Teaching Old Dogs New Tricks: A Masters-Only Affiliate
Recently, it seems everywhere you turn, masters-only classes are popping up at CrossFit affiliates.
These classes are usually capped to ensure appropriate coaching and have an age minimum to participate.
But Samantha Farina from GrandMasters RX has taken this approach to another level.
The seeds were planted years ago when Farina and her husband Ed opened an affiliate in Clearwater, FL. Ed was a physical therapist, and Sam had retired from corporate health care, and together they opened CrossFit Rebels.
- Farina: “Ed’s business mentor was an orthopedic surgeon with the longest-running osteoarthritis study in the southeastern United States. He still had active participants when we decided to purchase the gym, and he asked my husband if he would start a program for the living participants of this study, who were all in their 80s.”
Ed was running classes for these older patients in an office building with low ceilings and improper equipment, so as some of them progressed, they started moving the better athletes to CrossFit Rebels. After a few months, Ed discovered something.
Sam remembers: “He said, Sam, there’s something here; they’re progressing faster than the young people. They need this more than the young people; we have to keep them living independently. He and I are a little older, too. So it was starting to tug on our heartstrings.”
The couple sold the affiliate, and with that came a three-year non-compete clause, which is a common occurrence when affiliates are sold. The few older athletes that Sam was training came with them to a facility down the road, and with that interest, they began to focus on their legends program.
- “We’re 55 and up because we had a three-year non-compete. It forced us to stay old. We have a waiting list of 26 right now, and we don’t have space for them–the only way we lose a member is if they die. We have lost 12 to old age, and they all lived independently until they died.”
CrossFit GrandMasters was born.
Farina wanted to make sure the facility was cool.
- “It is not set up like an old person’s gym. It’s black and red, and we made it clear that it would not be a senior center. It’s pretty freakin cool.”
Everything at GrandMasters is the same as it would be at any affiliate, just aged up. The members constantly celebrate each other’s wins.
A member named Tom was on so much medication that his nickname at the gym was “Milligram,” and it greatly impacted his ability to move.
- Farina: “Ed said to him, ‘Tom if you can fully get your arms over your head, I’ll take you to Hooters.’ He had never been there, and after working hard, we have pictures with him and his brother, who both trained with us, at Hooters with the Hooters waitress.”
With every win comes a loss, and with an older population, unfortunately, the losses are considerable.
- Farina: “We were with Tom about two weeks before he died; he became bedridden, he had COVID, then some kind of colon cancer, and it took him relatively quickly. It’s no different than if you have a young person who has a baby or somebody gets sick, and the gym corrals around them.”
- “They’re all miracle stories. There’s not one of them that doesn’t have some ‘this has saved my life story.’”
To ensure the older athletes are well taken care of, the coach-to-athlete ratio is high–one coach to every five or six athletes. And they do the Open every year, but since the age divisions end at 65, it requires a little tweaking.
- Farina explains: “Last year, we had 36 old people do the Open. They want to do it right and legally post a score, but it is difficult because before they gave us Foundations guidance, I had an 85-year-old woman who couldn’t wield a 35-pound bar, and that was the last load they gave us to do it right. So we’ve always hoped that they would humor us.”
Some things don’t change with age.
Farina’s athletes get excited and nervous about doing the Open, and they also have favorite coaches. One young male coach at the affiliate is in physical therapy school, and his classes are always packed–with the women.
While some things stay the same, specific considerations exist at GrandMasters that aren’t commonplace in other affiliates. For instance, some members no longer drive, so they carpool together to class. Some have vision issues, so they have to stand close to the whiteboard, and many can’t hear well, so the coaches must remember to speak loudly and slowly when giving instructions and cues.
But the extra time and care Sam and Ed spend with their members is priceless.
- Farina: “It is keeping these older people younger. And it is lifesaving; it means that they can get up and down off the floor if they fall. That is huge.”
Ed feels strongly about the impact of CrossFit on this population. Farina explains:
- “Old people need to do CrossFit, and old people don’t need to do quad sets and ankle pumps at home. My husband is irritated with physical therapy professionals for being pansies with old people.”
Therefore, Farina and her coaches do not tip-toe around anything with their members.
- “We call them old people to their face, and we tease them when they come in on Monday hungover from watching football all day on Sunday. They like not being treated like old people.”
“Everybody over the age of 50 has something, and whether it presents itself and whether you have symptoms probably depends on your lifestyle. Their diseases and their conditions should not define them.”