How Vellner Returned to the Podium After a Two-Year Drought
A “do or die scenario.” That’s how Patrick Vellner described the 2021 NOBULL CrossFit Games.
“With the last couple years not going so well for me at the Games, I know people were starting to question whether I could still hang on and compete with the best,” said Vellner, who first stood on the podium in his rookie season in 2016. He followed that up with two more podium finishes in 2017 and 2018, before dropping to 16th in 2019 and 9th in 2020.
Needless to say, heading to the Games this year, Vellner was on a mission: To prove he still belonged. Despite the doubters, he believed in himself.
“I would say I was very confident that I could (return to the podium). But admittedly, that confidence was shaken after Event 1,” he said alluding to his 35th place finish in the swimming and kayaking event.
Not to be deterred, Vellner quickly dug himself out of the hole he made for himself, eventually finishing in second overall and leaving no doubt that, at the age of 31, Vellner can still hang with the very best athletes in the sport.
A Long Road Back
Vellner’s road back to the podium was anything but easy. From a lingering groin injury that affected his performance at the online 2020 CrossFit Games, to adjusting to fatherhood when his first baby was born a week before Semifinals, the last year was filled with various distractions and obstacles.
For an entire month after the 2020 Games, Vellner couldn’t even roll around in bed without feeling pain in his groin, and when he was able to start training again, he had to remove an entire strength cycle from his planned program because of the lingering injury.
A chiropractor himself, Vellner explained he had to “practice what I preached,” meaning he just had to rest and accept that it would be a long recovery, a challenge in and of itself.
“It was mentally hard to feel like I was behind,” he admitted. “It was hard seeing everyone back to training and wondering if I would ever be the same again, (hard) not to get impatient and push too early.”
When the Open rolled around in March, he was still a little nervous about his groin. “I was even a little bit hesitant going into Quarterfinals,” he added.
But that all changed during the four-rep max front squat during Quarterfinals when Vellner surprised himself and lifted 381 pounds/172kg.
“I performed better than expected and I was like, ‘Yeah yeah. We’re good.’ It was the first time (in months that the injury) wasn’t taking up space in my mind,” he said. “I could finally let that go.”
With his groin injury behind him, a new challenge emerged: His fiancé Michelle Workun-Hill gave birth to the couple’s first child—a baby boy named Owen on June 11— just one week before the Atlas Games Semifinal.
Vellner credits his wife and her parents with supporting his CrossFit dreams and allowing him to continue to train as normally as possible despite having a newborn.
“Fortunately, a brand new baby doesn’t need dad as much as he needs mom, so realistically my partner has been carrying a lot of the load…I would take him and help out in the mornings so she could get some sleep, but a few weeks before the Games I moved into the guest room…we spent evenings together and then I’d go sleep by myself,” he said.
Vellner said he realizes this wasn’t easy on his partner, but “to have success, you have to set yourself up for success,” he said. “But I definitely have accumulated a lot of debt” in recent weeks, and the upcoming weeks will be spent paying off this debt, he added.
Finding the Right Balance
Vellner insists part of his success stems from the fact that he has continued to work part-time as a chiropractor throughout his CrossFit career, as it has given him the balance he needs in his life.
This year was no exception. Vellner continued to work twice a week, fitting in his chiropractic shifts into his training schedule, and said it gave him something to focus on beyond CrossFit.
“I like to have more than one thing to think about…If you only have one thing going on, you (stress) about it more and more because it’s the only thing in your life, so being able to disengage from CrossFit is really beneficial for me,” he said. He also tries not to talk about CrossFit at home at different points in the season so it doesn’t consume him, and so he can just be “a normal person.”
“And the reality is sports careers have a shelf life. At some point, I’m going to stop doing CrossFit competitively…I think it’s important to have something else going on. It’s the practical part of me that’s very risk averse,” he added.
Though risk averse, Vellner admitted he took a bit of a risk with his training this past season in that he deliberately reduced his volume of training to ensure his body was as healthy as it could be in Madison, WI.
He and his long-time coach, five-time Games athlete Michele Letendre, decided he might benefit from training a little less volume than previous years.
“We pushed hard in 2020 and did a lot of volume and I hurt myself…I realized, ‘Hey, I’m not 20 anymore,’” he said. “It feels lame to say, but it was a bit of a play because of my age.”
Vellner and Letendre also realized that because he has many skills dialed in, he could probably rely on the “really strong base I have accumulated over many years,” which would allow him to train smarter instead of harder.
The results speak for themselves: Not only did Vellner place second in the world, but he said his body felt healthier than ever at this summer’s Games.
Not Done Yet
Three days after returning home from Madison, after a 24-hour trip back to Nanaimo, BC, Vellner didn’t hesitate to announce that even with four podium finishes to his name, he’s not ready to retire. There’s still some unfinished business.
“There is no doubt that Justin (Medeiros) deserved to win. I’m not mad about it,” Vellner said. “But I think it’s hard not to feel like I let one pass you by…I have been doing my reflections on the week on everything, and frankly, I had every ability to win that competition…And you never know when you’ll have that opportunity again.”
Nothing is certain, but Vellner has every intention to make another run at the top spot next year and beyond, saying he plans to “stick around for a few more years.”
He added: “Will I be disappointed in my career if I don’t (win the Games)? No. I have had a great career and that would be a great exclamation point…But I (also) don’t want to be the best athlete who has never won. I don’t want that to be my legacy.”