Overcoming All Odds: Vijay Raj on CrossFit
Raj grew up in an orphanage in Haridwar, where he was introduced to CrossFit
Vijay Raj’s story reads like a movie script. Raj grew up in an orphanage attached to an ashram in Haridwar, and it was here where he first encountered the sport of CrossFit. Today, Raj is a household name in the Indian CrossFit circuit - winning the ‘fittest man in India’ title five years in a row, and representing the country on a global platform twice at the Regional CrossFit Games. Raj now travels the world in the capacity of a CrossFit coach, and runs his own ‘box’ (that’s what they call CrossFit gyms) in Haridwar.
We speak to Raj about his journey.
Tell us a little about yourself. We know you grew up in an orphanage in Haridwar - but tell us more. What inspires you, motivates you and drives you.
Growing up in an orphanage taught me so many life lessons - the most important being that one should be like water and adjust to every situation; find our own way to flow. Do whatever it takes so that you can become independent someday. And of course, don’t give up on your dreams.
I was very lost during my teenage years. Anger was a huge problem which got me into a lot of trouble. When I was in Class 10, I had the chance to visit my native place. Seeing the hardships of that place at that time made me reflect, and I realised that I should look at the brighter side, which was that I could have been in a much worse situation. At least I was lucky enough that I had a roof to live under, food to eat, clothes to wear, and I had access to education which in my opinion was more than enough.
Life was not a cakewalk for me by any means. I had my share of hardships and challenges but I always channelised it in a positive manner. And I firmly believe that we all make mistakes in life but we should learn from our mistakes and do whatever it takes to rectify it and not repeat it.
I think I am a dedicated person. I enjoy traveling, playing chess, tabla. I am passionate about exploring new cultures. I like cooking healthy food whenever time permits. I like watching movies. As a person I am full of positive energy and always hungry for more. I am very thankful to all the people who have been associated with me in my life.
Tell us more about your CrossFit journey. From the facility at the ashram to the CrossFit regional games to earning the 'fittest man in India' title five years in a row (2012-2016). What motivates you and keeps you going?
The orphanage [attached to an ashram in Haridwar] is run by a trust. One of the trust members, an American, tried CrossFit on a trip to the United States, and when she returned to India, she introduced CrossFit to some of the teenage boys at the facility.
I always wanted to become a professional cricketer and I thought that CrossFit’s way of training was the right fit for cricketers, as opposed to a bodybuilding format. So, I put in a lot of effort trying CrossFit workouts, so that I could become better at my sport.
My academic result was very poor and I would get terrible scores in school, to the extent that I would get a “0” in some subjects. At one point, the management asked me to stop all my CrossFit activities so that I could concentrate on studies. I didn’t let that happen; I even went up to them and told them stopping my CrossFit workouts would not get me good scores. I promised them that my school results would improve, but they should not stop my CrossFit workouts under any circumstances. And we came to an agreement. My school results improved drastically.
Food at the ashram was a typical Indian meal - of dal, roti, chawal etc not many sources of protein as eggs and non- veg were not available for religious reasons in the Ashram. At the time, I did feel my recovery wasn’t optimum.
Gradually I became really good at CrossFit and would compete with other top CrossFit Athletes - in the sense of trying to beat their timings and performance. Like when Chris Speller got his 106 unbroken pull ups -- the highest record for unbroken pull ups in the world --I would attempt it too and ended up with 85 unbroken pull ups at the age of 18 years.
I started setting targets: Performing 32 rounds for Cindy (the goal is as many rounds as possible in 20 minutes. Cindy is a benchmark CrossFit workout of 5 pull ups, 10 push ups, 15 air squats). A 5 Km run in under 18 minutes. Close to double bodyweight overhead squat.
Things started to get real after sometime.
Word began to spread and some of the top CrossFit athletes visited India to support the facility at the orphanage. Chris Spealler, Brett Marshall, Austin Malleolo, Jesse O‘ Brien - to name a few.
After finishing my schooling, I got admission in Chandigarh on sports quota, where I played cricket with some of the best players, who were playing for the country.
Surrounded by Indian cricket team players, I could clearly see that their fitness was lacking, yet - they were in the national team while many players like myself would never get an opportunity to play for the country. Maybe because this game involved money or political support and I had neither. From class 9 to college, I’d spent a lot of time and energy focusing on cricket to reach a higher level but after realizing the bitter truth, I had to take a call and I quit the sport.
In 2012, I tried my first CrossFit games Open workout and I made it to the top 40 in the ranking -- which qualified me for the next stage of competing which was the Asia Regionals. I was the only Indian who was representing the country at that level. I ranked 16th in the overall ranking and was awarded the ‘spirit of the games’ award by the organizers and athletes.
This was the first time in my life that I was sponsored for an international trip and I stayed in a Five Star Hotel in an executive class room in South Korea. This sponsorship was from people internationally and games organizers in South Korea.
This experience had a profound impact on me. It made me realize that you can excel if you have talent, and if you work hard. At the same time, I felt strongly that India is a country where there is so much talent, and yet will never be recognized because some people with money and connections always take over.
