"I had no idea that I would ever be able to do this. It makes me feel really good that I can do more now than when I was younger."
Moments before the Leaderboard closed after the inaugural Masters Qualifier, Jerry Wilson poured himself a glass of scotch.
Though his wife and two adult children sat around the dinner table hitting “refresh” on their smartphones, Wilson couldn’t bring himself to look at the Leaderboard. He made that mistake last year, celebrating prematurely before watching his name fall to 21st place in the Masters Men 50-54 Division after the 2013 Open, just one place short of qualification for the 2013 Reebok CrossFit Games.
“I ran out of the house, yelling, ‘Honey, I think I’m gonna make it!’” Wilson recounted. “Then it jumped to 21st and I just sat at the computer and put my hands on my head. Refreshing didn’t help after that.”
But this time, his name stayed put when the minute turned over. Finishing in eighth place in his division, the CrossFit athlete of seven years is headed to Carson, California, for his CrossFit Games debut.
His drink lay forgotten on the table, ice melting in the glass.
“I was so excited,” he said. “I was running around like a little kid.”
The 51-year-old executive chef started CrossFit alone in his garage in 2007, upon his daughter’s recommendation. His first workout was Grace, scaled to 95 lb. and performed with steel weights he’d purchased years ago for benching and bicep curls.
At the 20-minute mark, he was on rep 17.
“I came in and sat on the couch and said to my wife, ‘Real people don’t do this stuff,’” he remembered.
For four years, Wilson trained alone in his garage, warming his bar with a blowtorch when temperatures dipped below 20 degrees. So when MTM CrossFit opened just down the street in North Canton, Ohio, in 2011, he jumped at the chance to test his fitness against others.
“You improve more by the competition of others,” he said.
David MacDonald, owner of MTM CrossFit, saw Wilson’s potential to become an elite competitor from the start.
“He moved quite well for his age and he was ripped,” MacDonald said. “He could do all of the high-skill things that are demanded of a (CrossFit athlete).”
After placing 61st in the Open in the Masters 45-49 Division in 2011, Wilson gave himself two years to get to the Games. Come 2013, he thought he was ready.
“I was training really hard, and really focusing on it,” he said.
He hovered in the teens for most of the Open that year, placing in the top 40 for four out of five workouts. But at the last minute, Vincent Lopez of CrossFit Balance edged out Wilson.
“One more rep in any of those workouts and I would have made it,” Wilson said.
Despite the disappointment, he remained positive.
“All you can do is work on improving your weaknesses,” he said. “You can’t control how good other people are. The better they are, the better you’ll be, because it gives you something more to strive for.”
Last fall, he sat down with MacDonald to come up with a plan for 2014. Building strength was the top priority.
“We believe very much that if we’re able to increase absolute strength, we’ll be able to do reps faster and more efficiently,” MacDonald said.
Training five days per week with the classes at MTM CrossFit and with extra strength and accessory work at home in the garage, Wilson increased his deadlift from 355 lb. to 400 lb., his snatch from 135 lb. to 175 lb., and his back squat from 285 lb. to 320 lb. over the past six months.
“This is the sort of thing that, theoretically, an athlete who is in their 50s should not be able to do,” MacDonald said. “Before CrossFit, that’s what people believed.”
The training paid off with an 18th-place finish in his division in the Open and an eighth-place finish after the Masters Qualifier. Wilson finished well within the top 40 on each of the four events, including a second-place finish in Event 2, Amanda.
“The 115-lb. squat snatch … would have been a pretty heavy snatch for him this time last year,” MacDonald said. “This year it was no problem at all.”
Twenty-four hours after performing Amanda, Wilson PR’d his clean in Event 1—twice. After miscalculating the load on his barbell, he realized he had hit 246 lb. when he thought he was lifting 10 lb. less.
The camera hadn’t been rolling.
“I was never so disappointed with a PR before,” he said.
Five minutes later, he cued up the camera for a second attempt.
As he caught the weight, he began to tip forward. Desperate to save the lift, he reverse-curled the bar, knees turning in. After 15 seconds, he managed to stand.
“I dropped the weight, took two steps to the right, and did a face plant,” he said. “It was one of the ugliest things I’ve witnessed.”
Now, while his family scours the web for plane tickets to California, Wilson is preparing to compete on the big stage in Carson. Training sessions will focus on increasing efficiency in high-skill movements like the muscle-up and odd-object training.
“I’ve always had this diabolical idea of pouring concrete into a rectangular trash can and having someone run with that,” MacDonald said with a laugh.
The pair will also work with Wilson’s daughter, a chiropractor, to experiment with recovery methods for multiple-effort days.
And though Wilson said he will shoot for the podium in July, more important is remembering how far he has come.
“I had no idea that I would ever be able to do this,” he said. “It makes me feel really good that I can do more now than when I was younger.”