Army’s Smith leads Warrior Fitness Team to Madison

Chandler Smith
Chandler Smith

ELIZABETHTOWN, Ky. — U.S. Army Capt. Chandler Smith will make his debut appearance at the CrossFit Games this week, three years older and one-third finger fewer since bursting onto the scene at the 2016 Regionals.

He’ll have a team of warriors supporting him in Madison.

Smith is among 15 full-time members of the U.S. Army Warrior Fitness Team, a group of the Army’s fittest officers and enlisted members built to showcase other soldiers and the world how far commitment to health can take them.

The group was conceptualized last fall, spearheaded by 1st Sgt. Glenn Grabs, with Smith playing a key role from the start.

“I got a call about if I’d want to do it. ‘Uh, duh, yeah,’” Smith recalls. “‘Do I want to workout full-time while I’m in the Army and be able to represent? Nothing could be better than that.’ So I said, yeah, and we started drafting the requirements for what the team was gonna look like.”

Grabs helped send more than 300,000 emails to soldiers, with about 350 sending in applications for the team. The February tryout of about 30 was held at CrossFit Hard Knox near Fort Knox, Ky. The team was chosen to take a break from their existing careers as officers, doctors and infantry soldiers.

They’ll receive full salary for their rank, train full time, compete in throwdowns and Sanctionals, and see how fit they can become with the full backing of the U.S. Army and all its resources.

“We can investigate every option, without hesitation,” Grabs said. “Any topic under the sun that could potentially be an advantage for us to leverage as a resource, we have it at our fingertips. We would have to be the most supportive and resourced fitness team in the sport.”

The Army has backed athletic competitions for decades. 

When baseball star Willie Mays was drafted in 1952, his primary role was playing baseball for an exhibition team stationed at Fort Eustis, Virginia.

More recently, in 2018, the U.S. Army Esports team was created to compete in video games like League of Legends and World of Warcraft.

Grabs coached and trained near Fort Sam Houston in San Antonio before transferring to Fort Knox, where he started competing in local throwdowns as he trained at CrossFit Hard Knox. At the Battle of the Bluegrass 2018 in Louisville, Grabs finished third in the Rx and reached for an Army T-shirt before stepping on the podium.

The photo made the rounds on social media just as the Army was looking for someone to take control of planning the U.S. Army Warrior Fitness Team. Grabs sought out soldiers who were already competing in throwdowns and the CrossFit Open, and quickly found Smith.

Smith started training with the CrossFit methodology in high school. 

He walked-on to the wrestling team as an Army cadet at West Point. His role on that team, he says, was based largely on his ability to live everyday at 185 pounds and cut to 165 before matches. Smith’s wrestling career ended in 2015 and he turned his training attention to CrossFit, squeezing in sessions when he wasn’t studying or working as an Army officer.

He qualified for the Atlantic Regional in 2016 and finished ninth behind Ben Smith, Noah Ohlsen, Travis Mayer and Jacob Anderson. Ohlsen, competing in his sixth Games this week, saw something special in Chandler Smith and invited him to train in Florida.

“I have been a big fan of him since the day that I met him back in 2016. It’s been really, really cool to see him grow,” Ohlsen said in a phone interview. 

Smith’s success in that first regional inspired him to focus his training even more and he approached Open season in 2017 in the best shape of his life. He was working as an armor officer at the time, and just as the Open started he was loading equipment when some of it fell, crushing his left ring finger above the last knuckle.

What’s left of the finger has full function, he said, and it only limits him on front rack dumbbell work. “I lost my finger in an accident,” he says. “Not to be dramatic. I lost a piece of my finger.” As he recovered, he was deployed to Poland and Bulgaria where there was little to do besides work and train.

At times, equipment was limited. He found a way to spin the turret on tanks so he could use it for pull-ups and handstand push-ups. He made friends with the rowing machine.

