By Spenser Mes
In between his clean and jerks, I ask Ariel how much longer he needs before our interview. “Now is fine,” he says, loading 10-lb plates on each side of the bar. I tell him I can’t interrupt. “No, no, no, not a problem,” he says, “I could use the company.” The 12:30 class has just finished, and on this day, one of the muggiest of the summer, we’re alone. Ariel already worked out in the morning, and I watch as he grips the bar, 155 pounds, hoists it to his hips, whips it up to his shoulders, squats, and then presses it above his head.
When the weight’s back on the ground, I ask him what program he’s doing. “I guess I’m always training for the Games,” he says a little sheepishly, walking toward the stacks of rubber plates. “Which means I have to train what I’m worst at.”
“Clean and jerks?”
“Endurance. I can do the long workouts, like Murph, and I can do the short ones, but I can’t keep going afterward.” He loads 10-lb plates onto the bar. “Some guys can do Fran and move on, but I’m lying there dead.” I ask him his Fran time, and he smiles. “3:11.” Then, two more reps of clean and jerk.
Ariel wasn’t always so quick. “I was a chunkier kid growing up,” he tells me. “My parents loved to feed me, but even in gym class, I wanted to be the best.” In seventh grade, he realized that if he better controlled what he ate, he performed better, and his weight started to drop. When he was 16, he begged his mom to sign the necessary waivers so he could join a gym with his brother and has been lifting ever since.
“How’d you get into CrossFit?”
He holds up a finger, clean and jerks twice again, and answers before the crash of the weights has died down, not even breathless. “I saw a video of Mikko Salo doing ‘Death by Clean and Jerk.’ It was amazing. He looks like he’s done by number thirteen. And then he does fourteen, and it really looks like it’s over. And then fifteen. And sixteen.” He wipes his hands on his shorts. “That’s what hooked me, that mental toughness.” When I watch the video later that night, I see that Salo only finishes fourteen rounds, but it doesn’t surprise me that Ariel remembered it being more. Back at the gym, he’s switching out the 10-lb plates for 25s.
“And how do you train that mental side of it?”
Two more reps, a crash, and his answer: “It’s tough. So last year, right before the Games, we were doing five rep maxes for our back squat. At this point, my one-rep is, like, 440, and I’m getting ready to do five at 435.” He adds two more 10-lb plates to the bar. “So, I get the first three but can’t make the fourth. I never miss a back squat…” He blows through two more clean and jerks, this time at 205 pounds “…and I couldn’t recover mentally after that.”
I stare at him: “But you basically did your one-rep max four times.”
He shrugs and adds 10-lb plates. “I guess it wasn’t just the back squats. I didn’t know how to take a break last year. After we didn’t make the Games, I trained even harder.” He pauses and lifts his shorts. “That’s why I ended up having knee surgery two and a half months ago.” He points to his left leg. “Look, it’s still swollen.” All I can see are two equally-massive quads, but I nod. Two more clean and jerks.
This past March, in the middle of the CrossFit Games Open, Ariel was doing heavy sets of thrusters. His knee hurt, but not significantly more than usual, so he pushed through it. Overnight, it swelled so much that he could hardly bend his leg. “I knew I still had to do the Open workout,” he tells me, so he rested as long as possible, and four days later did 16.5: 21-18-15-12-9-6-3 thrusters (95 pounds) and burpees. When he eventually went to his orthopedist, he learned that his meniscus was torn in two places.
He adds two more 10-lb plates. This time, he pauses a little longer between the first and second reps. At 245, both are technically perfect. He still isn’t breathless. I ask him how he tries to find that balance between pushing himself like Salo and avoiding an injury. He explains that working out less can actually be a more effective training method, because it takes less of a toll on his body, decreases injury risk, and lets him push hard during every workout to hit the high intensity that’s critical to seeing results. He sighs. “I don’t do two-hour doubles anymore,” he says, re-wrapping his thumbs. “And I don’t feel like I have to be in here every Saturday afternoon, either. It’s just too much.” He starts to strip the bar and re-rack the plates. “At the same time, though, you aren’t gonna come in every day and feel good, but you still have to train.”
“How’s today feeling?” I ask.
He smiles and picks up a 45-lb plate. “Pretty good.”