Twenty-four-year-old David Brodsky began CrossFit nearly two years ago, but didn’t take it seriously.
"I was just messing around in my garage and at the YMCA,” he said. “I did it for a year on my own.”
Eventually, the affiliate draw became too strong. While attending the College of Theological Seminary in Chicago, Ill., he joined Lincoln Park CrossFit. It was like going from public school to class with the gifted. At his best he could snatch 205 lb., back squat 375 lb. and run a mile under six minutes. He even got his Level 1 certificate and began coaching.
“It’s just fun to go in the gym when everyone is cheering for everyone,” he said.
Then his knee began to hurt. He chalked it up to a rough day of squatting and kept training, expecting the discomfort to dissipate like it always had.
“I was ignoring it and thought it was the meniscus or cyst,” he said. “Then I started to feel a bump.”
Brodsky’s first doctor visit was promising. A quick biopsy said the bump was nothing to worry about. But the pain persisted and they decided surgery was the best option. Remove the bump, remove the pain. However, standard procedure mandates a portion of the tumor be tested.
“They sent it to a pathologist at the Mayo Clinic (in Minneapolis, Minn.),” he said. “They said it was a low grade osteosarcoma.”
Even though the cancer invading his bones was slow growing, he had to take action. Doctors and Brodsky agreed: destroy the cancer by cutting it out, and salvage the limb.
On October 4, doctors replaced most of Brodsky’s femur and some of his tibia with an internal prosthesis made of metal and various materials. The complex surgery failed.
Fearing the worst and hoping for the best, they did the procedure again.
“I had some issues with swelling after the first surgery,” he said. “I woke up in the middle of the night in excruciating pain. There was an infection. We did the surgery all over again.”
For months, fevers and hospital stays were the norm. Brodsky became anemic and got tired easily.
“When you have that much prosthetic it’s really bad to have fevers,” he said. “Bacteria can stick to the prosthetic and really mess you up."
After loads of antibiotics and enough bed rest for two lifetimes, Brodsky started physical therapy in January, basically flexing and extending his leg in various directions.
“The biggest thing is building the muscle back,” he said. “After the surgery, I had my leg wrapped. It dwindled down to a twig.”
In August he moved back to his home in Fairfield, Ohio, and started training at CrossFit Cornerstone.
He says he couldn’t have continued without the help of Drew Cook, a physical therapist who has been doing CrossFit for two years.
“When you go through something like this, it’s physical and emotional,” Brodsky said. “To have a therapist that understands that is huge. He knows the movements I’m trying to get back to.”
Cook and Brodsky began rehabilitation with bands and simple movements. Eventually, they were able to incorporate kettlebell swings, deadlifts and squats. They’re still coming up with ways to move forward and both are expecting the best.
Cook said he’s in it to relieve pain while gaining performance.
“With David for example, I problem solve his physical restrictions, and then determine how to integrate CrossFit exercises into his rehab program,” Cook said.
As of late, bamboo-bar back squats, GHD hamstring curls and handstand walks have been thrown in. Cooks said he wants to take Brodsky past his current abilities, focusing on what he can do.
“Many people could get stuck on feeling sorry for him and his situation,” Cook said. “In doing so they would completely miss out on his great potential and drive to be better everyday. Most people in his position, at this point in the process, would merely just be working on daily activities such as walking, sitting and standing.”
When Brodsky’s body changed, so did his opinion of fitness.
“CrossFit has to be more than just competing,” he said. “Now that I am limited, it has become more about testing my fitness … and inspiring others to reach their life and fitness goals.”
Four weeks ago, Brodsky started walking without crutches and registered for his second CrossFit Games Open.
He scored 94 reps on 14.1. He did all 64 double-unders on one leg.
“I hadn’t really practiced the one-leg double-unders, so I wasn’t sure how it was going to work,” he said. “The prosthetic is like a car. If you drive it slow and take care of it, it will last. If you drive it fast all the time, it will wear out. I don’t know how it will respond to CrossFit, but I want to try. I’ll be careful, but it’s fun to drive fast."
Brodsky won’t be able to do box jumps if they’re prescribed this Open season. He won’t do squat cleans or thrusters either. But he’s creative and he won’t quit, customizing each movement by the day, getting fitter one Open workout at a time.
“I want to do the Open like everyone else does, for a benchmark,” he said. “I’m not 100 percent, so I want to look back next year when I’m better.”