February 21, 2014
Giving the Open a Go: Richard Wassell
By Carter Jee
In 1994, Richard Wassell was serving on board a submarine for the Australian Navy when he suffered a serious stroke.Over the next couple of days, he...
In 1994, Richard Wassell was serving on board a submarine for the Australian Navy when he suffered a serious stroke.Over the next couple of days, he...

"He is just a tough bastard who just doesn't stop. I've seen a lot of people with lesser injuries give up before he does," Thorneycroft said.

Photos courtesy of Bruce Garrod.

In 1994, Richard Wassell was serving on board a submarine for the Australian Navy when he suffered a serious stroke.

Over the next couple of days, he would suffer three more major strokes, which left him with complete paralysis on the right side of his body.

Wassell, 28 at the time, spent the next few months in a military intensive care ward rehabilitating.

"I had to learn how to do everything," he said. "From swallowing food to walking and talking."

At the time, it was unclear how well Wassell would recover, and his rehabilitation was a slow but steady progress. After eight weeks, he began walking again, and not too long after started to run.

Each day, Wassell worked on improving his overall strength and balance, and ultimately became independent once again. Remarkably, with the encouragement of his wife and kids, he began running competitively, entering races for adaptive athletes.

"I have run 10 marathons and one ultra marathon through the Blue Mountains," Wassell said.

"There were countless half marathons and shorter races. I finished as the runner-up in the Australian Marathon Championship back in 1998, beaten by a blind guy twice my age,” he added.

Wassell was nearly 46 when he discovered CrossFit. It was his kids who got him into it, he said.

“I saw the change in them, and I thought I would give it a go,” he said. “And I loved it."

While Wassell has made a remarkable recovery from his strokes 20 years ago, he is still yet to regain full functionality of his body. He currently has no use of his right arm, and restrictive use of his right leg.

But in his two years at Southern CrossFit in Perth, Australia, Wassell hasn’t let his restrictions stop him from training. He modifies and scales each workout to suit his capabilities.

In Fran, for example, Wassell substitutes barbell thrusters for kettlebell thrusters and ring rows for pull-ups, and has a modest PR of 5:41.

"I have become a better athlete because of CrossFit, period,” he said.

“Adaptive doesn't really come into it,” he continued. “No one at Southern CrossFit considers me adaptive, and things are just scaled to my ability just like everyone else."

Outside of his affiliate, Wassell has put on some impressive performances in local competitions against able-bodied and adaptive athletes.

"I entered the beginners category on the Wounded Warrior in November 2012 and I finished sixth overall against able-bodied athletes,” Wassell said.

Last year, the athlete also scored a top-five finish at the World Indoor Rowing Championships, and a few months later broke the 100-km (62-mi) rowing world record, beating the previous mark by an hour and 20 minutes.

"I did it mainly to inspire others, especially other adaptive athletes, and to raise money for charity," he said.

Hayden Thorneycroft is the head coach of Southern CrossFit and is blown away by Wassell’s progress since his first CrossFit class in 2012.

He believes his military background has a lot to do with his success.

“Richard's military mindset is one of his biggest strengths,” he said.

“He is just a tough bastard who just doesn't stop,” Thorneycroft added. “I've seen a lot of people with lesser injuries give up before he does.”

Competing in the Open

Despite watching his affiliate qualify for the past two Australia Regionals, and earn a spot at the CrossFit Games in 2013, Wassell has never competed in the Open.

This year, he was once again hesitant to sign up for the Open but changed his mind after some thought.

“This is going to be my first Open,” he said. “My box was going to program the Open (workouts) anyway, and I thought by being one of the first (adaptive athletes), I will be able to inspire others to give CrossFit a go.”

The experience will also be unique for Thorneycroft and the members at his gym.

“It is the first time we have ever had an adaptive athlete have a crack at the Open,” Thorneycroft said. “Richard and I sat down and talked about it and I have emailed HQ for some guidance.”

“It’s a matter of wait and see what the workouts are going to be, and specifically, what the movement standards are,” Thorneycroft added. “We don't really want to change things too much, as what he does might not be the intended workout.”

Wassell is not concerned about where he’ll place in the Open or how well he’ll do in each workout.

“I don’t care if I finish last, which is a real possibility since we haven’t seen the workouts yet. I just want to try my best,” he said.

Hopes for 14.1

Wassell is hoping this year’s Open workouts play to his strength: cardio.

“Anything cardio. Running or rowing,” he said. “Actually, I’m hoping all Open (workouts) contain rowing.”

With restrictions in his right arm and leg, gymnastics movements like muscle-ups, pull-ups and handstand push-ups will be tough for him, as will heavy barbell lifting.

“Richard, in the scheme of things, is pretty good at most things he can do. He was back squatting 70 to 80 kg for sets of five the other day, not bad for a guy with one good leg,” Thorneycroft said.

“But there are things that he just physically can't do. He can't do a squat snatch and hold a barbell above his head. There's only so much one arm and one leg can do in a (workout).”

No matter what the Open brings, the 47-year-old is just excited to be taking part in the competition.

“If I can't do the (workouts) when they get released, then I guess I will score zero for that week,” he said.

“Once again, my main motivation is to inspire others to give CrossFit a go."