Dave Werner was never known for being the most athletic child. And not much changed after his family moved from Oklahoma to Washington state. He’d tell you that he was never picked first in sports and really only participated in wrestling on a high school level. Perseverance, however, has been where he’s excelled his entire life.
As a teenager he found strength working on farms and nurseries, moving trees, laying irrigation and anything else asked of him. He could work hard and work long. Pushing himself further than others was never a struggle.
When he joined the Navy, he found that same perseverance to accompany him through boot camp. So, when he and his 5 foot 11 inch, 140-pound frame were told not to try to attend BUD/S, the Navy SEAL’s six-month training course, his perseverance came through and told him he could do it. And he did.
“There was actually a bureaucrat in boot camp who told me I shouldn’t make the mistake of trying out to go to BUD/S because I’d never make it,” explained Werner. “That statement irritated me so much that I went to BUD/S to spite some nameless bureaucrat that I never met again. I went into the Navy to be a diver and became a SEAL because it was a challenge that got thrown in front of me.”
However, BUD/S threw Werner’s body composition directly in his face. “When I went to BUD/S … I was wiry with a really low body fat – scrappy farm boy kind of strong, but skinny,” he explained. “Part of the harassment that BUD/S instructors and upper classmen – those that are farther along in the training – is a tradition of hounding and mentally harassing newcomers and scaring them about what’s going to come.”
People would look at Werner and tell him he was going to freeze in the ocean, that he wouldn’t be able to handle the cold. “The point is to get people doubting themselves and questioning whether they’re going to make it,” said Werner. “I had this idea in my head that I was too skinny to successfully thrive in the ocean.”
The 18-year-old Werner cooked up a strategy and began to eat three meals during breakfast and lunch, and four at dinner. “Even the other hungry young men around me were like, ‘Dude, where is all that going?’” Werner continued. “Nobody could believe how much I ate.”
When he’d get home from training, he’d down a couple more tuna sandwiches and a gallon of milk. “What happened was during the course of BUD/S I put on 40 pounds,” he said. “I was just as lean as when I got there, but I went from 140 to 178 pounds of muscle — it was 40 pounds of muscle, which is unheard of.”
The years of continuous high intensity military work as a SEAL eventually took its toll. “One of the most destructive activities for our bodies and for my back, I think, was being out in the ocean in small boats,” said Werner. “Lot’s of time in Zodiacs and small inflatable boats, hundreds and hundreds of hours of just getting pounded.
“If you’re out at sea at some pretty good swells, you go over the top of an 8- or 10-foot wave. In a light boat, especially if there’s some wind, the wind will actually hold the nose of the boat up a little bit so then you fall into the trough … you might fall anywhere from 6 to 10 feet,” Werner explained. “You fall and the boat and everyone in it is free-falling for a few feet and then you slam at the bottom of the wave and then do it again. Thousands of times in a night, it just beats the heck out of everybody.”
The regular impact eventually took a toll on his body. “I jumped out of bed one morning and hit the ground on my face because my back had gone out,” explained Werner. “Ruptured discs — three ruptured discs in my lumbar spine, and that was injuring my spinal cord causing loss of control of my right leg. That pretty much ended my SEAL activity.”
Leaving the SEALs meant immediate surgery for Werner and the thought that he may lose the ability to walk in the future. So, he tried working out, running and doing calisthenics as much as possible.“I’d try those things and they’d mess me up. I’d go for a run and I couldn’t walk right for a week,” he said “I became really sedentary. I got fat; I was getting weaker. I was really fairly miserable for a period of time, and I kind of hit a low point where I hated the way I looked and my wife was unhappy with my grumpiness. I was sort of in a bad place, physically and mentally.”
Werner started working out in a standard YMCA because there was a pool, swimming becoming the first step to get things going again. Then, he ran into kettlebell training, which seemed promising. But, there wasn’t much information out there on it. “At that time, Google had just been started for a few years. You could Google the word ‘kettlebell’ and get one return. Try that now,” he laughed. “That’s how obscure this was: it was super obscure.”
Werner grabbed some friends and they started doing kettlebell training in his home garage and backyard, simply because it was more fun as a group. When he began training he was using a cane to walk, but as he progressed his dependence on the cane lessened.
“One day Rob [Wolff] (a training partner) came to the garage and told me and this other guy about this website he had found, CrossFit.com, that had this kind of weird looking mix of elements like row and sprint, lift and jump rope, mixing these elements in ways we hadn’t seen,” said Werner. “I had a wrestling background, the other two had a martial arts background, so we did a few of these workouts and — this is a very well known experience that many folks tell now — you do a couple of these CrossFit workouts, it kicks your butt, and you think, ‘Wow, that was great, I need to do that some more.’ That’s how we started.”
CrossFit principles soon found their way into more and more workouts, leading Werner to training friends and eventually creating a need to meet Greg Glassman.
“So we got ahold of Greg Glassman and asked permission to use his ideas,” said Werner. “Of course he said, ‘Yes, run with it,’ and we started a long association with Greg — lots and lots of back and forth, calling, emailing, on the phone with Greg all the time. We ended up going down to Santa Cruz, and it was the first time anyone went down to Santa Cruz for a CrossFit reason.”
Werner spent a weekend with Glassman, sleeping in the living room, training and learning with him. “We were learning what we could from Greg Glassman and he was giving us advice, trying to figure out our training practice,” said Werner. “One day Rob asked him if we could use the name … CrossFit. Would it be okay to call ourself CrossFit North?”
