May 6, 2013
Ian Berger: Sick Competitor
By Keka Schermerhorn

“I was really focused on staying positive and not getting wrapped up in the negative. Without my family, box and friends, staying positive would have been impossible.”

Photos by: Chris Greer

CrossFit prepares athletes for the unknown and unknowable. When the unknowable turns out to be a debilitating case of pneumonia through the first two-and-a-half weeks of the 2013 Reebok CrossFit Games Open, it becomes about more than just being prepared.

For Ian Berger, co-owner and coach at O-Side CrossFit in Oceanside, N.Y., a virus almost derailed his goal of making a third trip to the North East Regional.

After his 33rd-place finish at the 2011 Regional, Berger enlisted Jason Leydon, owner and head trainer at CrossFit Milford, to create a custom program for him and act as his coach.

“I met Jason at a (CrossFit) Endurance cert before the 2011 Regionals," Berger says. “And after being completely over-trained and run down at Regionals, I felt that I needed help from someone I knew and respected. With school, coaching at the gym and training, it was a lot easier to have my programming written for me — it just takes the thinking out of it.”

After working with Leydon for a year, Berger placed 15th at the 2012 North East Regional.

“Ian came into CrossFit from a soccer background, so his endurance was and is the best around,” Leydon says. “What we have been focusing on is his strength, speed and upper body pushing endurance.”

Ahead of the Open, Leydon was confident Berger would qualify for Regionals this year with a top-five finish.

And then came the unknowable.

“I started feeling sick the first week of the Open,” Berger says. “I did the first workout three times. I managed to get 172 reps. I was upset because I knew that was a workout I should do well in. All I could think about was how I was not satisfied with that score and it really haunted me, so I did it again on Sunday night. ”

Berger was able to record a score of 179, which placed him in 21st place on the North East Leaderboard. The following week, the illness took a turn for the worse. Bedridden for the majority of the week, Berger felt winded every time he tried to work out. He knew he would have to face Open Workout 13.2 if he wanted stay in contention for Regionals.

“Ian was so sick that he didn't get out of bed for three days,” Leydon says. “I made him get up on Sunday to do it and just get any score to stay alive in the Open.”

Only able to complete 292 repetitions on the workout, Berger saw his name fall 111 places on the Leaderboard, to 132.

“As I watched my name slip down the Leaderboard, I felt crushed and despondent,” Berger says. “I attempted to redo it that (Sunday) night with step-ups instead of box jumps, and got the same exact score, which put me even deeper into depression.”

In previous years, Berger doubted his ability in the sport, questioning whether or not he belonged. Discouraged with his place in the standings, Berger debated quitting the Open, but received tremendous support from his coach, family and fellow competitors, and decided to stick it out.

“If he got better, I knew he would still make it (to Regionals),” Leydon says. “I knew that he would be able to finish in the top 10 on any workout, so the plan of action was to rest, eat, hydrate and get healthy, so he could perform.”

Berger was able to place eighth in the region for 13.3 with 281 reps, 20th on 13.4 and fourth on 13.5, with 167 reps. He finished the Open in 41st place, earning him a third consecutive invitation to the North East Regional.

“I didn’t know where I would end up at the end of the five weeks, but all I did know was that there was nothing to be held back. I think overcoming what seemed to be a huge mental challenge changed me as an athlete,” Berger says. “I was really focused on staying positive and not getting wrapped up in the negative. Without my family, box and friends, staying positive would have been impossible.”

Leydon believes the best is yet to come for Berger.

“One thing that gets overlooked with Ian is that he is so young,” Leydon says. “Ian is such a competitor and has battled with the best over the past few years, but he is only 22 years old. This kid has what it takes to really make his mark in this game.”