Last January, Daniel Casey became a CrossFit sensation. At a bodyweight of around 400 lb.—down from around 550 lb. after a year of CrossFit—he competed in the inaugural scaled option of the 2015 Reebok CrossFit Games Open, completing each of the five workouts for a 5,202nd-place finish in the Central East Region. His story inspired thousands across social media, many of whom contacted Casey and credited him with motivating them to join their local CrossFit affiliates.
It took courage for Casey to share his story. It felt like his first day of CrossFit all over again.
“When I first started, I was afraid to walk into the gym, thinking, ‘People are gonna look at me, people are gonna laugh at me …’ and that was just a gym in a relatively small city in a country area of Tennessee,” he recalled. “What happens when a picture of my 400-lb. butt doing a snatch, with my fricken stomach hanging out, goes worldwide?”
Before his story came out, he had a heart-to-heart with one of his coaches, Brett DeBruin, who lost 145 lb. doing CrossFit before becoming a coach at CrossFit East 10 in Johnson City, Tennessee.
Casey recalled DeBruin saying, "'You realize I’ve got people that come in here and they see my before and after picture and they’re like “Wow, if he can do it, I can do it … But that’s just a few people; you have the ability to send this whole thing worldwide … and you can't be worried about the people that are gonna hate on it."' And the massive outpouring of support just made it all worthwhile.”
The Open came and went, and CrossFit athletes went back to their daily lives. Casey went back to his, too. And while the Open is a time to celebrate our accomplishments, life is as much valleys as peaks, and Casey’s toughest tests were yet to come.
Life After the Open
Casey may have been a role model for CrossFit athletes during the Open last year, but among his relatives, he played the role of middleman. Tension resulting from private family disputes made him feel pressure to be the perfect mediator.
Meanwhile, he and his girlfriend Jessica made plans to move in together in Casey’s late great-grandmother’s old house. While it was being remodeled, the couple moved in with his grandmother for three months. It was a little more family time than Jessica had bargained for. Though the pair remained in love, Jessica moved back to her family’s home in Kentucky. Casey was crushed.
“I felt like it was my fault; I felt like I had done something wrong,” he said.
When the house was finished, Casey moved in alone. Still unable to land a job—”if (employers) give me more than 40 hours a week, they have to give me insurance, and they don’t want to give me insurance because they look at me and from an employer's perspective, I'm a health risk,” he said—when he wasn’t at the gym, Casey faced hours of solitude each day. It didn’t help that his previously rapid weight loss had begun to slow down. He sunk back into the depression he’d escaped just one year before.
“It seemed like everything was falling in,” he said.
This time, instead of eating too much, he hardly ate. Though he kept his diet clean, eating mostly chicken, veggies, fruit and brown rice, he often ate only one meal each day, unbeknownst to his coaches.
“I had nobody living with me, so I didn't have any push to really eat,” he said. “I don’t like eating in the morning because it makes me feel sick, so I'd end up not eating breakfast and I'd go to the gym and work out on an empty stomach, and I'd come home and I'd end up either falling asleep … or just staring at the TV for hours on hours, and the next thing I know, it's 7:00 at night.”
If his weight loss had slowed before, it stopped completely after his body adjusted to his drastically reduced intake. Casey stopped posting updates on his Facebook and Instagram profiles and his followers wondered if he’d given up.
He hadn’t. Casey still trained five days per week, splitting his time between CrossFit East 10 and CrossFit Kolóna in Elizabethton, Tennessee, an affiliate opened in the fall of 2015 by a mutual friend of Casey and Rob Stacy, owner of CrossFit East 10. But though he put in the time, his workouts lacked heart. He rested more than he needed to and put the barbell down before the clock’s final seconds ran out.
“I wasn’t giving it everything I had,” Casey said. “I felt like I wasn't sore for like a good four months, and that's not normal for a CrossFitter.”
Though he gained no weight and his clothes—several sizes smaller than he wore before starting CrossFit—still fit, he feared he was turning back into the man he’d been before.
“My whole life I've quit,” he said. “I did baseball as a kid for like a season and then I quit, and then I did karate for like six months and I quit; football, chess, AV club; all this stuff at school, I did it for a short period and I always quit … I finally wanted to do something and stick with it and I felt like every day I left the gym and wasn't sore, I felt like I was leading towards that.”
