Words by Jack Franks
Ben Bergeron and Cole Sagar sit at a quaint table in Tatte Bakery, a quintessentially 21st-century pastry cafe founded by Israelien Tzurit Or.
Or’s vision has always been to create a sense of home and community for her customers, offering a humble ethos of bringing people together for a shared experience to remember.
Call it fate, a subconscious decision, or simply a love for Croque Madame and a roster of meticulously curated Mediterranean plates, Ben’s choice of location to deliver life-changing news for him and the unsuspecting Cole couldn’t be more fitting.
At face value, no links exist between Tatte Bakery and CrossFit, the sport Ben has coached at the elite level for 15 years.
But digging deeper into the Shakshuka reveals a shared belief and unwavering ethos to develop a deep sense of comfort and belonging. However, Ben’s has been dominated by the grinding of pulsating muscles, not Arabica coffee beans.
Filled with a sense of nervousness and anticipation, Ben hasn’t solely invited Cole for a catchup between two close friends whose relationship has evolved to brotherly-like status. Little do his fellow Massechutes pastry lovers know they are about to be present for a significant moment in CrossFit history.
Armed with a mocked-up press release titled; ‘Ben Bergeron retires from coaching CrossFit games athletes to build the contra community and hands the torch to fan favorite Cole Sager,’ this was a moment that had been coming since the Rouge Invitational in 2021 when Ben’s absence from his young kids on Halloween triggered the winding down of his coaching cycle.
“Once he took it all in, he put it down, stood up, and hugged for ten seconds. It was awesome. There was emotion, but the overriding feeling was one of excitement“, Ben told Muscle and Health.
“There’s always a level of wondering if he is going to be emotional or if he will be understanding. Cole being Cole, his reaction proved why he is the right fit to take over.”
Ben stresses he is not retiring, reiterating that he is simply “switching gears from working with elite athletes to working with a bigger group of people,” with his up-and-coming app, CompTrain 3.0, set to transform average Joe gym-goers into a condensed version of Mat Fraser (well, maybe not).
However, anyone can provide the tools and skills to craft and fulfill the potential of the time-restrained generation of 2023. In that case, it’s a man who has coached ten champions & 19 podiums across all CrossFit disciplines since 2009.
Ben’s recipe for success is deep-rooted in locating the sweet spot and compounding on the small margins over time. In his words, “trying to build the best versions (of ourselves) that we possibly can, not only the physical dominance and capabilities, but we need to be unshakeable mentally.”
“Most athletes can handle a lot more than the average person can because they’re used to challenges, they’re used to struggle, they’re used to suffering.” Ben knows this well, having dumped many of his athletes into the freezing temperatures in Boston Harbour and made them spend nights in the isolated woodland areas of Massachusetts.
Aside from the traditionally well-documented physical and mental strains that need to be applied, Ben’s secret ingredient lies not only within his ethos but within the walls of Tatte Bakery – and no doubt countless communities worldwide – the power of the group effect.
To be the best version of you, you need a team; you need a tribe; you need a family; you need a community around you. A community of people that believe it’s a necessary ingredient for their lives. There are only a few of us out there.”
“Creating that brotherhood, that sisterhood, creating that camaraderie, putting people in the same room that speak the same truths.” He sums it up as “going through hell together and laughing about it on the other side.”
Not long after that future-altering meeting of two friends over coffee and pastries – a seemingly innocent catchup between buddies for unknowing fellow caffeine consumers – Ben posted, in his own words, ‘Why I’m Retiring’ on Morning Chalk Up.
A desire to make an impact
September 11, 2001. A day that shattered the lives of every American.
The terrorist attacks on the Twin Towers in New York remain ingrained in the minds of all who were old and aware enough to digest the events of that fateful Tuesday.
Whether or not an American knew someone affected or knew of someone who knew someone, the attack felt personal. It still does nearly 22 years later.
Ben was 24 when the planes struck. “It changed the trajectory of my life.”
“I worked in finance in Boston then, and the planes that eventually crashed took off from Boston Logan International Airport.”
“We know people that were on the planes. One of our members who was supposed to go on one of those planes came to work out instead. It really was close to home.”