Nevertheless, my struggle trying to excel in cricket did not go to waste - and instead, I found a new and clearer goal in life: CrossFit.
I did CrossFit Courses and competed in the CrossFit Games Asia Regionals again next year in 2013. The Games had become harder as only top 10 Athletes across the Asia region got to compete in the Regionals. Around the same time, I suffered a major shoulder injury and took 2 years to recover. I never made it to top 10 in Asia again. I was broke financially so all these reasons were enough for me to not focus on competitions anymore as it came with an unpredictable future.
I started focusing on myself and my career as a CrossFit coach, on taking courses so that I could learn more. I kept my head down and grabbed every single opportunity that life had to offer. I did my L2 CrossFit course and became part of the CrossFit HQ seminar team who teach CrossFit L1 seminars around the world. Initially, I had trouble getting visas -- from countries such as Korea, South Africa, Israel, China, USA and many others -- just because of the background I came from; for not having a real family in India.
Slowly, over a period of time, all my visa issues got resolved and I travelled half the world teaching CrossFit seminars. I have learnt so much about the culture and people by traveling to different places and having some mind-blowing experiences. Working with best top-notch coaches in the world. It could not have been better than this.
Since it all began at the ashram-run CrossFit facility, tell us more about this facility - and the role it's played in your life.
We didn’t have much equipment at the facility. Most of what we had was not even in good condition, but we used whatever we had to devise amazing workouts. We had a huge park so that became our training area.
When CrossFit HQ found out about us, they made the orphanage an official CrossFit Affiliate in 2008 which is a non-profit affiliate. This was the first official CrossFit Affiliate in India -- CrossFit Sri Ram Ashram.
I loved working out so much that I was always eager to learn more about CrossFit movements. I would spend the entire day post workout, looking forward to the next morning’s workout! The challenge was that we didn’t have access to computers, so I couldn’t access the workout posted online at crossfit.com. It was much later that I got access to a computer, and then started learning through videos uploaded officially by CrossFit.
Speaking English has been a huge challenge too because I wanted to learn more about CrossFit, and all content on the sport was in English. So it forced me to learn the names of the exercises, and then I would listen to the same video over and over again so I could understand better.
In a nutshell, this is how the ashram CrossFit facility played a pivotal role in my life and laid the foundations of CrossFit.
How would you describe CrossFit to someone who doesn't know anything about the sport?
CrossFit is basically a sport aimed at building your physical capacity to be able to do anything that life demands from you. It teaches athletes to be prepared for any physical activity, which can be known or unknown.
Favourite benchmark workout?
Nate 20min: Complete as many rounds possible in 20 minutes as you can of: 2 Muscle-ups. 4 Handstand Push-ups. 8 2-Pood Kettlebell swings.
Cindy: 5 pull-ups, 10 push-ups and 15 squats for as many rounds possible in 20 minutes
Fran: Fran is 21-15-9 reps for time of 95-lb. thrusters and pull-ups.
Take us through an average day in your life. What do you eat, how do you train and what do you do for fun?
I wake up around 5:30 am every morning. I head to the gym to coach my first class at 6:30 am. I also love doing the class workout with my members, as that gives me the opportunity to learn from others. I stay in the gym till 10:00 am.
I then come home, eat breakfast and do some admin work for the gym. I look after some maintenance work too if needed, do my daily chores, etc.
Lunch time is around 2:00pm. After that I try to get some more work done that may be leftover from the morning, or I prepare for my seminars.
I head back to the gym around 5:00 pm and take more classes till 8:00 pm. I then come home to eat dinner, watch something on TV and call it a day. I hit the bed around 10:30pm.
And finally. What's next? Given that you've accomplished so much already - what are your plans for the future? Any goals you can tell us about.
I love helping out people and the tool that I use is fitness. CrossFit Haridwar is the place that provides me with a platform to give back to society.
I firmly believe one shouldn’t always be at the receiving end. However much one earns, a portion of it should be kept to help the people who are in need, as everyone is not born with all the luxuries and opportunities in life.
Based on my experience, I would love to continue to find ways to make a difference in someone’s life. To provide them with the support that they do not have to experience or go through what I had to experience in my life.
I have faced so many challenges which children from an average family won’t ever face because they have their real parents with them to always help them no matter what. It is called parenting; parents would never let their children suffer alone on the street, and will always be there for them in challenging times.
But this is not true for children like us. It is very easy for us to lose track and deviate from our goals. And this deviation can sometimes take a huge toll on our life choices and career.
There is so much struggle that a 15 year orphan child can’t understand what is about to come in his/her life. All that they experience and understand is their present - that the donation is coming in, and their basic needs are met. And if not, then they find ways to beg to meet those basic needs. If an average child with a normal family background has to struggle five times, then the struggle for children growing up in an orphanage is twenty times that.
My next goal in life is to find ways to help children in need - to help them find and manoeuvre a path, without losing track of their goals. Basically, mentoring them in some way.