Photographs and text by Bryan Gagnon
Walk into Reebok CrossFit YUL early enough any given week and you may be treated to a surprising sight. There among the clashing of the steel plates and the bustling activity of the CrossFit box is Mike Gagnon, 72-year-old athlete and CrossFit enthusiast.
If this alone does not immediately impress you, consider this, the silver-haired grandfather not only hits the box 4-5 days a week but has completed a total of 11 successful competitions this past year alone. These include not only CrossFit competitions, but Spartan Races and RX-1 Nation obstacle courses.
It’s a regimen that would have many people half his age struggling to keep up.
But this grandfather shows no signs of stopping.
Sports as Therapy
It wasn’t always like this. Long before becoming the inspiring athlete he is today, the father of three was consumed by alcohol addiction.
It was in part a reflection of the times. Working in sales in the 70s and 80s, drinking was in a lot of ways an expectation of the job. It's when the drinking started derailing his daily and personal life that Mike knew he had a problem. It was eventually the risk of losing his wife and family that helped him reach the life-altering decision to quit drinking in Fall of 1985.
After quitting, he tried Alcoholics Anonymous but found the overt spirituality not to his liking. Instead he credits sports with helping him stay sober: “When you quit drinking you need to keep busy. Fitness is a way to combat cravings and it’s better than quitting alone”.
His first passion, Racquetball, kept him busy for five days a week. Meeting with close friends and co-workers on the courts as part of his early morning routine. But when the tennis clubs started closing down, he would go on to try his hand at different pursuits: Tai-chi, Aki Budo and weightlifting.
The World of CrossFit and Obstacle Courses
It wasn’t until seven years ago when he was introduced to CrossFit that his passion was reignited. Like racquetball before, Mike finds the constant movement and pushing of his limits exhilarating.
“It’s a constant challenge and never boring. I could never do something like golf, I’d be too bored," he says. "With CrossFit, you’re always pushing yourself. When the workout starts it’s like time freezes, the worry and everything else disappears. When I’m done, I have the feeling of being drained, of having given it my all and that I’ve accomplished something.”
There’s also the sense of community. What Mike has come to appreciate about the CrossFit community is the way they all look out for one another. Is it competitive? Sure but then you’re just as likely to find the members of the box rallying behind one another cheering them on as they try to beat their personal best.
Mike is a vocal advocate for CrossFit and shares his passion for the sport with all he meets. He’d be the first to tell you that CrossFit has gained a lot of respectability since it started. "It gets a bad rap for causing injuries, but the reality is that coaches and the CrossFit community are concerned with good health, proper technique and having athletes working at their proper level. Enter a box today and you’ll see a wide range of people across the ages and across all health levels."
The key, he says, is to take your time and to not push past your limits. He sees far too many people (men especially) grab too much weight before they’re ready for it. Young guys will see a woman or older man lifting more weights than them and feel like they too can do it. To this he says, “Leave your pride outside. Do the work and listen to the coaches.”
Ever the one to push himself, Mike has taken his training another step forward and for the last three years has been competing in Spartan races. In true Mike fashion, he’s brought the same endless determination and focus to these pursuits and in 2018 he accomplished one of his proudest achievements to date--a Spartan Trifecta--it’s the ultimate Spartan achievement: completing one 5K Spartan Sprint, one 10K Spartan Super, and one half marathon Spartan Beast in one calendar year. Not one to rest on his laurels, in 2019, he went on to earn his second!
What motivates and drives him on? In his usual fashion he doesn’t overthink it, “I do it because I enjoy it. Do what you love and love what you do.”
As an athlete Mike appears unstoppable but ageing remains a challenge. He knows there may come a day when he’ll need to slow down but he’s seen 80-year-old CrossFitters, so he figures there’s lots of time yet. He’ll do it as long as he’s healthy.
In the meantime there are still plenty of challenges ahead for this CrossFitter to crush. His latest? Mike has set his sights on the Trifecta World Championship taking place in Sparta, Greece in November 2020. There, he hopes to compete under the same skies as the ancient Greeks before him...and stand triumphant in the shadows of the Spartans.