A sudden wave of perspective washed over Ben, his view of the world before him and drenched in the corporate 9-5 rat race culture, altered forever.
“I didn’t want to be a cog in the machine. I didn’t want to be one of the ants marching. I wanted to have an impact. I had yet to learn what that meant or how I would do that.
I took a year off and moved out to the middle of nowhere in the Wyoming mountains and spent the winter trying to figure out what I wanted to do when I returned.”
The following summer, now fuelled with a greater purpose, Ben began his career as a trainer. This space offered him the chance to impact people’s health and allow them to get as much vitality, energy and passion from life as possible.
Naturally, following a few years as a personal trainer, Ben evolved to strength and conditioning, with CrossFit still an unknown quantity and far from his immediate horizon. The concept of functional fitness only entered his world when he stumbled across an early CrossFit website, a jaw-dropping moment for someone who classed themselves as physically prospering.
At that time, Ben would regularly take part in IRONMAN’s – 2.4-mile swim, 112-mile bike
26.2-mile run – regularly ranking amongst the top 20% of finishers, showcased by his time of 10 hours, 38 minutes finishing time at IRONMAN Florida.
Yet, the introduction of CrossFit workouts and the brutally demanding variations required opened his eyes, the likes of ‘Nasty Girls’ and ‘Cindy’ serving up a harsh reality check.
“I thought that (IRONMAN) was the pinnacle of health and fitness,” said Ben, “and then I did my first CrossFit workout and still thought I was pretty fit.”
‘Cindy,’ the most popular benchmark WOD, consisting of as many rounds of five pull-ups, ten push-ups and 15 air squats in 20 minutes, first appeared on the CrossFit website in the summer of 2005.
“I managed 17 rounds, and I thought that’s got to be a good score because I was almost one round a minute. But then I saw these other scores pop up, and I saw a guy do 33 rounds named Chris Spealler, almost twice as many as me!
“That put a whole new perspective on capacity and what it meant. I fell in love with the training, programming and results. The methodology made so much sense.”
Chris Spealler would go on to compete at eight CrossFit games, including three top-ten finishes (2007, 2008, 2010), along with a “Spirit of the Games” award in 2010. His coach? Ben Bergeron.
The duo would share the struggles of affiliate ownership, Ben with CrossFit New England and Chris with CrossFit Park City, becoming intertwined in life’s most cherished moments, no more so than when they became fathers simultaneously.
This ain’t Disneyland
In an interview following the 2009 CrossFit Games in Aromas, California, Ben’s wife, Heather, compared getting to the competition to “getting to Disneyland“; it was “nothing she’d ever seen before.”
Ben, however, disagrees.
“It was the exact opposite of Disneyland! It was more like Woodstock. It was a dusty old ranch, everything was filthy, and outhouses were everywhere.
“But I know what she meant by that. Disneyland is the pinnacle of entertainment, and the Games felt like the pinnacle of fitness.”
Indeed, ‘The Ranch,’ as it’s better known, provides a rawness that is no longer associated with today’s sleek and aesthetically pleasing stadium venues.
Surrounded by bleachers packed with almost 4,000 fans, just over 150 elite athletes competed in the individual contest, with close to 100 teams competing in the Affiliate Cup. The event was completed by a live DJ, a vendors’ tent village, and a beer garden.
2009’s Games were significant with the introduction of the inaugural team competition, with almost 100 competing over four workouts. One of those teams was CrossFit New England, featuring none other than Ben.
After becoming a full-time gym just seven months prior, he was joined by Derek Mohamed, Harry Palley, Michelle Marshall, Ronda Rockett, and Elaine Polito, a roster featuring no female under 40.
It’s even more admirable then, that the group secured 15th position, powering through a combination of a 2500-meter hill run, 75 squat cleans, 35 muscle-ups, 150 burpees, 300-foot walking lunges with a 35lb plate overhead, and many, many more.
“It was such validation. We can actually do this thing. All of us saw it as a huge success.
“It was super early in the legacy of CrossFit, though. If we were to bring that team to the Games now, we would come dead last by a gazillion places.
“On top of that, my wife finished in the top 20 as an individual in the same year.”
