The 2017-2018 National Hockey League season was notable for a handful of reasons. It marked the 100th season of play for the league, the first Stanley Cup championship for the Washington Capitals, and the most unlikely rise of Scott Foster, a financial accountant who suited up for the biggest game of his life.
A former collegiate hockey player, Foster lived a quiet life in Chicago until the NHL Blackhawks called. With their last goalie injured in the third period, the Blackhawks recruited Foster, their designated emergency backup. What ensued was the stuff of childhood dreams: in the final 14 minutes of play, Foster blocked all seven shots from the opposing team, maintaining the Blackhawk’s lead to take the win. The next day, Scott Foster suited up as usual for his accounting firm, and the evening of March 29 remains the only NHL game he ever played.
As the 2021 CrossFit Games inches closer, only 40 men will qualify – 0.03% of the entire competitive field. Like Scott Foster, the many Games athletes and hopefuls balance this dream with the demands of everyday life. Among these is Ant Haynes, former national rugby player for Hong Kong and the 27th fittest man in the world at the 2019 Games. He is currently preparing for the upcoming CrossFit Asia Invitational, where the top two finishers will earn their ticket to the 2021 Games in Madison, Wisconsin. As Ant will tell you, the road to get here was never ideal.
2020: Rebuild from the Roof Down
Ant is far from where he found himself 14 months ago: holding 140 kilograms over his head, careful not to drop this weight onto the roof of his 75-year-old apartment, eyeing the Hong Kong skyline for signs of another winter storm.
In February of 2020, Ant and his girlfriend Tammi were on holiday in Australia when they saw the world buckling to the coronavirus pandemic and returned to Hong Kong for a mandatory two-week quarantine. Although Ant secured his second Games appearance as the 2020 CrossFit Open National Champion for China, the sport decided to rescind the invitation for a scaled-down Games. Ant’s season was officially over.
Accepting this outcome, Ant took a step back from the bruising elements of competition, reflected on his goals, and reset his priorities.
"Relative to the field, my absolute strength has always been a limitation, so I set a goal to back squat 200kg. I finally had the time to focus more on movement quality, so this goal allowed me to squat as much as I could – back, front, overhead – move well, and see any carryover."
Each day, he and Tammi carried racks, barbells, and plates to and from the roof, careful not to miss a lift and destroy a surface never meant for weightlifting. If it rained, the lockdown lifting session would be over before it began. And yet, the two persisted. By the time they were out from quarantine and back to the gym, Ant found the silver lining to a rough year, increasing his 1RM back squat from 190kg to that elusive 200. Goal achieved, it was time to set sights on the next year.
The 2021 CrossFit Season: New Format, New Challenges
Ant hit the ground running for the 2021 season. There was new strength to apply, a rested body and mind to push, and a return to Madison as his end goal. But along that path came a string of challenges to overcome. The first of these was an unexpected injury just as the season started.
"It was a typical set of box jumps. Everything was fine until I felt a pop in my right knee. I tried for the next jump, but the pain made me walk away from the workout entirely. An MRI scan found a complex lateral tear of the meniscus."
With the Open fast approaching, Ant decided to assess what he was unable to do without worsening the tear – namely, squatting to full depth under heavy load. If he saw this movement in the Open events, he would drop the season for surgery.
With a bit of luck, the Open did not place a high demand on squatting movements, and Ant cruised through the events and entered the Quarterfinals, two weeks following the Open. This timeline allowed him and his coach to work around the injury and maximize recovery. While the Open was kind to his knee, the Quarterfinals included 180 reps of the pistol squat, which Ant had no choice but to approach with caution.
"I had to hit a four-second descent on every single rep of those pistols, or else I would worsen the tear and my season would be over, right there on the floor."
Sacrifices of an Everyday CrossFit Pro
Ant navigated through the pistols and other events and qualified for the CrossFit Asia Invitational, keeping his 2021 season alive. But to earn a spot to the Games, he’ll need to finish no lower than second in a field of 30. Like Ant, they are zeroed in on every rep of every event. Like Ant, they will have to find an extra gear to surpass their limits. And like Ant, they are regular people like you and me, balancing this passion with everyday life.
