness.
Smith had an affinity for the Army early on. He remembers asking for a book about war in the first grade, for a Christmas book exchange. Growing up, Chandler’s father had a friend who had gone to West Point. Then, in high school, where Chandler started wrestling in his freshman year, the team captain was getting ready to go to West Point, following in the footsteps of their head assistant coach. “I knew that's where I wanted to be,” he told me.
The United States Military Academy West Point was the only college that Chandler Smith applied to. And he got in.
“I liked the military aspect of it. It was fun, and it was hard, and it presented some challenges. As a physically active person who is always looking for the next challenge, at that time I thought it was the hardest option, the most challenging, the one that was going to make me the most prepared for whatever other difficulties life would throw at me any point in time. So we went West Point.” That’s when Chandler started training for the military.
In 2010, searching for military training on the internet, Smith somehow came across a video of Spencer Hendel making a ridiculous olympic lift, and knew he found something that would work for him. “I was a total message board lurker,” Smith said, referring to the way in which CrossFit workouts used to be posted. He would pull programming off the CrossFit main site, then scour the message boards for more info on times, training methods, tips, all of it.
In 2011, a high school senior training for West Point, Smith was doing CrossFit at a 24 hour fitness when Ronnie Oswald, who was about to open the first CrossFit gym in Kansas City, walked right up to him and said, “Hey man I can tell you're trying to do CrossFit, you're just really bad at it. But, I’m building this gym and if you come help me build this gym, i’ll let you train there for free,” Smith remembers. “Whatever he said didn’t matter after he said free.”
Chandler spent the rest of his time doing metcons and Hero WODs, and that’s it. “The first time I ever ran two continuous miles was the PT test, on day four, at West Point,” Chandler laughs. But, he had found a hole. And, a man not afraid of a challenge, he was determined to fix that hole in his training. “So, I started running. I was running close to 40 miles a week, I was just running a ton.” Smith’s whole world was training, wrestling, and academics. “I really, really bought in. I was a wrestler at West Point.”
And it showed. When Chandler graduated West Point he was rated second in his class, physically. Second is still a sore spot for him. “There’s maybe only like three or four things that I will get angry about any time they’re brought up, and that’s definitely one of them.” Smith lost out on first place by something like 3/100th of a point, and he can replay in his head the moment he messed up, exactly how and why it happened, and what he should have done better to get first. “I still hold some grudges about it. I’m kind of half joking, but I’m not because you gotta be a bit of a crazy person to do anything at such a high level. I think holding some grudges and staying angry about it is conducive to pushing yourself through moments when you might have some self-doubt,” he said.
And that same semi-joking, bit of a crazy person drive is what keeps Smith going now.
Not Ranger School.
After West Point, Smith was commissioned as a second lieutenant in the U.S. Army, branching armor, becoming a tank platoon leader out of Ft. Riley, KS.
While proud of his position in the Army, Chandler watched while a lot of his friends went on to Ranger school. Chandler did not, but what he did do was redirect that same energy and feelings of inadequacy into CrossFit. In 2012, Chandler told himself he would make it to the CrossFit Games within ten years.
He got there a lot faster than he anticipated.
In 2016, Chandler made it to Regionals, a qualifying event for the CrossFit Games. “That’s when I realized I was maybe closer than I thought. At that point, I really started to shift my focus. My primary focus has always been my responsibility to the U.S. Army. But my secondary and my tertiary focus became training. I didn’t really do anything else. I just got single-minded on trying to pursue CrossFit at a high level while also meeting my responsibilities to the Army,” Chandler said. At the same time, the Army was looking to expand its range of recruits through a few new ways. One of those ways is through a competitive fitness team. They knew exactly where to start.
“I was the first one they called. Got to make some recommendations about the team, I felt like I was part of the process from the start,” Smith said.
The U.S. Army Warrior Fitness Team
TheU.S. Army Warrior Fitness Team is a targeted effort by Army recruiters in search of the people that are attending and competing in and around functional fitness and Strongmen. The Army wants these people in particular because they know that they will be able to meet the physical requirements of the Army and they possess a lot of the traits that they want in soldiers; like the ability to set goals, like committing to training to make a snatch 200 pounds by the end of the year, or be fit enough to get through the official medical process. “It does what it is supposed to, from a recruiting standpoint. We’ve been pretty successful there,” Smith said.
As a soldier himself, and as a competitive athlete, at the end of the day it is this job that Chandler is proud of. “I think I have probably one of the best jobs in the Army. The fact that this is what the Army is paying me to do, while the elite of the elite, those same badasses that went off the Ranger school while I trained, are the guys that are putting themselves at risk every day, the guys with the most points of most friction,” Smith told me.
“To a good percentage of Americans, I might be what they imagine when they imagine the Army. It’s so much bigger than me… I get to show everybody else what their workout ethic is like, how tough they are even if I am not as tough as they are and I don’t work as hard, having a chance to represent them means that I gotta really be on my game.”
And it's not just the fitness game that Chandler strives to perfectly represent. Smith, as highlighted by his character and actions these last few weeks, strives to be the best person he can be, on and off the field, always representing the Army in the best light possible.
“I want to be someone who the public trusts, who performs at a high level, who represents as well as I can for all the soldiers who came before me and all the soldiers who are in uniform right now or to come, as part of the recruiting job it’s a very big responsibility. It's really helped me to laser focus and make sure that I am always ready to perform, no matter what it is. I am on at all times because I know that if I slip up, it's not only negatively representing myself it's also representing potentially millions of people, and that’s something I don’t take lightly.”
There is one more thing he doesn’t take likely: “Beat Navy.”
Photography by Patrick Clark