You could say Colchester’s Mat Fraser is comfortable in just about any gym. But last Friday morning, the national CrossFit champion and former Laker said the familiar green and gold middle school gymnasium will always hold a special significance.
A horde of sixth, seventh and eighth grade students swarmed Fraser in the school he grew up attending, encouraging him to pose for selfies and requesting autographs. Some students couldn’t find a scrap of paper for him to sign, and offered up a shoe or, in one case, their arm.
The Colchester native was declared “the fittest man on Earth” last July, after winning the men’s Reebok CrossFit Games in Carson, Calif. After placing second in 2014 and ’15, the 26-year-old won the ’16 title by the largest margin in the games’ history.
Fraser said coming back to his alma mater with celebrity status was strange, but noted he’s still not entirely used to any of the increased attention he’s gotten since his win. He now lives just down the road from CMS.
“The whole CrossFit thing is still kind of odd for me,” Fraser said. “Flipping through the channels and ESPN comes on … It wasn’t that long ago that I was watching it having nothing to do with CrossFit.”
Fraser told students he began to think about his physical fitness at their age, hoping to lose a few pounds. After joining the football team, he realized he far preferred spending time in the weight room than on the field.
There, he found his calling. By the time Fraser graduated high school, he had an offer to practice weightlifting at the Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs, Colo.
Across the country, Fraser told the captivated students he didn’t treat his body well and ended up breaking his back in two places. The injury didn’t end his weightlifting career but served as an eye-opener. Fraser decided to move back home and enrolled in the University of Vermont.
Soon, though, the urge to get back in shape came calling again. He tried out CrossFit, a popular new workout regiment done with minimal equipment and an emphasis on “functional movements” – actions that might be completed in everyday life.
And, as Fraser tells it, he hit the ground running.
The students’ questions ran the gambit last week. Some challenged him to perform one-handed pushups or a backflip (he did them with ease), while others wondered who his favorite teacher was in middle school. One giggling girl even asked if Fraser had a girlfriend, face turning pink.
Fraser’s talk preceded a physical education unit CMS kicked off on Monday. Certified CrossFit coaches arrived at the school to help kids learn the sport’s basic body movements, using PVC pipes instead of weight bars.
CMS health teacher Ginger Epstein, who started CrossFit training herself last April, is behind the idea. She invited Fraser to talk to her Colchester students after hearing he gave a similar presentation to a gym class in Hartland.
While Epstein hasn’t felt any pushback against the unit, Fraser said he knows some parents might cringe when they imagine their child tackling the moves they’ve seen the professionals do. The emphasis at this age, Fraser told the students, is mastering the proper form and technique rather than loading up with weights.
Fraser said cementing that knowledge in grade school will also keep student athletes safer the first time they step into a college weight room. With that in mind, integrating CrossFit into P.E. curriculums is a trend he doesn’t picture slowing down any time soon.
“I see it all the time: Kids are going off to university for different sports scholarships. They’re getting in the weight room, and they have no idea what’s what,” Fraser said. “Getting used to it now is great.”
While all eyes were on Fraser, superintendent Amy Minor said she was focusing on the joyful expressions plastered across the faces of students and teachers alike. Minor was the principal during Fraser’s days as a Laker and said he exemplifies the benefits of helping students find their unique passions.
“It was a great reminder that you don’t have to be good at this, that or the other. I think in today’s society, especially in schools, there’s a lot of pressure to be successful in every subject area,” Minor said. “That’s not what school should be.”
Minor said the visit provided validation for faculty, too, who all work tirelessly to help their charges succeed.
“They owned his success,” Minor said of Fraser’s former teachers, many beaming with pride as he spoke. “That was really heartwarming for me.”
Students will continue their CrossFit programming through the end of the week, Epstein said.