May 8, 2017
Work Hard, Play Hard: the Making of Brent Fikowski
By Brittney Saline
Get inside the mind of Brent Fikowski.
Get inside the mind of Brent Fikowski.

“Salt Bae” looks different this time.

This guy’s blond and muscled, and instead of salting a steak with flair, he’s delicately dusting about 240 lb. of weight with a pinch of white chalk.

The Instagram video, however, is not the tomfoolery of your average CrossFit clown. This take on "Salt Bae" comes courtesy of Brent Fikowski, who took fourth at the 2016 Reebok CrossFit Games after winning four events in his rookie year. It was viewed more than 845,000 times and received more than 17,000 likes.

The parody is just one example among many spoofs, bits of trash talk and acts of general buffoonery gracing the 26-year-old’s profile.

“I like to have fun,” Fikowski said of his social media antics.

It’s not that he’s not serious about the Sport of Fitness. But making room for a bit of levity, Fikowski said, is one of a few specific measures he takes to get ready to compete at the highest level.

“I think that keeping my training throughout the year enjoyable and keeping it light helps me perform,” he said. “I try not to take myself too seriously. At the end of the day I'm gonna be in the gym for X amount of hours. I might as well enjoy it.

“I might as well have fun with it.”

The Perks of Levity

Fikowski never wanted an Instagram account to begin with; when he signed up in 2014, it was mostly so his grandma could keep tabs on him.

“She’s always worried about me,” he said. “She has a little iPad, and she follows me and my sister and all of her nieces and nephews because she just wants to know what we're up to—and for me, I'm up to training.”

Today, he shares that training with more than 100,000 followers, treating them to a bit of frivolity along the way. Consider #OpenHumiliation, a friendly competition between Fikowski and other top Games and Regionals athletes such as Patrick Vellner, Sean Sweeney, Travis Williams and Joe Scali. As Fikowski explained from atop a throne of bumpers this winter, each week of the Open constituted not only a step in the worldwide test of fitness but also a public challenge. The price of losing? Your dignity—and you might also get pelted with water balloons or be forced to eat a spoonful of wasabi and do a belly flop.

“It’s to remind people that it’s just exercising, and regardless of your level, it’s OK to have fun with it,” Vellner wrote in an email. “People get crazy stressed for the Open, even if they are not competitive CrossFitters ... . It’s unnecessary, and so we just wanted to gently remind people to relax.”

Ludicrous as the levity may seem from the outside, Fikowski said the Open challenges play a role in training the participants to deal with failure.

“Training yourself on a daily basis to deal with a little bit of failure will definitely help when it comes to competition because … how you dealt with adversity the entire year—inside and outside the gym—is going to determine how you deal with adversity,” he said.

He added: “You can't be situationally mentally tough.”

Fun also helps Fikowski stay relaxed as he juggles training with full-time work.

“Competing at a high level ... can be very stressful,” he said. “And if you can reduce that fatigue mentally by just staying light and reducing stress, ... then you're gonna be able to handle that high load of responsibility."

He continued: “But if you let all those responsibilities get to you … then you'll drag yourself down into this hole until you crack.”

Renaissance Man

Fikowski’s days might look like they're all squats and snatches through the lens of social media, but in truth they look much like yours: a delicate balance of work and play. Fikowksi often rises early in the morning to fit in training at Kelowna CrossFit before putting in a full day in the office at Strawhouse, a digital marketing company where he works as a financial controller.

Many athletes find it difficult to split their focus when training to compete to be Fittest on Earth, but Fikowski sees no reason why he can’t find time for the competition and his career.

“Both opportunities were just too good to pass up,” he said of his chances to train for the Games and join Strawhouse in 2015. “I love coming to work every day. I don't usually end days thinking ‘Oh, I wish I could have trained more—I usually train just enough—but I usually finish days and I think, ‘Oh, I wish I could have put in a few more hours (at work)’ because I want to get more done.”

The key to success in both realms, he said, is compartmentalization. Work stays at work and CrossFit stays in the gym.

“Sometimes I'll go through an entire eight hours at work, and CrossFit will only cross my mind once or twice,” he said. “If you multitask, you don't get anything done.”

