Chuck Miller had been doing CrossFit for a year-and-a-half when he signed up for the 2014 Open. Yet the 63-year-old had never done a single toes-to-bar, and Open Workout 14.4—an AMRAP of rowing for calories, toes-to-bars, wall-ball shots, cleans, and muscle-ups—called for 50.
The Massachusetts resident heard the news while at a friend's house, drinking wine and watching Dave Castro announce the workout at the Live Open Announcement across the country in Seattle.
As he cleared the empty wine glasses, his thoughts drifted to the previous year's Open when he failed to post a score on Open Workout 13.4, an ascending ladder of clean and jerks and toes-to-bars. Unable to lock out the 115-lb. barbell—15 lb. more than his one-rep max—he ended the 7-minute workout with a score of 0.
“I didn’t get one (rep) on the board and that just broke my heart,” he said. “I didn’t want that to happen in 2014.”
He figured he would score 60 reps during the rowing portion of 14.4, and then spend the remaining time flailing on the bar, shredding his hands as he attempted to get a single toes-to-bar. But less than 48 hours later, under the pressure of competition, he got his first toes-to-bar and then followed it with 24 more.
“Your adrenaline goes up to a different level (in the Open workouts) than a regular WOD; you feel like there’s more at stake,” he explained.
To put the achievement in perspective, when Miller joined CrossFit 2A, his only goal was to lose weight. He wrote off certain movements like toes-to-bars as too advanced, and never gave them more than a few casual attempts. Whenever toes-to-bars came up in the gym's WODs, he did knees-to-elbows instead.
“I avoided them,” he admitted. “I would go for the scaled option. I figured that toes-to-bars were out of reach.”
But in 14.4, there was no scaled option. If Miller wanted to do more than row, he had to get his feet over his head. So, like a student desperate to learn a semester’s worth of material in a single night, he crammed, spending most of the Friday after the live announcement watching tutorials on YouTube.
Just before midnight, Miller pinpointed the flaw in his technique.
“It was basically like I was lying on my back and doing a crunch,” he explained. “Then, I saw that it’s all from the hips, you kick back and kip into a full swing so you’ve got the momentum of your hips going up.”
Before he fell asleep that night, he lay in the dark imagining himself executing perfect toes-to-bars. The next morning, his friends from the gym gathered to watch him make his attempt.
With 9 minutes and 50 seconds left on the clock after finishing the 60-calorie row, Miller chalked his hands and leapt to the bar. Visualizing the movement he’d studied the night before, he swung his legs back before aggressively closing his hips. His knees flew up toward the ceiling, and the bar resounded with a satisfying thud as his toes hit the steel for the first time.
“The entire movement felt different,” he said. “It was a lot less labor. It was like all of the sudden someone had revealed the secret to me.”
He dropped from the bar and shook out his arms. When he jumped up again, he performed a second good rep, accumulating reps in singles as the clock counted down. By the final two minutes, Miller had bloodied the bar with his torn hands.
His judge, a young athlete named Jeff Yeakley, alternated shouts of encouragement with demands for more reps before the time ran out.
“(Yeakley) was as excited as I was, which was kind of exhilarating. His enthusiasm was contagious,” Miller said.
He chalked one last time and added four more reps to his score, for a total of 85.
“If I had gotten 61 (total reps) it would have been a victory,” he said. “I ended up with 85 (reps) and I was ecstatic.”
If it weren’t for that workout, Miller admitted he might still avoid toes-to-bars.
“There’s a tendency (in regular workouts) if you’re scaling and you’re not proficient at some things, you kind of gravitate to that as being where you belong,” he said. “I had no issue with going into a daily WOD and scaling or substituting, but when you get disqualified because you can’t do a movement (in the Open), it ups the ante and you’re forced to deal with it.”