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'You’re always pushing yourself to your very limits, which is very tough to do every day'

Jamie Headon is just the third Irish man to qualify for the Regionals of the Crossfit Games.

WHEN YOU TYPE Jamie Headon’s name into Google, an array of different results appear on the screen.

His Crossfit Games athlete profile, his gym, and his social media accounts are among the first to grab your attention.

jamie Jamie Headon. Source: Chapter2Fitness website

About three pages in, there’s an article entitled ‘Headon’s try epitomises St Michael’s gritty display’. It was published in February 2008 on independent.ie.

Just below, comes another schools rugby article.

Headon — who’s now one of just three Irish men to qualify for the Crossfit Regionals (Dominic Munnelly and William Walshe competed in 2011) and has been crowned ‘Ireland’s Fittest Man’ this year for the third year running — didn’t even know what Crossfit was back then.

During his time at St Michael’s College, “rugby was everything,” Headon smiles. He also did judo from a young age, but when the time came and he had to choose, it was always going to be the oval ball.

He lined out at flanker on every possible occasion for the Donnybrook school. There was U13s first, and then both Junior and Senior Cup. Afterwards, he played two seasons with Old Belvedere, but deep down, he couldn’t see a future in rugby.

At that stage, Headon also dabbled in boxing on the side. Two of his brothers, Sean and Paddy, have Irish boxing medals and he found himself as their ‘punching bag’ for a while.

“I was a little bit in between sports,” the 24-year-old tells The42. “I knew I wasn’t at the Leinster level. I got a couple of shoulder injuries playing rugby and competitive rugby was out of the question.

In school, injuries didn’t matter. I’d play a cup game, be in a sling for two weeks, and play another game. I didn’t care. Everything was about making the seniors.

“In college then, it was worse. I was trying to go out and have drinks and all and it wasn’t working. That’s when I stopped rugby.”

Sport was always of the essence though. Headon studied Sport and Exercise Management in UCD, and it was actually through his course that he was first introduced to Crossfit — a fitness craze which has come to the fore over the past few years.

Basically, it’s a type of training through varied functional movements, which incorporate gymnastics, weightlifting, running and more.

During his teenage years, the Dubliner was infatuated by the gym and everything that went alongside it. He recalls how, at the age of around 13, his dad sat himself and his brothers down to watch one of the Rocky films, and it all snowballed from there.

“That just set me off,” he continues. “I thought it was so cool.

“I started doing strength training then. I was always trying to be fitter or stronger than everyone else, trying to set records — as many pull ups or push ups as I could do, basic stuff.

“I’d always do training in the gym before school. Then I started watching Joe DeFranco videos, an elite NFL coach in the States. He had this big garage gym, like a Crossfit gym, and he used to weld up all his own equipment and make players do mad stuff. I used to follow his stuff and try to do it at home, just for fun because I thought it was crazy.

“I didn’t know what Crossfit was but a lot of the guys said when I started, that it was like I had been doing it for years because I was doing similar stuff. Everything I had been doing was right beside Crossfit, without knowing what I was doing.”

It was a college internship, not his own though, that sent Headon directly down the Crossfit path. He went to Harlequins Rugby Club in London, while his friend, Peter, interned at a Crossfit gym in Blackrock.

Jamie Headon Headon playing Senior Cup for St Michael's in 2011. Source: Donall Farmer/INPHO

From chatting to Peter, he thought it sounded like it would be right up his street.

Headon was always up there with the fittest and strongest when he played rugby, and admits that it was that and his dedication to training, rather than his ability, that saw him making teams.

He decided to give Crossfit a go. He headed to a class, and stood out immediately. From there, things started moving fast. He was offered the opportunity to do an apprenticeship to learn more, both about coaching and competing.

Crossfit, or this ‘test of overall fitness,’ as he puts it, suited him down to the ground from the word go.

I only start a sport if I think I can compete in it. Once I got into it, I started looking up the Games, figuring out the athletes, and decided ‘OK, I want to get good at this.’

In terms of competitions, various ones are held all over the world each year, but there are just three hosted by the Crossfit Games, which allow competitors to go up against the very best in the world officially.

The first stage is the Open, a five-week, five-workout competition that is held in Crossfit gyms across the world. It’s tracked online, and the top 30 in each region (Europe being the largest and most competitive) qualify for the Regionals.

The Regionals are a live three-day competition. Headon, this year, qualified for the Meridian regionals in 13th place. It all kicks off on 3 June in Madrid, and the top five qualify for the Crossfit Games — the world’s premier test to find the fittest on earth.

In 2013, just two months after starting Crossfit, Headon competed in his first Open.

“I had no chance, I didn’t even know what it was. But everyone just does it, even if they have no chance of competing. It’s a test of the whole year and shows you where you are.

“I was like way way back. Only the top dogs get to Regionals.

“I came 7th in Ireland in that first year though. That really surprised me but I was like ‘Oh shit, I could have a proper go at this.’ My big goal was then to come first in Ireland the next year.