But having Fikowski's level of focus and resolve is not easy. You don’t see the tough times on social media. Tax season is hell for anyone working in finance, and it recently took its toll on him. Consumed by the combined stress of work and increased training before the West Regional, he dissolved into tears one night.

“I was just overwhelmed,” he said. “I have all these deadlines, and I have people counting on me ... and there just doesn't seem to be enough Brents to do it all.”

After a good night’s sleep, Fikowski booked a session in the float tank—a lightless, soundproof sensory-deprivation saltwater tank—for the next day. There, he thought things out. Maybe he needed to rearrange his training schedule or pull a longer day at work. Maybe he needed to ask a coworker for help.

“No matter how busy you are, you deserve to give yourself time alone and time to quiet your mind to put yourself at ease,” he said. “Another perspective that I often try to take is one of, ‘These are your choices, Brent. If you wanted to, you could just quit.’

“We've all made a series of decisions in our lives that have led us to the responsibilities that we currently have ... so own it and get back to work and figure it out.”

It’s all in His Head

The float tank is about more than relaxation and recovery for Fikowski. It was while floating in the dark and silence that he trained his mind for the Games in 2016. He visualized a variety of worst-case scenarios that might occur in Carson and came up with a plan to deal with them ahead of time.

He imagined what he might do if a workout was announced on short notice after a night of no sleep and thought about what it might feel like if someone heckled him from the crowd. What would he do if he lost his gear bag or if all his food spoiled? What if he received word of a family tragedy mid-competition?

“So I was able to go to the Games with this confidence that even though I had never been to the Games, I had a pretty good understanding of what I might be in for. And I was just confident that whatever was thrown my way, I'd be able to handle it with a calm and level head,” he said.

None of his worst-case scenarios came to pass, but the preparation made it easier to deal with smaller obstacles, such as sleep deprivation or events that didn’t go as well as planned.

“Going to an event like this is such a great opportunity that you hate to not be ready,” said Fikowksi, who narrowly missed qualifying for the Games three times before he handily won the West Regional is 2016.

“Hopefully when I qualify this year, things will just run like clockwork, and the only thing I need to worry about is competing.”

For Fikowski, the preparation was well worth it.

“I was just incredibly proud and happy of how I handled my first CrossFit Games as a whole,” he said. “I felt like I worked hard to make it the weekend that I wanted it to be, and I went out there and just did my best on every event.”

But just as setting a squat PR doesn’t mean you get to stop squatting, mental training doesn’t end after one good performance.

“One of the first things that consumed my thoughts after the Games was how I could ensure that I would continue to have success in the sport after having such a great year,” Fikowski said.

He claims there are two traps that sometimes affect athletes after a good first year.

“The first trap is believing your hype too much—getting sucked into doing too many appearances and too many competitions and taking on too many sponsorship obligations, and maybe skipping out on a bit of hard work because you're starting to believe that you don't need to do it anymore.”

The barbell doesn’t care how well you did in the last competition, and the clock is just as unforgiving. Fikowski recalled his first training session after returning from a successful competition back in 2015.

“I still had to show up to the gym after the big competition, and I had to do this terrible workout all by myself, and I'm like, ‘Wow, nothing really changes,’” he said. “At the end of the day, you're still putting in a pretty terrible amount of painful work, and you can’t forget that that's what's gonna keep you there.”

The second trap, he said, is putting too much pressure on yourself. He described watching other athletes quit their jobs, move to new cities to find new coaches and skip holidays with families in order to train after finding success.

“They get so wrapped up in trying to win that they burn out. They put too much pressure on themselves, and by the time the next season rolls around, … they're just toast,” he said.

To reduce the pressure, Fikowski is careful to define success as giving his best effort. And it doesn’t hurt to toss in a bit of hilarity every now and then.

“I obviously take my training very seriously, but I have such an amazing opportunity to compete in the sport I love into my mid-20s ... and now to be able to do it at a professional level is just incredible,” he said. “I need to remind myself that I'm grateful for that and enjoy the experience.

“Get serious when you need to, but you can't be the black mamba every day of the week.”