"Based on my social media posts and workout videos, people may think that I’m doing nothing but training every day. But the truth is that living as a full-time athlete simply doesn’t work in Hong Kong. You see me at the gym all day because I’m working."
Although many know Ant as a high-level athlete, his full-time job is as a coach, personal trainer, and programming writer at Coastal Fitness. 12hr shifts are routine, deadlines are relentless, and everything comes at a cost. A stressful or time-consuming workday is going to mean less time and energy for training. As for the weekend, it’s simple: tackle event-style workouts in the day, recover from them at night.
It Takes a Village
With so much on the line every day, sacrifices are required to keep the needle moving forward. But while Ant is competing as an individual, he has leaned onto a team of support that is helping to carry the weight every step of the way.
Ant has mostly programmed for himself since the 2020 season, but he returned to his long-time coach and lifetime big brother Ed Haynes, creating a shared experience that the two will be able to look back on with pride. “The programming is off my mind and I can focus on the quality of my training, but Ed and I always equally involved in the process.” Coastal Fitness’s in-house physiotherapist Elena Hobson has been keeping his knee healthy and body pain-free as he heads into the weekend. “She understands me and my needs as a CrossFit athlete because she is one herself.” And to keep his fuel primed and energy up for every event, he hops on regular calls with his nutritionist, Kylie Gamelier. “We’re really just friends at this point, catching up on life and my feelings for 25 minutes, and then macro plans for about five.”
Along with these personal supports, the entire coaching staff at Coastal Fitness and The Process Programming have stepped up to help Ant rise to the occasion. When he needs extra time to train, they’ll take classes for him without a second thought, as they did for another coach who recently gave birth. When he needs a training partner to push his limit on a hard workout, coaches Alex Younger and Patrick James have proved worthy competitors. “Paddy hadn’t done a single GHD sit-up in 2 years, and he just did 100 with me!” This support extends to the larger gym and programming community, which Ant pours his heart into with personal feedback, technique videos, and sharing everything he can to help others succeed in the sport of CrossFit, as well as achieve their goals in a healthier, stronger, happier life. It's no surprise, then, that the community asked to create a cheering section for him during the weekend of events. “I really didn’t think people would care to watch me workout by myself, and knowing they will be there, it’s like pouring jet fuel into my veins.”
For all his support systems, Tammi is a pillar, jumping right into awful workouts with him. Because Tammi is also a Games athlete, she understands the price one has to pay to succeed at this level. As his constant support, she takes things off his plate when he needs room to breathe, adds more homemade food on his dinner plate when he needs to keep his macros on track, and gives him the time and space he needs to stay focused. “I want to be home to spend our quality time, but because she’s been where I’m going, she knows what I’m going through and supports me in so many ways. And that means everything to me.”
Owning the Path
In the space of three days and six workouts, Ant will find out how this chapter of his athletic career will be written. But he is clear that he will write whatever the page reads. Because at this moment, Ant has completely immersed himself into the process of owning every aspect of himself.
Where Ant once doubted his past performances, he looks forward to the challenges that will come. Instead of dwelling on the what-ifs of his strategies and planning, he looks forward to putting everything on the floor to test his limits, reflect on how much he has grown, and see what lies ahead.
"At the end of the day, you control what you do and how you react. Once you accept that, you can take full ownership of whatever you want to achieve. You lay down the path to get there as best as you can, and your village will surround you and that path. Then, it’s on you to ride every high and low, learn from them, and move forward."
The long weekend will prove the value of a year’s worth of rebuilding over an old Hong Kong rooftop. It will expose the extent of his injuries and how to heal them. It will show what sacrifices were needed and what he is willing to give up in the future. It will tell him to stay present in the moment, surrounded by a community he helped build and is ready to return the favor. And for all these things the Semifinals will give him, Ant wouldn’t have it any other way.