"An old friend of mine used to say, 'It's OK to pray for a ditch but don't be afraid to pick up a shovel.'"
Cliff Musgrave missed the 2013 Reebok CrossFit Games by two measly spots.
“I was really close last year,” he said. “That lit a fire under me.”
The 45-year-old firefighter from Akron, Ohio, started CrossFit in 2011 to supplement his endurance training, but soon the supplement became his main focus. By 2013, he came to the box four days a week to work on developing his strength—a quality he never cared to develop as an endurance athlete.
“Weights are my weakness. My capacity is my strong suit,” Musgrave explained.
Even with the extra training, he wasn’t quite able to grasp one of the 20 tickets to the Masters competition in Carson, California.
“One rep in almost any (Open workout) and he might have made it,” said Musgrave’s coach Doug Price. “I judged him, and he no-repped himself multiple times, knowing the implications.”
His worst finish of the 2013 Open was 13.3—a 12-minute AMRAP of 150 wall-ball shots, 90 double-unders and 30 muscle-ups. Musgrave managed to get eight muscle-ups within the time cap, which dropped him to 70th place on the Masters Men 45-49 Leaderboard.
“I got to the muscle-ups with plenty of time, but I struggled with them,” Musgrave said.
After the final workout of the 2013 Open finished, and he saw his name in 22nd place, Musgrave started training for 2014. He knew he needed to become stronger, and more proficient at technical gymnastics movements, like muscle-ups.
The first step was to add another training day to his schedule so he’d have time for more lifting and gymnastics skill work.
“The more I read and the more people I talked to, everything came back to squatting,” he said.
Now, he typically squats twice a week—front and back—and keeps most of his working sets at 85 to 90 percent of his max. Over the months, he has increased his back squat by 35 lb. (350 lb.), and snatched 190 lb. for the first time.
When he’s not getting friendly with the barbell, he’s working on improving his relationship with muscle-ups.
“When I’m done with a met-con, I’ll try to do 10 of them when I’m tired,” he said.
With all the extra practice, he has learned that the false grip isn’t for him.
“It’s really hard to get opened up for an efficient kip, at least for me, in false grip,” he said. “When I lost that, it just sort of clicked."
Clicked is an understatement.
When faced with Amanda—9-7-5 reps of muscle-ups and 135-lb. squat snatches—Musgrave was able to put in a performance that would land him in fourth place on the Masters Qualifier event.
“The last time I did a full Amanda was a year ago,” he said. “This year, I was 5:37, down from just over 12 minutes.”
Another Masters Qualifier event, the one-rep-max clean, wouldn’t have been a good event for the 2013-version of Musgrave. But 2014 Musgrave came in ready to break his personal record.
He cleaned 265 lb. and managed to stand up with the weight for a successful rep—a 10-lb. PR (and 40-lb. PR over his one-rep max clean in 2013) that would earn him 38th on the event.
“I even cleaned 270, got to parallel, hit a wall and dropped it,” he said proudly.
He used his longstanding capacity to finish the three rounds of 50-calorie row, 15 handstand push-ups and 50 double-under in 11:05 for the Event 3 win, and followed it with a fourth place finish on Event 4, the 100 pull-ups and 100 wall ball shots, with a time of 8:30.
When combined with his fifth-place finish in the Open, Musgrave came in second overall and decisively earned a spot in the Games.
"Each year, the number of entrants grows and the competition keeps getting better,” he said. “I didn’t know how I’d fare this year, but it couldn’t have went any better for me.”
Had he not improved his lifting or his muscle-ups, he would have taken 151st on the clean event (225 lb.) and 98th on Amanda (12:00). Since it took 173 points or fewer to qualify for the Games out of the 45-49 Division this year, either of these placings would have knocked Musgrave out of contention for the Games.
Given that his training has worked, Musgrave doesn't plan on changing anything in the lead up to the Games. He plans on doing the same workouts as before, on the black tattered bench and well-used Concept 2 rower at Akron Fire Station 9, and continuing to go in to practice his Olympic lifts at least twice a week.
“I’m very motivated to move because it’s a gift—a gift not everybody gets to have,” he said referring to his 16-year-old son Luke who was diagnosed with cerebral palsy, epilepsy and mitochondrial disease several years ago.
“The biggest factor in my being in the position I'm in, relates to the fact that God has given me the ability to do it. I don't think that it was solely based on some work or effort that I put in,” Musgrave said.
“An old friend of mine used to say, ‘It's OK to pray for a ditch but don't be afraid to pick up a shovel.’ In other words, while I may have wanted to go to the Games before, this time, God really blessed my time on the shovel.”