April 23, 2014
Home Is Where the Box Is
By Phil White

“We came to realize that we had so much more to be happy about than stuff ... we’ve made great friendships, pursued our passion for fitness daily and have an unbridled opportunity to give to people. What more could we ask for?”

Photos courtesy of Matthew Anderson

You may have heard a CrossFit athlete say, “I live at my box”—meaning they spend copious amounts of time training at their affiliate. But what if living at your box really meant living at your box?

That’s life for Brian and Amanda Stites of CrossFit On Track in Olathe, Kan. The affiliate owners eat, shower and sleep at their gym. Add in two dogs, a revolving guest list of people crashing on the couch in sleeping bags or wherever they can find a non-sweaty spot and you’ve got a one-of-a-kind situation that proves how far people will go to make their CrossFit affiliate succeed.

So far, it’s worked.

The team from CrossFit On Track finished third in the North Central Region in the 2014 Open, and will compete at regionals in Chicago, Ill., this May.

“Henry Rollins sings about ‘the iron’ as a metaphor for how to approach every day purposefully, and that’s how our team approached each Open workout,” said Brian, who is an alternate on the team. “They’ve used every workout to define themselves as resilient, determined and capable athletes, and making it to regionals is the evidence of the character they've built.”

After a year of team workouts twice a week, CrossFit On Track has been able to get a good sense of their individual and collective capabilities and deficiencies. Brian said the team’s strengths are cardio and gymnastics, while its biggest weakness is heavy lifting. While he worries that the latter could be “fatal at regionals,” Brian said he was pleasantly surprised by his team’s consistent performances during the five Open workouts this year.

Now, the team is focusing on eliminating their weakness.

In addition to performing plenty of high-rep sets with medium loads in the Olympic lifting movements, squats and deadlifts, the team is also doing 90- to 100-percent effort single-, double-, and triple-rep sets under varying time constraints to test the limits of each athlete’s physical and mental strength.

The Stites and the other coaches are careful to program an adequate warm-up and cool-down, a lot of mobility work and rest days. They recognize that while strength-building workouts are essential if the team is to progress beyond regionals, injuries could really dent the chances.

Taking a team to regionals has been a dream for the Stites and it wouldn’t have happened without the couple’s own sacrifices.

Until March 2012, the couple trained athletes at a globo gym in Olathe. They built up a devoted client list and “did quite well financially,” Brian said. But the facility lacked 90 percent of the equipment needed for CrossFit programming, and the owners kept a tight rein on who could train and when.

“They also hated how many hours of free training we gave to help people,” Brian said. “There’s no way we could’ve taken a team to regionals in that environment.”

With their relationship with the gym’s owners at a breaking point, the couple realized they’d come to a crossroads: maintain the status quo and remain unfulfilled, or break away and start their own box.

In the end, there was no other choice but to commit to CrossFit. While some affiliate owners take out loans or ask friends and family to chip in, Brian and Amanda chose the harder route of going at it alone.

After months of hard work and selling all their possessions except the clothes on their backs, they opened the affiliate on May 1, 2012.

“We gave up all the little material distractions that we thought we needed to survive,” Brian said. “We sold our cars, gave up our life savings, left our apartment and quit on the notion of having nice things.”

With all their resources poured into a building lease and purchasing the barbells, rigs, rowing machines and other gear, the husband and wife team realized they had nothing left to buy a house or even rent a low-cost apartment. So they took the only available option and moved into their box—a long concrete building nestled between a home improvement store and a taekwondo school.

Brian said the first night staying there wasn’t bad other than getting used to noisy trains passing close to the box every few hours.

“When people started coming to the gym, then it got weird,” he said. “We woke up in the morning, rolled out of bed and there were 10 people waiting outside for us to open up. I had to tell them, ‘Look, this is what I'm like when I first get up. If you can deal with that, then I can teach you how to snatch!’”

Brian and Amanda’s living space—four rooms and an office, connected by a makeshift kitchen they built themselves—is separated from the gym by a wall and a few doors. It has carpet, a few pieces of used furniture, a washer and dryer and two bathrooms—a much nicer setup than you’d expect for a box-based home.

“We built separate bathrooms for our clients to use, as well as three showers, but it's not uncommon to see somebody running from the showers to locker room in a towel,” Brian said. “And no, we don't brush our teeth in the gym bathrooms!”

Once they got a little more comfortable with living and working in their box, the couple recognized a need in their community to provide more than just training, lifestyle coaching and nutritional advice.

Coaches Janelle Shafer and Jacob Dumas needed a place to stay between school semesters so they could continue their training, and two other athletes had difficult home situations and needed a safe place to crash. They all found a home at CrossFit On Track, and helped with maintenance, cleaning and coaching instead of paying rent.

“Home was a mess for me, so when I moved in with Amanda and Brian, it was the first time I could focus on enjoying my life, fitness, faith and education,” said 18-year-old Brandon Rutherford, who has lived at CrossFit On Track for the past year. “They initially took an interest in helping me as an athlete but now it’s more about taking part in each other's lives. We're not gym buddies, we're family.”

Not many people have given up all their material possessions to build a box, and it wouldn’t work for everyone to create a work-life balance that blurs traditional lines. But Brian and Amanda wouldn’t have it any other way.

“We came to realize that we had so much more to be happy about than stuff,” Brian said. “Through CrossFit, we’ve made great friendships, pursued our passion for fitness daily and have an unbridled opportunity to give to people. What more could we ask for?”