How Patrick Vellner did it all wrong, and how it ended in a CrossFit Games Podium Finish
By: Emily Beers
If there was guidebook with a template to help steer aspiring CrossFit Games athletes to the pinnacle of their sport, it quite likely might suggest ditching your full-time job to become a full-time athlete, like Stacie Tovar. Or deferring law school articling for the chance to make it back in 2017, a la Alex Parker.
It might also suggest you train twice, or even three, times a day. And it would definitely suggest you stick with your own personal game plan in competition, to pay no attention to the leaderboard or to what other competitors are doing on the competition floor next to you. And it might suggest you devote time to work on your mental game.
2016 CrossFit Games bronze medalist Patrick Vellner did none of the above. The 26-year-old, who is anything but by-the-book, followed his own recipe to success and the seemingly nonchalant Canadian ended up the 3rd Fittest Man on Earth.
“What do you mean mental game? Is THERE anything you can do to work on your mental game?” -Patrick Vellner
Unlike other Games athletes, Vellner’s path to the podium involved training just once a day for a couple hours, mostly joining group classes—and working on some additional strength and accessory work pogrommed by his coach Simon Belzile at CrossFit Plateau— all the while continuing to pursue full-time education to become a chiropractor.
And when asked about his mental game training, he said this: “What do you mean mental game? Is there anything you can do to work on your mental game?”
“I compete as a hobby. CrossFit isn’t my career. My career will be in my schooling. That’s the bottom line,” he added.
Vellner's busy school schedule last year forced him to be efficient with his time, which he said is the way he likes it.
“Some people will spend seven or eight hours in a library and get nothing done. I’d rather do two hours of focused work. The same is true at the gym: You don’t need to do seven pieces a day like so many athletes are doing. At least, I don’t need to,” he said.
The only time Vellner did dabble with being a full-time athlete was during the few weeks between regionals and the Games, and he quickly grew bored.
“I was living and training with Michele Letendre right before the Games, and they were such long days of doing nothing really. So then I’d feel guilty about doing nothing, so I’d say, ‘OK, maybe I”ll stretch a little bit,’ he said.
“If you’re in the top five hunting for a podium spot, of course you’re aware of where everyone is. And if you’re not, then you’re ignorant and you’re probably not going to get to the podium.” - Vellner
Athletes are often told not to pay attention to the leaderboard, and to avoid being distracted by how fast others are moving. Vellner didn't listen to this advice. All weekend in Carson, he knew where everyone stood on the leaderboard, and exactly who he needed to stay ahead of to remain in a top position.
He knows this is contrary to what most athletes say they to, but he doesn’t believe they’re being truthful.
“I think they’re lying,” said Vellner, a former junior elite gymnast in Canada. “If you’re in the top five hunting for a podium spot, of course you’re aware of where everyone is. And if you’re not, then you’re ignorant and you’re probably not going to get to the podium.”
He added: “I was always aware of where everyone was. I was constantly looking over my shoulder at everyone else.”
Before Vellner stepped onto the floor for the final event on Sunday, he and Fikowski discussed exactly how many points each of them needed to snag a podium finish.
“We both knew what he situation was,” Vellner said.
The situation was one Canadian man was likely to win a medal, while the other would not.
“Brent (Fikowski) knew there were two ways it could go for him. He could go conservative, or go for it and potentially blow up and hit failure on the pegboard. But he said if he went conservative and accepted fourth, he’d be so angry with himself. He had to go for the podium,” Vellner said.
Vellner, too, had to go for the podium.
“I just had to keep as few spots as I could between Brent and I,” Vellner said.
“As we both just kind of sat there and were chatting about the situation, we also realized that no matter what happens, we’re going to be third and fourth and that’s huge. Especially considering there haven’t been any Canadian men in the top five in years. That’s huge,” Vellner said.
The two wished each other good luck and hit the floor, wishing the best for themselves, and the best for each other.
