Spealler’s Search for Competition

Chris Spealler

One of the most difficult aspects of growing up is deciding on a career. However, in conjunction with that struggle is the added pressure from peers and others saying you must know now. Chris Spealler was in a boat that felt very alone, not truly knowing what he wanted to do with his life.

As a kid Spealler loved playing outside and being competitive in sports. He played soccer, wrestled and did just about any other competitive sport he could get involved with. As he entered high school he had a talk with his father about his devotion to sports.

In the conversation, Spealler’s father laid out two roads he could take: He could play all sports, but most likely not be great at all or any. Or, he could pick one sport and give it all he had.

Spealler was highly successful in wrestling, mainly because the sport allowed an even playing field for his 5 foot 5 inch, 149-pound frame. “I remember thinking, ‘man, I wonder what that looks like? I wonder how good I could get at wrestling?’” recalled Spealler. “About 10th grade I just let wrestling be my sport until I finished college.”

Spealler, born about 45 minutes northeast of Philadelphia in Paoli, Pennsylvania, attended Lock Haven University, a small school located in Central Pennsylvania. After college wrestling was over, it was time for him to discover his future.

“I moved out to Park City to do my internship,” said Spealler. “I had finished wrestling and had to do the internship … finished that, and not into it at all … It ended up being a ton of time behind a desk and I kind of hated it.”

Wanting to find something else, he got a personal training certification and tried out personal training as a profession. “There wasn’t really any coaching involved,” said Spealler. “So basically I became a ski bum for six years. I was a bike mechanic in the summer and sold skis in the winter, and that was my life for five or six years until a buddy of mine introduced me to CrossFit.”

It was the fall of 2006 when Spealler first started CrossFit. “It was one of those things where I was lifting with my buddy Eric and doing some kind of westside barbell, and mixing our cardio into that, but when I found [CrossFit], I would give it a six week window and see what I thought of it,” he said. “I remember doing it and thinking, ‘man, it’s so nice to do something that has an element of competition in it,’ because that’s what I was missing. I didn’t have that with my wrestling anymore; it just didn’t exist. It was nice to be able to compete against myself or others online.”

But, Spealler was still trying to find his path. “At the time I was trying to figure out what I wanted to do. I was really struggling with what I needed to do, how I should go about things, actually even went to go take a test to sell insurance,” said Spealler. “I was like, ‘oh gosh, I’ve got to make money for my family, I had just got married.’ I failed the test.”

One of Spealler’s friends sat down with him and directly asked him what he’d like to do with his life. At the time he was a leader in Young Life, a non-denominational Christian outreach in Park City. “If I could do anything, I’d still do Young Life and I’d probably try and open up a CrossFit gym,” he told his friend. “He was really blatant and said: ‘well, why don’t you?’”

Being called out caught Spealler off guard, but it was just enough to get his motor running in the right direction. Spealler took out a credit card with a $5,000 limit that he didn’t have to pay for a year, bought his plane ticket, got his Level 1, purchased insurance, got a couple pieces of equipment and started dragging his family into the gym as clients. Opening CrossFit Park City in June 2007, the first location was in the corner of a local recreation center.

“I still worked at the bike shop and ski shop until I had enough clients that I could do it on my own,” explained Spealler. He spent another six months at the shop before he could make enough money to go full time with CrossFit Park City.

With a population under 8,000 people at the 2010 census, Park City wasn’t the largest town. So, as the first CrossFit in Utah, it was easy for Spealler’s Box to gain some interest in the local community. “I tried some newspaper ads that failed. We did some open houses and we’d go serve hot chocolate at these things called ski swap[s], but just mainly word-of-mouth and letting it grow naturally,” said Spealler.

When the Box first opened, the idea of an on-ramp was nonexistent. “There was no on-ramp and there didn’t have to be an on-ramp because it was so new, and all the clients were so new, and I think people just don’t understand how it started,” said Spealler. “I was in the corner of a rec center. We didn’t have a barbell or a pull-up bar, so I had to use dumbbells and we just hung out in the corner of this indoor track that was maybe close to 200 meters long. Our square footage was — I don’t even know — maybe 80 square feet.”

Yes, you read that right: 80 square feet. “We would just line people up the side of the track and do everything with dumbbells,” said Spealler. “There really wasn’t a need for [an on-ramp] because classes were small and everyone was new, and I was still learning how to teach and coach. It … kind of evolved as we went.”

In 2008 things started changing drastically for Spealler and CrossFit Park City. Not only was it the second summer of the CrossFit Games, but it was also the year that he got the keys to his own Box.

“I think that a large part of what dictates [growth] is demographic,” said Spealler. “The more and more I’m around the more I think demographic and your location plays such a huge role in the success you may, or may not, have as an Affiliate. CrossFit was still really small then. There hasn’t been an influx of people that correlate to any performance I’ve had at the Games.”

Success always has been centered on the members, teamed with exceptional coaching for Spealler. “Our focus is on trying to treat our members as best as possible and maximize how we can utilize the existing members we have,” he said.