“We lived in tents when we first got to Poland and we had no weights, so we fashioned some out of sandbags,” Smith said. “I would do like, 150 squats with these sandbags, because they were not that heavy.”

The deployment ended and Smith started attending the Maneuver Captains Career Course at Fort Benning, Ga. Smith saw it as his best opportunity to focus on training since he’d been in the Army.

He organized a group of training partners at Fort Benning — most of them not CrossFitters — who were all willing to “slam their face into the door every day” with cardio workouts mixed with functional fitness.

“Within the Army, it’s a pretty demanding job,” Smith said. “Most folks have families or other hobbies or things that they attend to. My whole life really revolves around training, and it’s been that way long enough that it put me in position to be as competitive as I am now.

“Every minute of the day is planned around training. I don’t take vacations. People see me traveling, but everywhere I go, it’s for a training purpose. … I don’t need to have a nice house or car. I don’t have any of those things. All I have is, I train really hard.”

About the same time Smith was peaking, Grabs started his search for the Army’s fittest.

Smith, with his experience competing at Regionals and training with professional fitness athletes, was among the first calls.

Even before tryouts, Grabs was plotting the logistics of how the Warrior Fitness Team would operate. What equipment did they need? How big should their gym be? When should they compete? He settled on an old, brick building tucked away at Fort Knox a few miles from the gold vault. 

Off-white paint is covered with streaks of rust stains on the outside of the building, which appears to be abandoned until you’re standing in front of the door blazened with a CrossFit Noble Defender logo above it.

There are about 2,800 square feet of training space now, with 4,000 more available for when the full team arrives. 

“It’s a grindhouse. You go in there and get your work in, and you have all the resources right there,” Grabs said. “The team kind of likes it that way. They kind of like the niche little spot that they don’t have to worry about people walking in every day. 

“No one really knows where it’s at. No one can directly find it unless they’re right in front of the doors.”

February tryouts narrowed the field to 15, which includes 12 functional fitness athletes at three strongman competitors. 

Each member of the team has her or his own role. Capt. Rachel Schreiber, and optometrist previously stationed at West Point, is the team doctor and joins Capt. Allison Brager on the special projects team, which includes planning the competition schedule.

Brager, a neuroscientist, is studying the teams biometrics.

Schreiber, a distance runner for Pacific University, turned to CrossFit when her running career ended. She placed 528th worldwide in the Open this year, training part time before she transferred to Fort Knox in July.

“When I was a provider at the hospital at West Point, I would start my day at 4 a.m., go to the 5 o’clock class every day to get my training in,” she said. “It was a very set schedule. I had patients; I had to make quota. Things were very different.”

Schreiber trained again at lunch and in the evening, whenever she found time. She still wakes up early and occasionally hits a WOD before dawn near her home in Louisville, then commutes 30 minutes to Fort Knox.

The team trains together from 9-11 a.m., eat and recover, train again from 1-3 p.m., then break for the day. “When I’m home, I’m always stretching, going for a walk, shake-out run, things like that, prepping for the next day,” Schreiber said. “It’s full time, but it’s awesome.”

The schedule is still being optimized, and they’re searching for new ways to improve their training with technology, nutrition and sleep studies. To this point, Grabs said, the team has gotten all the funding it’s asked for and left no stone unturned.

Smith punched his ticket to the games at the Rogue Invitational, which was later broadcast on CBS.

“It’s a good job. I get to do a lot of fun things. I get to travel and meet a lot of people,” Smith said. “Part of the responsibility of this position is, I’ve been given a phenomenal opportunity and in doing this, I’m representing all those folks that don’t have the opportunity to train as much as I do and focus on it. Some of them could probably do a better job than me, but I was the one who was picked to do it.

“Everything I’m doing in my life needs to be directed towards being the best possible representative for the million soldiers out there who I’m representing when it comes time for these worldwide competitions to see who’s fitness is the best.”

Smith said he didn’t expect to make the Games this year, but the chance to compete at Rogue came up and, because it was only two days, he wouldn’t miss much school to participate.

