March 29, 2013
Making a Difference: Vanessa Fung
By Jennifer Tan

"Moving to China completely changed my CrossFit training. For the first year, I had no access to anything CrossFit-related."

It’s hard not to like Vanessa Fung.

With an infectious smile and seemingly boundless energy, the Canadian-born social studies teacher has a heart of gold and work ethic to match.

“My students ask me why I’m always smiling and full of energy,” Fung says. “I attribute it all to CrossFit. Do what you love and love what you do, right?”

Fung’s captivating smile throughout her performance at last year’s Asia Regional won her a fan base over the three days of competition. Described by spectators as Asia’s answer to Camille Leblanc-Bazinet, the petite athlete wowed the crowds — and herself — as she tackled 50 pistols and the 70-lb. one-armed dumbbell snatches during Regional Events 2 and 3.

“One week before the competition, I could barely do one pistol and the most I could snatch with one arm was 28 kg,” she recalls. “I consider myself relatively well-rounded when it comes to CrossFit, but the one thing I could never do was pistols. I’m pretty sure it was adrenaline and pure determination that got me through them. I will never forget it.”

The 26-year-old began CrossFit in 2009 at CrossFit Overdrive in Richmond, Canada, when a friend asked whether she wanted to try it. A regular gym bunny and fan of the treadmill, free weights and resistance machines, Fung said yes.

“There is something about CrossFit that is undeniable … an elusive quality so captivating and addictive,” she says. “I’ve heard it time and time again about how CrossFit has changed people’s lives, and I am no different.”

Many will be able to relate to this life-changing experience that Fung speaks of, with the physical benefits seeming almost secondary at times to the athlete.

“Physically, I have never been stronger, but CrossFit did more for me than just give me muscles in places I never thought possible,” she explains. “CrossFit gave me a community that I can call my family. It reminded me that nothing worthwhile is ever easy, but if you give it your all and stay consistent, the rewards are far beyond anything you’ve experienced before. I find that with CrossFit, my life continues to change.”

The community and family feel that Fung grew to know and love shrank from view though, when in August 2011, she decided to take up a job opportunity in Shanghai, China.

“I was eager to start my teaching career, and the opportunity to work abroad was presented to me, so I took it. It was a spur-of-the-moment decision. The community at CrossFit Overdrive was and continues to be one of the most precious things to me. It was a hard decision to leave my Overdrive family to pursue my career overseas.”

After two years of training at a facility filled with knowledgeable coaches, shiny equipment and friendly faces, the reality of China hit Fung hard.

“Moving to China completely changed my training. For the first year, I had no access to anything CrossFit-related,” Fung says. “My only form of training was running circles round my complex and doing basic movements. I lost a lot of fitness that year. The transition was very hard, but I knew I had to do something to stay in shape, so I did what I could with what I had.”

In spite of training alone, with only bodyweight movements and the occasional globo gym visit, Fung still managed to tie for sixth in the region in 2012.

Almost two years have passed since the athlete moved to Asia, and though the global community has witnessed CrossFit’s growth from strength to strength in that time, not much has changed as far as China’s attitude is concerned.

Fung is set on changing that, no matter how incremental the steps required. When she isn’t busy teaching, you can find her conducting personal training sessions, coaching the school’s basketball team, running “Track Tuesdays” with a co-worker and helping out at the first-ever affiliate in China, CrossFit Iron Dragon.

Fung’s private clients are currently all expats, with her personal training yet to reach out to the local community.

“The sport of CrossFit is still very new here; I have yet to come across a local in China who is interested in the sport. Life here is very difficult for local people. The demands of work are high and most do not see the value in something as intense as CrossFit. I hate to say it, but the stereotype is very alive and real here; strong women are not perceived in a positive light.”

It would be an understatement to say that interest in sport is somewhat minimal at the school where Fung teaches. With such a heavy emphasis on grades and statistics, the students shy away from subjects like Physical Education because there’s no “guarantee” of a good score to take home. In more recent times, Fung has been trying to build interest in such non-academic subjects, starting with the basketball team.

“What matters to me is simply getting the girls to participate. When I see them taking initiative and wanting to play for fun, my heart melts. I don’t think my girls are ready for CrossFit yet — for now, I am just generating interest in physical activity.”

Track Tuesdays are another valiant attempt from Fung to create a community whose foundations lie in movement, though this time the bond is between colleagues rather than students.

“I try to incorporate CrossFit to a certain level, but the main reason I do it is to create a community. I’ve seen some members of staff who never usually exercise come out for a walk or a jog. I’ve also seen the local staff that I work with come and join us — it really is just about creating an inclusive space,” she says.

Recently, Mark Soo opened the doors to CrossFit Iron Dragon, China’s first affiliated (and to date only) CrossFit facility. Naturally, Fung was interested to get involved, and is currently helping to judge the Open Workouts for those who are participating.

“The culture here does not see intense physical activity as appealing. So far, only expats are interested because they’ve heard about it from the West. I’m sure that in five to 10 years time, the sport will grow, but perhaps only within the expat community. It will be hard to change that.”

Hard as it may be, it hasn’t stopped Fung from doing everything she can in her power to create even the slightest interest in an active lifestyle and CrossFit. A self-declared “CrossFit activist,” it is clear Fung will make her mark on the CrossFit map, both in China and beyond.

“The reason I chose teaching as a career and continue to love every minute of it, is because of the small moments of victory I experience,” Fung says. “These are when you find out you’ve made an impact or a difference, however small, in a student’s life. I think that translates to all aspects of life. Inside and outside the classroom, I want to be a positive role model. If we really want to spread the joy of this sport to countries like China where the culture of athletics is so limited, you must start small. We must go beyond simply seeing it as a sport, but rather, as something that can make us better human beings. After all, that’s what we all share in this world; we are first and foremost human beings — sport or no sport.”