Heather Keenan (as she was known in 2009) came 17th, but perhaps the most significant prize came when Ben got down on one knee on Monday, July 13. In that sense, 2009 has a nostalgic sense of significance in the journey of a CrossFit coaching legend.
Foundations had been laid across several aspects of Ben’s life; competing, training, business, ownership, and relationships.
Yet, it was only the start, with what we know today as CompTrain emerging from Ben’s frontal cortex – more specifically, the hippocampus – and manifesting itself as a space for his community to view WODs, engage with each other, post their scores and PB’s, and educate themselves and fellow CrossFitter’s.
But, before CompTrain, there came ‘Competitors WOD,’ a blog that represented the era it belonged to, boasting a simply constructed aesthetic dominated by words, and lots of them. This was their resting place if Ben’s inner thoughts spilled onto a web page.
Humble in nature, it’s clear Ben was unaware of the success that was to come, as proven in one of his answers to a FAQ.
Why are you doing this site?
“I’m not sure. I am frequently asked to program for people individually, but I haven’t figured out how to say yes to everyone. So I guess this is my way of saying “yes” to the masses. Hope it helps you get to the next level.”
Soon, members of Ben’s gym regularly approached him, making him aware that ‘Competitors WOD‘ was spreading amongst the CrossFit community, racking up around 30,000 daily views.
Built upon ‘The Three-Headed Monster’ philosophy, Ben’s audience was tapping into his unique insights into the most efficient and effective training programs.
“We want our athletes to be the most formidable version of themselves. You have to be strong and have skills; the last one is conditioning, which our sport is built upon.
“In terms of everyday athletes, I don’t think the skills are as necessary, but there’s a parable that I’ve been using that explains the necessities for these things in life.
“If you’re going for a hike with your buddy through the woods, you’re three miles in, and a log weighing 300 pounds falls on him and breaks his leg, trapping him. Do you have the strength to pull that log off his body?
“Do you have the endurance to run the three miles out of there in under 20 minutes if you can’t lift the log?
“Could you get that log off him, throw him on your back and ruck him out for three miles? The three things that we really need are strength, endurance and capacity.”
It’s a philosophy that Ben has carried throughout his distinguished career.
The Fittest Man, Woman and Coach on Earth
Having already built a client base that included Becca Voigt (5-time Games Athlete, 3rd place 2011), Brian Curley (Master’s Champion, 2010), and Lisa Mikkelson (Master’s Champion, 2012), Ben welcomed a new athlete to his personal roster in 2015.
A native of Reykjavik, Iceland, former gymnast and track athlete Katrin Davidsdottir packed up her life and moved to Boston to begin training under Ben Bergeron. Initially, she was highly emotional and erratic and possessed immature traits that dented her prospects.
The following year, she was crowned the Fittest Woman on Earth for the second consecutive time.
Ben’s coaching methods and techniques are grounded in three simple mental methodologies. Be hungry. Be humble. Be happy. More than just understanding an athlete’s perspective, his technique catered to each individual’s human spirit.
He also adopted several outlying methods which complimented the core programming routine, often dumping his athletes into the sub-zero temperatures of Boston Harbour, engaging them in painstakingly long rucks, and having them spend isolated nights in the woods.
“Those types of things are the extra icing on the cake. They’re not winning the Games because of those things, but I wonder if they would have.
“When working with an athlete, we want to work at their physical and psychological tolerances. It’s about finding the sweet spot, and that’s where that threshold is.
“Whether you’re trying to learn to play classical violin, whether you’re learning to type on a computer, drive a race car, perform surgery, or become a really fit athlete, we’ll make the most significant gains when we work at our threshold.
“That’s the coach’s job; try to find out where that is. It will be different for every athlete, and every athlete will have a different threshold every day.”
In 2016, Ben evidently discovered the sweetest of spots. Now coaching the legendary figure of Mat Fraser – who at that stage of his career was yet to win at the Games – hopes of a double Male and Female swoop were high.
Fraser finished second in 2015 despite heading into the competition in California as the favorite following the retirement of four-time winner Rich Froning. Ben Smith took the crown, clawing back a points margin that seemed unattainable at one point, leaving Fraser to pick the bones out of a “devastating loss.”