Glassman permitted Werner and Wolff to use the name, but Werner wanted to make it a little more professional. “Now we’re using this guy’s intellectual property, we’ve got a business, we’ve got to nail down this relationship a little. So, in a conversation with Greg Glassman, I suggested a model similar to a martial arts school where someone earns a black belt, then has the right to go off and teach that style. What would we call this relationship? I suggested Affiliate, and Glassman liked that so … Affiliate.”
It was at that point that Werner said to Glassman that he needed to pay him to use the name. “Greg’s first reaction was ‘No, no, no, I’m not taking any money from you,’” said Werner. “But I was thinking of this as a business. I had no idea how big it would get, but I knew it was going to grow, the whole thing. It was too effective, too much fun. I knew it was going to grow. I said, ‘Greg, we’ve got to pay you something for this name.’ He insisted that we not, but I said, ‘We’re going to send you $500 a year to use the name and he said, ‘Fine,’ because he realized he wasn’t going to talk me out of it.”
Today the Affiliate rights to use the CrossFit name sits around $3,000 a year. “The important part of the story is we were just flying blind, working out and trying to collaborate on ways to improve our workouts and improve from each other, to develop a community of like-minded folks who wanted to transform themselves and help other people transform,” said Werner. “The business side, at least at first, was very much a secondary concern. We didn’t form an Affiliate … [to] make money, or certainly not [to] make a living. I had a career as an engineer and I was pretty happy with that career. It was a number of years after this that I realized I needed to stop being an engineer and be a full-time CrossFit trainer.”
In 2014 Level 4 CrossFit Seattle, the current name of Werner’s Box, grossed $1 million and boasted nine full-time Coaches. “We have somewhere in the vicinity of 500 to 600 clients, but that wasn’t the goal in the beginning,” explained Werner. “We started off to train, have fun, learn from each other and just kind of collaborate on that.”
However, Werner said that the business side was there the first day they took money from someone. “It was obvious at that point we needed to have a little bit of professionalism, even though we were an amateur operation,” he said. “My thought at first was to keep track of the money we brought in to document our losses and write them off. It wasn’t to try to get away with anything, but I wanted to do what was legal to defray our expenses.”
In the beginning Werner grew with each new client. Spreadsheets for attendance and finances molded into more systematized software and EFT functions to improve the customer experience. This was born from Werner’s experience as a client at previous gyms: When he would bring in a check with his monthly dues, he would be unable to give it to someone because no one knew what was going on. “That stuff irritated me as a client, so I didn’t want to do it in my practice,” he said. “Even though I saw it as sort of a real amateur operation, I still just didn’t want to be that guy.”
After about four years of training clients Werner still only had around 60. “That’s not very hard to keep track of,” he said. “We’d keep a spreadsheet and could track attendance manually on a spreadsheet — now I just cringe thinking about that. The transition of, ‘Now I can make a business on a professional level … now I can make a living at this,’ that came, for me, three or four years in.
“I had been doing this part time, and I guess I realized I was much more rewarded by my activities in the gym than I was by my day job. But, I had to wait for my wife to suggest it,” he laughed slightly. “A year and a half later my wife suggested that I transition to being a trainer full time. My response was like, ‘Wow honey, that’s a really good idea, let’s start thinking about that.’”
Werner had been waiting for about a year and half for his wife, Nancy, to suggest the idea, but going out on a limb of coaching full time, he knew he’d need her 100 percent buy-in. Werner and his wife didn’t make the jump blindly. They put a lot of thought into the business, raised some money and purchased new equipment. When Werner left his career, he was ready to support himself for up to a year without any income.
Being careful in the approach allowed Werner and Level 4 CrossFit Seattle to weather the downsides that come with any business. “Even though I just said we were careful and planned our moves, and put a lot of preparation in our move, you still have to make assumptions, take guesses as to how things will go,” explained Werner. “My experience is that everything takes longer than you thought it was gonna, and it’s a lot more work than you thought it was going to [be].
“Starting and running a small business, starting and running a training practice, is four times the work I thought it was going to be. I think that’s just a matter of lack of experience. There’s a few times when I think back [that] if I had known just how much work it was going to be, I might not have done it. So, there is a naivety to it that is necessary I think for jumping in. If you’re completely realistic, it would probably keep you from doing this kind of stuff.”
A big lesson Werner took from the SEALs is the power of a really tight team. “When you’ve got a group of folks working together that are all driven toward a common goal, what that group can accomplish is amazing,” he explained. “Far more than any member of that group can accomplish individually.”
But Werner found out early on that growing a team and keeping them on the same track was a lot more difficult in his gym than it had been in the SEALs. “I’m not going to say that personnel are a problem, but they are a project,” explained Werner. “I’ve made the mistake many times of just assuming that folks who are working for me, or working with me, want the same things I want and understand what I want, and we’re all working together. It takes a lot more work as a manager to keep people motivated, on the right track, on the same track, working towards the same goals. This is part of the challenge of building a business, is putting together a group of people that work together well.”
Werner has a team he must manage and work with, but he still loves coaching and spends plenty of time with his members. The changes in Werner’s body, and what the body is capable of, has been the central theme to Werner’s entire mission and what he now tries to teach every one of his members at Level 4 CrossFit Seattle.
Today if you do a quick Google search on Werner’s gym, there are about six other Boxes within 10 miles. But, Werner said the second CrossFit gym in Seattle was actually a former client of his Box, which just validated the practices Werner and his team were doing.
“This is a process. Always constantly look at what you’re doing and try and improve it, but when you do that it doesn’t all of a sudden mean you’re done. It’s just one more step and you get to do it again, and again and again,” said Werner. “It’s a process. We’re in this for the journey; if you don’t enjoy the process, training people and doing this day to day, if you don’t enjoy the journey, there’s no magic here — this is a long-term process. It’s very, very rewarding, but not easy and not simple.”
Photos by Supri Suharjoto