Sri Lanka's First Affiliate

February 12, 2015

Brittney Saline

 “It’s going to take a little bit of time … but I think CrossFit is going to change the mentality of working out in Sri Lanka."

"I had all the opportunities in the world."


If Shereen and Tony Andrews hadn’t moved from Sri Lanka to Dubai in the 1970s their son Andy might never have become a pro-athlete.

It was hard to make a living in Sri Lanka at the time, and the opulent city of Dubai afforded the young couple a chance to start their own businesses. The change meant they could afford to give their son golf lessons; 12 years after he hit a ball on the driving range for the first time, their son went pro.

“I had all the opportunities in the world,” Andy said.

For four years, Andy traveled around the world to play tournaments across the United States, the United Kingdom and Asia, padding his suitcase with the winnings and sponsorships that allowed him to live the dream.

But he was wrenched awake from that dream in December 2013, when his 28-year-old sister succumbed to cancer. Suddenly, trophies and triumph on the perfectly manicured green didn’t seem so important.

“I started asking myself, ‘What am I doing, and why am I doing it?’” he said. “And I found a lot of holes when it came to golf. I didn’t know why I was doing it … it seemed kind of stupid, and there was no purpose to it.”

For a while, the only thing he could bring himself to do was CrossFit, something he initially began only to increase the power of his swing.

“I lost interest in everything and was completely demotivated,” he explained. “The one thing that was keeping me on the straight and narrow was knowing that I had to work out the following day.”

But as the months passed, the workouts went from a solace to something more. He attended a CrossFit Level 1 Seminar that spring, and decided, quite confidently, this was what he wanted to do with his life.

“It fired me up like crazy,” he said. “I thought, ‘This is it. Now I can actually do something.’”  

He would have that opportunity just one month later while on vacation in Sri Lanka, blowing off steam on the beach with his friends. He went online to find the nearest affiliate and was shocked to see there wasn’t a single box in the entire country.

“It didn’t even strike me that people have no idea what CrossFit is here,” he said.

So he took to the beach, turning rocks, bamboo sticks and the ocean into a makeshift gym. He got strange looks, but he didn’t care. After a few days, he ventured into a local globo gym, where he saw something unexpected: a perfectly decent pull-up rig.

“I was like, ‘Oh my god, jackpot,’” he said.

The owner, Piet De Jong, was building a functional fitness center in their gym, and said he would affiliate with CrossFit as soon as he could find a full-time Level 1 trainer to coach their classes.

Without thinking of his life back in Dubai, Andy immediately volunteered.

“I said, ‘I’m here on holiday, I can start it up for you if you want,’” he recalled.

The June vacation turned into an indefinite stay as Andy helped get the country’s first affiliate off the ground. Five months later, Vaaj CrossFit became Sri Lanka’s first affiliate, and Andy its first coach.

His first challenge was to convince people to try CrossFit. Generally, the fitness culture in Sri Lanka centers around bodybuilding for men and yoga and Zumba for women. The men feared losing mass with CrossFit, calling it a “cardio workout,” while the women feared gaining it.

For the first few weeks, Andy trained only one athlete, a curious convert from the globo gym’s circuit class upstairs. By the end of November, six more crossed over. The numbers continued to climb as globo-gym goers wandered in, intrigued by the frenzy of fitness visible through the window on their way to the machines.

“All I do is show (women) videos of the regional events and how good all those women look, and they're sold,” he said.

The men warmed up to CrossFit when they saw CrossFit athletes lifting more weight than them, Andy said. Clients in their 40s and 50s signed on after he showed them videos of the masters competition at the CrossFit Games.

Today, Vaaj CrossFit has 25 members—seven women, 18 men—10 of whom plan to compete in the upcoming CrossFit Games Open. The chance to compete as an adult is the main appeal.

“In Sri Lanka, like in America, high-school sports are huge,” Andy said. “There’s this huge group of guys that get done with school, and then it’s just work. They have no avenue to express their competitive spirit.”

But it’s not just about competition, Andy said. Eager to build the same sense of community he felt at his affiliate in Dubai, he plans on having his athletes perform the Open workouts one at a time, each taking the spotlight while the others cheer.  

“Naturally, everyone’s going to motivate them, they’re not just going to sit there and watch them suffer,” he said. “I think it’s really going to bring them together.”

Though he doesn’t expect to send a team to regionals, Andy said the athletes at Vaaj CrossFit take seriously their opportunity to represent the budding CrossFit community in Sri Lanka as the country’s sole affiliate.

“I think everyone is motivated by that, and they want to set an example,” he said. “It’s going to take a little bit of time … but I think CrossFit is going to change the mentality of working out in Sri Lanka. Currently, it's all about aesthetics ... but I know it will change because the change has already begun and it’s only a matter of time.”

“That is why I’m so passionate about it,” he added. “Because I know (CrossFit) is more than just working out. It’s important to bring it here for that very reason.”

And though he is no longer courted by sponsors or paid to travel, he doesn’t regret the decision to leave his life as a pro-athlete behind.

“Golf is a very selfish sport,” he said. “With (CrossFit) coaching, you’re doing everything to help other people and not yourself.”