The introduction of Bergeron was the missing piece of the puzzle. Previously, Fraser’s diet was his downfall, citing he was “eating terribly” while training sporadically, promoting a significant shift in his dedication to CrossFit.
He dropped ten pounds, ate no junk food or soda, consumed little to no pre-packaged meals, and packed in around six to seven thousand calories per day at the peak of his training.
Under Ben’s guidance, Fraser transformed into an unbeatable block of muscle and grit, sprinkled with the skill and conditioning required to stand atop the podium on the final day and eclipse his rivals.
The American won the competition with a 197-point lead over his nemesis of 2015, Smith, registering the largest margin of victory in the history of the Games at that point. Remarkably, he would beat his own record twice, 220 points in 2018, then a mammoth 545 points in 2020.
Davidsdottir also reclaimed her tag as the World’s Fittest, narrowly beating future star Tia-Clair Toomey, thus crowing a perfect Games for Ben, but he still thinks his “high point was Katrin winning for the first time in 2015.”
Along with Davidstottir and Fraser, Ben has logged 253 athlete visits to the CrossFit Games. His achievements in 2015 and 2016 will never be forgotten.
Not leaving, just moving on
Ben can remember when the thought of retiring from coaching entered his mind.
Austin, Texas. October 31. The 2021 Rogue Invitational.
After two days of events featuring workouts designed to test athletes’ strength, grit, and willpower, the final day arrived, coinciding with Halloween.
1,951 miles away in Massachusetts, Ben’s two children, aged seven and nine, were without their father, who was missing out on cherished memories with his family. He continued to coach without giving it too much thought, albeit with a newly engrained outlook gnawing away in the back of his head.
“Everybody at some level has that in the back of their head somewhere. Am I gonna retire when I’m 60 or 80?”
Ben quickly corrects himself.
“I should reframe the words because I’m not retired. I’m switching gears from working with elite athletes to working with a bigger group of people.
“Two years ago, it would not have been the right time. I would have felt like there was still unfinished business.
“I didn’t have a plan for a successor, and I didn’t know what was next. Now, all of those things are certainly in place.
“That’s one of the reasons I’m as excited as I am right now: I don’t feel like I’m leaving anything.
“I’m not leaving a messy backyard.”
Back at Tatte Bakery, Cole Sagar takes in the monumental news he openly declared an honor to receive.
Sagar is a 10-time CrossFit Games veteran – his 10th coming this year – and has been a staple of Ben’s coaching roster for years. The pair have created a bond that transcends the sport, so it was natural for Cole to be given the keys to CompTrain Elite Coaching.
Before the transition, ‘The Last Dance’ at the 2023 CrossFit Games next month signals the closing of Ben’s coaching chapter, swiftly followed by the opening of his sole commitment to CompTrain 3.0.
“I am excited about what’s coming next, but the Games are emotional. I’m not overly emotional, but probably half of the tears I’ve shed in the last 15 years have been at the Crossfit Games.
“For whatever reason, after the last event ends, the emotion comes out because of the journey.
“I don’t know if it’s going to be a case of realizing that it’s just onward and pushed to the next thing or if it’s going to be filled with a lot of emotion, nostalgia and remembrance.
“I hope it is. This part of my career has meant a lot to me, so I want it to be meaningful.”
When the final athlete crosses the finish line on Sunday, August 6, in Madison, a crowd of around 14,000 people will be on their feet, athletes’ bodies pumping with lactic acid and sweat perspiring from every possible gland.
Fists will be bumped, hugs will be held that bit longer, and there will be an overriding sense of relief that the hard work is done (for now).
Somewhere in the pit of broken bodies and chalk-infested barbells will be Ben Bergeron, for the final time, taking in the electric nature of the Games, no doubt with a sense of sadness, but mostly an overwhelming feeling of pride.
A coaching journey mined from the tragedy of 9/11, mentally forged in the Wyoming Mountains, and crafted amongst some of the finest to call CrossFit their sport, Ben’s legacy will live on through CompTrain 3.0.
“For better people, make better athletes, and better athletes make better people.
“If we all work not just on the muscles and the performance, but on our character, I think in the long run that’s as important as anything else.”
Ben will miss CrossFit, but not as much as CrossFit will miss Ben.