Even then, after he’d made the Warrior Fitness Team, he didn’t know if he’d transfer to Fort Knox to train full time and he didn’t want to separate himself from the rest of his class in Georgia. He joined Warrior Fitness teammate Spc. Jacob Pfaff at the event in May.

The Rogue Invitational had a stacked field of competitors — including Ohlsen and Ben Smith — as well as several events that appeared to be in Chandler Smith’s wheelhouse.

It opened with a ruck march, and event five was a biathlon that included shooting an air rifle. Smith was eighth in both. 

Pfaff was third in the biathlon and 16th in the ruck march, eventually finishing 12th. The top 10 overall competitors qualified for the Games, either through the Open, as national champions, or at other Sanctionals. Smith finished fifth overall and secured his spot in the Games as the best to yet receive a spot.

He returned to Fort Benning to finish MCCC, and spent a few weekends training with Ohlsen and Travis Mayer at Training Think Tank.

“The first time that he came to visit after Regionals in 2016, he definitely was there to learn,” Ohlsen said. “He was a little bit behind in some of the workouts. He just wasn’t as competitive. Now, there’s just been a huge growth. When we trained last weekend, basically every other workout we were trading who would win, versus back in the day when he wasn’t sneaking very many out of me.

“He’s the man, and it’s been really cool to see him grow as an athlete and a person over the last few years.”

Smith, who finished the Open at 40th Worldwide, will wear Army black and yellow on the world stage this week.

So will Lt. Col. Tony Kurz, who qualified for the 40-44 Masters division.

Kurz, stationed at Fort Meade, Md., joined the Warrior Fitness Team after he qualified for the Games and trained with Smith and the rest of the team for two days last week.

He chose to continue on his career path, rather than training full time.

“It’s hard to find the time to dedicate this much time to it when you have a regular job,” Kurz says. “That being said, the Army is really welcoming to CrossFit as a whole. When I go places, nowadays, the Army is like, ‘We will give you fitness equipment to work with.’

“There’s a lot of phenomenal athletes in the Army that don’t know it yet. … I spent 15 years in the special ops community. Some of those guys are phenomenal athletes, they just spend their time training to do their jobs, versus clean-and-jerking and muscle ups.”

Ten other members of the team will also attend the game as part of their primary goal: recruiting. Whenever they attend a competition, Smith said, the team coordinates with local recruiters.

They visit area high schools or colleges, before or after the events, to share their experiences as soldiers. They aren’t recruiters, but they work with them to generate favorable impressions.

The Warrior Fitness Team won the first competition it entered, the six-member, co-ed throwdown at the 2019 Arnold Sports Festival in March. Schreiber, Capt. Kaci Clark and Capt. Ashley Shepherd placed sixth in the women’s AsRx Plus division at the Granite Games. They won the Team Rx division at the co-ed Battle of the Barbells, held in Nashville in July. 

“My end-all, be-all goal would be that all 15 athletes would be recognized at national-level competitors and achieve the fitness level to do that,” Grabs said.

Having two athletes qualify for the Games, even before most of the Warrior Fitness Team has transferred to Fort Knox, puts them ahead of schedule.

With a year of training full-time, Grabs said he hopes the team can send a team, individual women and individual men to the 2020 CrossFit Games.

“Maybe one year is extremely optimistic, but I don’t want to take it off the table,” he said. “I never thought that we’d have two athletes in the Games this year, but we do.

“With an organization like the Army supporting this team, I think anything is possible.”

Kurz, of course, said his goal is to win his division. 

Smith, who transferred to Fort Knox just last week, said he’s hoping to make a mark this season and figure out how to make a return trip to the Games next year.

He’s also trying to showcase the highest level of athleticism the Army can produce, a mindset he found as a wrestler at West Point.

“Beat Navy,” he said. “You can put that at the end. Beat Navy.”

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