April 5, 2013
Doing the Open One-Handed: Jesse French
By Kate Rose

"I'm stubborn and I know I have limitations, but they can always be pushed further."

Photos by: Karla Parker

Jesse French lost the fingers on his left hand in March 2010.

Helping a coworker deal with a pedal-driven saw with a disconnected safety nut, the blade of the saw whipped around and took French’s fingers. 

Three surgeries failed to reattach his digits. Fears of increased blood pressure rupturing closing veins prevented him from exercising, and in rehab, French was told to lower his expectations in life.

“I was informed to begin thinking of other careers and hobbies, as the extent of my injury — in their opinion — would not allow me to return to what I had been doing,” he says.

“My own initial thought was not the fact that my fingers had been amputated, but the fact that my dream career, the thing I’ve been working towards single-mindedly for the last three years of my life, had basically gone up in smoke,” the aspiring firefighter says.

Forced to re-evaluate his professional goals and CrossFit training, French went through a period of depression.

“Self pity was definitely evident, as was a sense of defeat,” he says. “But at that point, I had decided that I had two options: I could accept what people were saying and cut my losses — not expose myself to the feeling of failure — or I could look at it as a chance to start from scratch. Anything I accomplish would be something I couldn’t do before, and if I failed, I didn’t really fail because I couldn’t do it to begin with. Obviously, I chose the latter decision.”

He continues: “I returned to the box I was training at mainly to achieve some sense of normality. Attempts at exercising left me frustrated and feeling like a shadow of the athlete I was before.”

But he kept coming back. And now, he’s competing in the 2013 Open.

“I’m stubborn and I know I have limitations, but they can always be pushed further,” French says.

Using a number of adaptive tools, like lifting straps and hooks, French has been able to overcome most barriers in the gym. Muscle-ups on a bar, handstand push-ups and most grip-dependent movements are the most difficult. Kettlebell swings generally require his right arm to do the majority of the work. French is acutely aware that he's now at a disadvantage in some workouts, but he’s still ranked in the top 150 men in Canada West.

“I’m pretty happy with all things considering. I’m fairly happy with my scores and am glad to have helped Rocky Point CrossFit put a team into the Regionals.”

For 13.1, he managed 13 snatches at 165 lb., which placed him 46th in the region. He crushed 260 reps of shoulder-to-overheads, deadlifts and box jumps in 13.2, and completed eight muscle-ups on 13.3 … without fingers.

In the grip-dependent 13.4, French scored a remarkable 85 reps – that’s more than four rounds of cleans and jerks and toes-to-bars.

French’s strategy is to race at the beginning of each workout; he doesn't pace himself.

“The fatigue and burnout point with my left hand and forearm can’t be avoided, as well as the duress my body undergoes trying to make up for it,” he explains. “My strategy consists of getting as much done as possible before I hit the failure point with my left hand. Coaches get a good laugh at my strategy — it’s like a little kid running his first 1500-meter race and being so excited he’s off like a rocket. It seems obvious to everybody that it is a counter productive approach.”

In his experience, though, this strategy works best for him.

“It becomes a pain tolerance issue — just having the grit not to give up and finish no matter what.”

He strongly believes in one other thing.

“No matter how competitive it gets, in the end, you’re doing it to prove something to yourself. Can I be fitter? Can I go further? Or simply, can I do it?”

He knows he risks failure, and he’s accepted that.

“I’m not saying don’t fail, make mistakes or fall down. What I’m really saying, is don’t make the excuse not to try, not to accomplish and not to get back up.”