He was still ‘living a normal college life,’ balancing socialising with his training and coaching. It was then when he achieved his big goal and was crowned the ‘Fittest Man in Ireland’ for the first time in 2015 that a proper call needed to be made.

He linked up with physiotherapist and strength coach, Gary Burns, to open Chapter2Fitness in Sandyford as an experiment. It all started as a ‘little training cave,’ and a place for both parties to practice their trade, but it’s blown up since.

That same year he finished 66th in Europe and met his coach, Andy Ewington from New Zealand.

“After that Open, he [Ewington] was like ‘holy shit, we might have a chance at Regionals in the next few years. That was the first time we had to sit down and decide if I was going to take things properly seriously.”

Last year, 2016, brought the real breakthrough. Headon was training twice a day, the gym was up and running properly, and he was flat out coaching as well as concentrating on his own endeavours.

He finished 40th in Europe, ten spots outside of Regionals. It was the real deal-breaker as to where he finds himself now though.

Source: Chapter2Fitness CrossFit C2F/YouTube

“It was tough because I was quite close. It just meant I had to look at things again and go even harder at it.

“This year, I have basically become a full-time athlete. We’ve employed another three coaches so the gym kind of runs itself which allows me to pull back. I only coach for a maximum of two hours a day and my training’s gone through the roof. I train for four of five hours a day, which means two to three sessions.”

He’s fully committed to Crossfit this year. His life revolves around it. The majority of his day is spent in the gym — lifting as heavy as he can, and perfecting different functional movements — while training and competitions never leave his mind.

“I spend way too much time [in the gym]. I make all my decisions around my life based on what affects my performance and what will allow me to do better.

“My mind’s always going mad, right now on Crossfit, because I achieve something and I want to go higher and higher and higher.

“The hardest thing is the mental side of it. It’s a sport of fitness, so you’re always pushing yourself to your very limits, which is very tough to do every day.

“You need someone who can go that mentally dark with you as well. The only way to beat someone in Crossfit is to go to their limit of fitness, as far as they can possibly go, then leave them and try go past them.

“There is obviously skill involved, but a lot of it comes down to who’s willing to close their eyes, put in the work, and go the furthest.

“I am always fighting against myself and my mind, but it is good to have one or two training partners who come in and kick ass every day as well. Even though it is an individual sport on the floor, it’s great to have a team environment. You always do better with a team.”

Not only a strong mentality, but sheer competitiveness and drive has also helped Headon in breaking boundaries in the Crossfit world.

“When I played rugby, if we lost the game I’d be sad we lost, but if I played well I’d be really happy. I didn’t really realise until after I stopped. I was always just focused on my own performance.

“If we won and I played shit and didn’t get the ball at all, I’d be pissed off. Others, we’d lose and they’d be crying and I’d say,’you scored three tries, you should be the happiest person in the world.’

“Now I’ve got something that I’m good at, I’m really focused on myself and bettering myself. Have I put 100% into the session? If I haven’t or I’ve backed off a bit, it would really piss me off.

“If a workout goes bad, I’ll just be in a bad mood. Or if I haven’t trained. It’s just because I’m trying to be the best right now, anything that goes wrong or affects me just stays in my head until I make it right. I’m very competitive with myself.”

His insane efforts have paid dividends, especially this year.

Headon won the French throwdown and the Polish throwdown, but most importantly, he placed 13th in Europe, and is now preparing for the Regionals in Madrid.

To qualify for the Crossfit Games, Headon must finish in the top five of the 40 athletes competing.

“I’m right up there with the big dogs. It’s firstly, really cool for me because I’ve proven to myself that I can be up there with them and secondly, it works in my favour on the floor.”

“From the get-go, I’ll be able to see the competition and be right up there with them as I’ll be in the strongest heats.

“The Regionals suit me really well. The Open, or qualifying process, it’s more basic exercises and pure fitness while the regionals is a lot higher skills — a lot more handstands, rope climbs, weighted vest workouts. So that suits me more, more higher skills stuff and heavier stuff.

“I’ve done really well to qualify so I’m really excited for the Regionals. I prefer the heavier and higher skill stuff. I do think I can qualify top five. Obviously, I’ll have that mindset either way though.

“Even before I qualified, in conversation it was always like ‘when I go to Madrid…’ It’s just built in through mentally thinking about it, and mentally seeing yourself there. It’s the exact same with the Games.

“People are like ‘what are you doing for the summer?’ and I’m like ‘well, obviously I have the Games in August and then after that…’ It’s just in my head.

“I 100% think that I can qualify but it also comes down to the day. If it’s a workout that suits bigger guys, sometimes they have the advantage. Everyone in there has earned a spot but I see myself qualifying.”

You can follow Jamie’s progress to the Regionals and Crossfit Games through his Instagram and the Chapter2Fitness Facebook page and Youtube channel.

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Emma Duffy

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