Adapted CrossFit athlete is a quick study

After a few months in the sport, Walker qualifies for world competition

Vernon Walker brought his son Joshua to a workout at CrossFit 5885 in Apple Valley last week. Walker will compete in the WheelWOD world championships next week in Canada. Photo by Mike Shaughnessy

At age 8, Vernon Walker’s left leg was amputated because of bone cancer. But that’s not where his athletic dreams ended.

It’s where they began.

He had a 25-year career in wheelchair basketball and dabbled in other sports, including track and field, where Walker was an alternate for the 1996 U.S. Paralympic Games team. Eventually, Walker said, the travel demands of top-flight wheelchair basketball were a poor match with his responsibilities as a husband and father, so he retired from the sport. But the urge to compete never left, and he thought he was getting out of shape, so he looked for a new athletic avenue.

That brought him to a local CrossFit gym. He took up that sport just this year – “I’m a rookie,” Walker said – and did well enough to qualify for the WheelWOD (Workout of the Day) Championships, a world CrossFit competition for adapted athletes. Walker leaves next week for the world competition in Collingwood, Ontario.

“In January, my wife (Christy) and I wrote down our goals for what we wanted to accomplish fitness-wise,” Walker said last week before a workout at CrossFit 5885 in Apple Valley. “Two years ago we were both pretty overweight and we went on a health journey, and we’ve lost a bunch of weight together.”

Last year they ran a couple of half-marathons, then decided to do a marathon together, which they completed recently in Owatonna. But, Walker wanted to chase something else.

“Once you achieve a goal, you want to set another goal, and another goal, and another,” he said. “One of my goals was to enter a local CrossFit competition. I entered one in Chanhassen and they were full. They put me on a waiting list. In the process of waiting and trying to find something else to do, I saw on social media a friend of mine had put up a post that he just finished Round 1 of the WheelWOD Open. I Googled it, found WheelWOD, entered the competition, and here we are.”

Walker’s family moved to Minnesota four years ago and live near the Lakeville/Farmington border. They see CrossFit as something they can do as a family – Christy has just taken up the sport and their son Joshua, 8, is being introduced to it as a means of preparing for youth wrestling in the fall (they also have a daughter, Elisabeth, who’s 2).

He had to finish in the top 10 of an open WheelWOD qualifier to make it to regionals and needed a top-five regional finish to qualify for the world competition. Walker enters the world meet ranked fifth in the seated division.

“One of the events was a rope climb with three cleans and two shoulder overhead presses. That equals six reps,” Walker said. “I had to do as many reps as possible in six minutes. After the six minutes was over, I had another six minutes to find my one-rep max in the clean.

“I’m a 39-year-old man competing against 24- and 25-year-olds. I definitely showed my age, but I also showed I am extremely strong. I didn’t do as many reps as everybody else, but I lifted more weight. That kind of saved me.”

When he qualified for regionals, Walker, a mechanical designer for a company in Owatonna, said he knew he had to ramp up his training, but the gym he was using didn’t have some of the equipment he needed. He looked elsewhere and CrossFit 5885 caught his eye in part because of the Scripture passages the club’s owner, JonnyJ, posts on its website.

“So I called Jonny and talked to him,” Walker said. “He’d never laid eyes on me before. I’d never laid eyes on him before. I just explained to him, ‘Look, I made it to the next round, and I’m out of equipment. I need a place to train and I need a place to do the workout.’ He said he’d sponsor me.”

Even though Walker got a late start in WheelWOD, his coach said he has a bright future in the sport if he wants to continue.

“He’s only just beginning to tap into his potential with this,” JonnyJ said. “He’s still working through a lot of range-of-motion issues he had coming in from all those years of basketball. As we get those improved, his strength and power are just going to go up.

“To be honest, I’d say his strongest asset is his head – his mental strength. He doesn’t have a quit button. He just goes.”

“Beauty of it is, all you have to do is finish,” Walker said. “You don’t have to do the most, or do it the fastest. You just have to finish.”

Walker, who grew up in Dallas, took up wheelchair basketball almost immediately after losing his leg. He played on a college team at Southwest State University in Marshall and eventually reached the elite level in that sport, playing in national tournaments as well as an all-star game in 2006 that was co-sponsored by the NBA.

“My mom was really a diving force, after I lost my leg, for me to not sit around and feel sorry for myself,” he said. “She pretty much forced me to go to my first basketball practice. After that she didn’t need to force me anymore. I made a beeline (to practice). It was time to have fun, and I did it for 25 years.”

Walker has started a GoFundMe page, hoping to raise $1,500 to help finance the trip to Canada for the WheelWOD world meet. Anything above the $1,500 would be donated to charity.

Once he returns, Walker said he’s not quite sure what’s next, although he wants it to involve CrossFit. His coach wants him to continue competing, and that’s a possibility. Walker said he would like to become a certified CrossFit trainer.

“I’d like to broaden this,” he said about introducing more adapted athletes to CrossFit. “There are plenty of us out there. I’d like to bring a good amount of athletes from other sports. CrossFit isn’t for one-sport athletes. There are basketball players who do this, tennis players who do this, softball. It’s a good way to stay fit during the offseason.

“The only way you’ll know is to try.”