With the members that Spealler does have, he tries to offer them everything they could need from his gym, from one-on-one training to additional fee-based classes. But he does admit that the gym could do a better job of promoting those aspects, and they are continually striving to do better. “Otherwise you run into the rut of trying to find more members, then you need more members, then you need more space; and in a place like this rent is so high … that it ends up playing against you,” he said.

Even with the challenges, he sees them as they are: more learning opportunities. “It’s easy for people to get caught up in more members, bigger space and better stuff, but I think what people have to realize is, at what point is it too much?” he asked. “Do you have enough revenue to pay your trainers, [to] pay them well or treat them well? Do you need to cap your gym size in order to have the lifestyle you want to have? Because if you get too many members … it’s going to be too much overhead. I think there are a lot of things people don’t think about when they go into starting an Affiliate. It’s just a learning process.”

What Spealler desires more than anything for his Box is for his members to truly feel like they are part of a community — one that is more about the group and individual over perpetual growth. “What makes that happen is just you being involved, so you know everybody’s name, you know a little about them, you can relate to them, joke around with them, check in with them and have those conversations right when they walk in the door. That’s what makes people feel like a member, more so than some sort of exclusivity,” explained Spealler. “I think that’s what people sometimes miss out on when they try to have this booming growth right off the bat.”

Knowing members as people over just a number in a gym has been Spealler’s approach to fostering that community. “With three other gyms in town … part of it has been I’m a little bit gun shy to kind of get the word out there on who I am or what I’ve done, just cause that’s kind of difficult with my personality,” said Spealler. “I would really hope that people would want to be at my gym because of my coaching more than my athletic background.

“CrossFit has grown enough now that you have to be diligent on [educating potential members]. I think people just assume that CrossFit is just CrossFit. If you walk into one CrossFit it’s the same as the other. We know as Affiliate owners that that’s not true. Most people aren’t going to take the time to learn or check into things enough to see what the difference is, and they end up going to places just based on location. Often I think that education comes secondary to getting the exposure to CrossFit.”

Admittedly, continually striving to better educate members on what CrossFit Park City stands for in terms of coaching and what’s offered at the gym is a necessity. “We have a trainer meeting once a week, and we alternate that back and forth between the regular logistics of a gym, and the other one we do trainer development,” explained Spealler. “At least twice a month we do trainer development where we let our trainers ask questions, and that might be anything from real practical stuff where we have members come in and we help them with coaching, to program analysis where we help them scale down workouts a little better.”

Since 2008, Spealler has been part of the CrossFit seminar staff, something he sees as beneficial to his Box. “Because three of us work for CrossFit seminar staff, the other three trainers have a really great resource and we can help educate them on all the ins and outs on what that looks like to be a better Coach,” said Spealler. “Myself, Eric [O’Connor] and Doug [Zakaras], because we are seminar staff, we are just fortunate enough that we get to work with people every weekend that are really excellent at what they do, and we can try to learn from that every weekend.”

In terms of other Affiliates, Spealler believes there needs to be more of a connection amongst peers. “I think that is a huge part; arguably more important than the involvement with HQ is people’s involvement with local Affiliates,” said Spealler. “Do they support one another or not? Is there a good relationship there or not? Do they have combined events or not? I think that is more beneficial than having a closer relationship with headquarters.”

Although he mentions the tools needed are provided by HQ, Spealler believes that taking those tools and learning from peers is essential to becoming a successful Affiliate. However, he explained that CrossFit faces a unique challenge unlike other fitness organizations: the issue of relationships between businesses. “We’ve had some riffs that have created some difficult situations for us,” said Spealler. “We’ve also had Boxes without even saying a word — coming in and doing a seminar — and not without even a word, suddenly one opened up and I had no clue. I wish there was a better relationship there, and I think part of that is on my shoulders to reach out and to, in some senses, kind of forgive and let the past be the past.”

This is why Spealler believes so strongly in keeping his team close and more like a family than anything else. Building and maintaining that level of trust means the community can be fostered from the top down. “The most valuable thing I’ve had is people that have been really dedicated to me,” said Spealler.

One of those individuals is Eric O’Connor who has been with Spealler from the start. He helps out with trainer development and the gym’s programming. “This place, in a lot of ways, is just as much his as it is mine,” said Spealler.

Doug Zakaras is another individual that Spealler named. Zakaras joined Spealler on the CrossFit journey in 2008. Spealler said it has been neat to watch Zakaras grow and extremely helpful to have him assist with management at the Box.

Spealler also named his former Games Coach Ben Bergeron, the owner of CrossFit New England. “I used to always call him on a daily basis to let him know how my workout went. Now I call him on occasion to say, ‘Hey, what do you think about this in terms of shifting things for my trainers, or what do you think about this for my members?’ He’s always such a great resource to bounce ideas off of,” explained Spealler.

What’s been vital for Spealler has been his openness for outside ideas and education. Plus, his relationship with CrossFit HQ and the team of top-level Coaches and support that surround him has helped him foster success.

But ultimately, CrossFit Park City possesses one thing that no other Box in the community can, and that’s Spealler himself. Not the Spealler everyone knows from the Reebok CrossFit Games, but a man focused on family, friends and his members, as well as enjoying life and everything CrossFit has to offer.

Tyler is a former editor of Box Pro Magazine.