Even more appalling to Casey was the fear that he was letting down the people who had invested so much in him.
“(Stacy) came out of nowhere two years ago and for all intents and purposes saved my life,” he said. “Somebody does something like that, somebody changes your life this dramatically, to feel like you’re failing them is just heart-wrenching. It just all came down to a breaking point where I was standing outside of East 10 with Rob with tears in my eyes because I felt like I had failed him.”
Confronting His Demons
Long before their heart-to-heart, Stacy knew something was wrong. Where was the smack-talking, back-clapping athlete he’d trained for the last two years?
“I just noticed there was a big difference in his attitude,” Stacy said. “It wasn't a bad attitude, but it was a down-on-himself attitude.”
Stacy pulled Casey aside after the workout one day a few weeks before Christmas, leading him to the affiliate’s storeroom. They each pulled up a box, and Stacy asked what was going on.
Casey confided in Stacy his stress over his family issues and his feelings of failure.
“You’re not letting anybody down,” Stacy told him. “The only person you’re letting down is yourself by thinking you’re letting us down. Nobody is asking you to lose 200 lb. in a year.”
Stacy reminded him of all he’d accomplished over the past year, like losing 150 lb. and PR-ing his jump rope from one skip at a time to 20 skips strung together.
“You didn't lose weight or get good at CrossFit overnight,” he continued. “You have to look at your entire year.”
As they spoke, Casey had a revelation of sorts: He’d been training for the wrong reasons.
“I was doing CrossFit to make my family happy,” Casey said. “To make my family proud of me. Because I’m 24 years old and I never felt like I did anything to make my mom proud. I dropped out of high school, I got my GED, I didn't have a job ... so I was doing CrossFit to make people proud of me.”
For Casey, each pound lost—or not—determined his self-worth. That kind of motivation is short-lived, Stacy said.
“You gotta be happy with who you see in the mirror no matter if you're overweight or underweight,” he said. “And then all that other stuff will fall in line.”
A Future in Fitness
Today, Casey feels more like himself with each passing day. DeBruin suggested Casey follow the Zone diet, a plan he’d read about in the CrossFit Journal and credited with his own success.
“With his body weight and his workouts, I wanted to make sure he wasn't taking in too few calories, so that he would be safe when he was trying to lose weight and not go into the starvation mode he was previously in,” DeBruin said.
Instead of obsessing over the scale, Casey measures his success in accomplishments, not pounds. Recently, he walked two miles on a treadmill without stopping, the farthest he’s ever gone.
“I hit 305 (lb.) on a 3-rep back squat the other day like it was butter,” he said. “That was really exciting, but I didn’t get half as excited about that as the fact that I walked two miles without stopping.”
Jessica moved back in with Casey, and when he’s not training, he’s shadowing CrossFit Kolona owner Joshua Hicks as an assistant coach. He hopes to attend a CrossFit Level 1 Seminar and become a full-time coach one day.
“He really has become one of the single most effective motivators we have,” Hicks said. “New people that were afraid to start or nervous would just find comfort in him. He's become highly knowledgeable in a lot of the movements and I find him motivating me during my own personal (workouts). Coaching is about more than outward appearance, it’s about heart and the ability of a person to communicate with others in a way that facilitates change or improvement. Daniel is all of that and more.”
“Teaching people to be better, to be healthier; that’s all I want to do,” Casey added.
In just more than a month, Casey will compete in his second Open. With unassisted lunges, burpees and single skips under his belt, his goal is to rank in the low 5,000s or high 4,000s.
“Not to prove I’m better than anybody, but to prove I’ve gotten better than I was last year,” he said.
And this time, he’ll be competing for himself.
“I don't come in the gym to make people proud anymore,” he said. “I come in here because I enjoy it. I enjoy every bloody second of it. Don’t get me wrong, I want someone somewhere to see me and be like, ‘This guy is awesome, he's proving that it can be done. I’m gonna go change my life, too.’ I want that more than anything in the world, but I can't worry about everybody else in my life. I've got to worry about myself and I’ve got to take care of myself first.”
And to anyone who’s experienced failure with CrossFit, Casey says:
“You didn't fail, you fell down. What do we do when we fall down? We get back up and we go back at it.”