It came down to the wire, and Vellner, who was competing with a torn bicep—an injury he suffered at Regionals—almost lost it.
“I almost failed a couple. I have no idea how I got my last two pegboard ascents,” he said.
Somehow, despite his arm cramping up because of his injured bicep, he found a way to get it done. And as he was sprinting to the finish line—out of the corner of his eye—he saw Björgvin Karl Guðmundsson also heading to the line. Aware of everything around him, Vellner knew he needed to beat the European to avoid losing more points to Fikowski, who was third on the final event.
Had Vellner not been aware of Guðmundsson and how close the points were, it would have been Fikowski on the podium. Instead, one tenth of a second (the amount of time that separated Vellner and Guðmundsson in the final event) is the margin that clinched the podium spot for Vellner—by just two points over Fikowski.
Sticking with Fraser
Another one of they keys to Vellner’s success, he said, is the fact that he’s from the same region as Fraser.
“At regionals, I spend two days in the lane right next to Mat Fraser, trying to chase him. It was a good person to be beside,” Vellner said. “This is the guy everyone expected to bury the field at the Games, and if I could stay close to him then I knew I was in good shape.”
Having had this experience at the regional level meant by the time the Games came around, Vellner didn’t feel as intimidated as he otherwise might have. He just tried to do what he had practiced at Regionals: Stick close to Fraser.
“I had the benefit of being in the top heat the whole weekend after the ranch. And I knew if I could stay close to Fraser or (Ben) Smith, then I was probably in pretty good shape, and I never really pushed beyond that. I just sort of floated along. I wasn’t doing anything that impressive. I just wasn’t messing up either. I kept expecting something to expose me, but it never did,” Vellner said.
He added: “I didn’t feel like I needed to win anything. And I didn’t win any event. But I was top 10 in 11 events.”
Looking back, Vellner thinks he may have been able to push harder in many Games events.
“I think I overestimated the competition and underestimated myself in many events. That’s why I didn’t attack as much as I could have. But I would think, ‘If Matt (Fraser) is right next to me and he can’t do it any faster, then I probably can’t either."
A few weeks after standing on the podium, Vellner admitted he probably didn’t take it all in as much as he should have.
“Everything happened pretty fast. I was a bit stunned. It was surreal. And I don’t think I’ll realize what it was worth until I’m back there next year and realize how hard it will be to do it again,” he said.
He also knows next year will feel much different than this year.
“I didn’t get any attention this year. All of a sudden, it was just like, ‘Oh, Vellner’s in third.' I imagine there will be more media attention and scrutiny this year, and pressure. Nobody wants to be the guy who makes the podium one year and doesn’t make the Games the next year. But I also don’t think you get the opportunity to sneak up on a field twice,” he said.
But Before he starts thinking about next year, he’s enjoying some summer down time in Alberta at his family’s cottage.
“It’s kind of funny. A couple weeks ago I was at the CrossFit Games and it felt like such a big deal. I went from being a rockstar in that environment, and now I’m just Pat hanging out at the lake,” he said—his nonchalant attitude still intact.
“I’m supposed to do active recovery today, so I’m still trying to figure out what that means,” he laughed.
While Vellner admits he will likely feel more pressure next year, he is adamant about sticking to his own recipe for success, even if it looks different from the one his competitors follow.
“It’s weird. Everyone keeps asking me if I’m gong to defer my school to focus on CrossFit more. I was talking with Reebok yesterday, and they asked me if I was going to move, so I could train with better people” Vellner said.
He chuckled at the thought, and replied: “Fuck no, I’m not going to uproot myself to exercise faster...I’m not going to derail my life just so I can workout more.”
Instead, he’ll keep doing what he did this year: Full-time school. Train once a day. Hit up group classes and add strength and accessory work. And continue to CrossFit as a hobby.
“I like it that way. And I sleep like a baby at the end of the day,” he said.