Exclusive: On the Warpath with CrossFit’s Greg Glassman

The CrossFit founder takes on Nick Jonas, Big Soda and your flabby ass!

When Greg Glassman arrives in Boston off a red-eye from Santa Cruz, he doesn’t have much information about the person he’s come to see. He knows that her name is Dawn Ditano and that she is dying. And that for her last rites, she had requested neither a priest nor a rabbi. She had requested him, the 59-year-old cofounder and CEO of the world’s largest fitness chain—CrossFit.

Less than 48 hours later, he marches into Massachusetts General Hospital, accompanied by his Global Brand Manager and occasional body man, an ex-Marine named Jimi Letchford.

“Dawn, the coach is here!” a woman screams as Glassman bursts through the door. From where she lies encircled by a troupe of muscular women in matching gym T-shirts, Ditano shrieks—“Oh my God, oh my God, oh my God”—and starts to cry. “There you are,” Glassman says, laughing as Ditano stares at him in disbelief. He’s used to this now, the stupefying effect he has on CrossFit acolytes. The fact that he’s been summoned here, for this, doesn’t seem to surprise him a bit.

Even in her blue hospital pants and a T-shirt, with her rocky biceps and bulging trapezoids, Ditano looks supremely healthy. The cancer came on that suddenly. Her friends have blown up several photos of her for Glassman to sign. One shows her performing a squat with a 135-pound barbell over her head. She looks unstoppable, like the poster girl for the CrossFit gym she’s co-owned and operated in Boston since 2010.

A plump nurse in a yellow scrub top pauses at the door, surprised by the crowd. “Oh, hello,” she says, looking around at the group of muscle-bound women, at Glassman smiling gamely from Ditano’s side, at the square-jawed Jimi Letchford.

Ditano’s friend and business partner, Dawn Mary Angus, introduces Glassman. “Having him here, for us, is like having Mick Jagger,” she says. Later, Angus tells me she’d spent the previous day engaged in “barbell therapy” to help cope with losing her friend.

“People need a place in the world where they’re not a mom, or a CEO, or a janitor. It’s a hard thing for outsiders to understand.”

The nurse has come to give Ditano a lesson on self-administering pain medication, as she’ll soon be transferred home. But Ditano is eager to assume the role of instructor. Before taking up CrossFit, she had struggled with addiction, and she credits the sport with saving her life. “Think of a baby,” she says to the nurse. “When babies squat, they don’t bend in half at the waist like most adults do. They bend at the knees. CrossFit is all about fitness through natural movements.”

At that moment, as if on cue, a bundle of IV tubing slips from the nurse’s hands and onto the floor. She bends down carefully, at the knees, to pick it up. “Oh, yeah!” shouts Angus. “Keep squatting! Hold it, hold it!” The nurse glances over at Glassman, a petite man with scraggly gray hair. His right foot is in a padded boot, the result of a recent surgery. “A solid squat,” he says, and the room erupts in applause.

When people started doing CrossFit in 2001, it was revolutionary and also a little crazy. If you live in, say, Silicon Valley, where the sport is popular among the tech elite, you’ve probably seen them in their muscle tees and tiny shorts, flipping tires or carrying each other up flights of stairs. Athletes (anyone who takes a class is called an athlete; instructors are “coaches”; gyms are “boxes”) combine homegrown resistance-training techniques (i.e., the tires), explosive weight lifting, running, and squats to transform their bodies into hard-charging muscle machines.

But the bigger appeal of CrossFit is the fiercely tribal culture around it. CrossFitters train together, eat together, and party together. They also, as is only natural wherever washboard abs and toned glutes abound, tend to sleep together. They’ve been described as a “cult of overachievers.” Their unofficial mascot is a clown vomiting on himself, and for good reason: Puking is practically a rite of passage for beginners. Egregious injuries resulting from the sport have been well documented.

Still, CrossFit is one of the fastest-growing networks of affiliated gyms on Earth. A new “box” opens somewhere in the world every two hours, and more than 115,000 people to date have been certified to coach. The company earns more than $100 million a year in revenue from the $1,000 certification fees and $3,000 annual gym fees, and one man owns it 100 percent.

That man is Greg Glassman, a salty, charming but little-known, thrice-married father of seven who may be the most unlikely spiritual leader to emerge in the 21st century. For millions of devoted CrossFitters, Glassman is a brash, libertarian guiding voice. He’s a preacher with an enormous platform, given to tirades against government interference and what he sees as a Big Soda conspiracy to make the world fat. He surrounds himself with a posse of ex-Marines and ex-SEALs, and he relishes his place behind the scenes. So who is this modern messiah? Maxim was granted unprecedented access to find out.

Greg Glassman was born July 22, 1956, and raised in Woodland Hills, an upper-middle-class Los Angeles suburb. At 10 weeks old, he contracted polio, although he wasn’t diagnosed until more than a year later, when he was given a small walker. “I was just one-legging it for a while,” he says, laughing. “I’m not the wallowing type.”

Glassman spent summers with his grandparents in Alabama, where he and his cousins slept two to a bed. “It was the only thing in my childhood that was wholesome,” he recalls. “At home, there was nothing but mischief and vandalism. My mom was pretty mean-spirited. And my dad turned everything into a pissing contest.”

When Glassman was 12, his father, a rocket scientist, came to him with a bag of a thousand nails and a micrometer and had him measure each nail to 10-thousandths of an inch and make a histogram as a lesson. “I was in a math-oppressive environment,” he says.

At school, Glassman was a brawler. (“I could fight at the drop of a hat; that part’s still in me.”) He spent most of his free time building up his upper body. Given his medical history, contact sports weren’t an option, and, at 5’6″, neither was competitive swimming. But gymnastics was, so he became a ring man, despite his parents’ concern that he’d hurt himself. “I couldn’t run as fast as the others, but I could always do more pull-ups than anybody,” he says. “All I needed was chalk and the rings and to be left alone.”

Coaching gymnastics while still in high school, Glassman tried to teach himself how to squat, only to realize he couldn’t. His body, strengthened with classic gym routines, wasn’t tuned for functional movement. “Like all religions,” he says, “this is a redemption story.”

Glassman developed almost the entire CrossFit program in his garage at 16 years old, mixing gymnastics, power lifting, and calisthenics. He attended college but never finished. “I went to half a dozen institutions, but I was just there for the girls.”

Glassman’s first wife, Brandy Jones, had been a childhood neighbor. His second, Lauren Jenai, was a client who eventually cofounded CrossFit with him. In 2012, they went through a contentious divorce, and, at risk of a corporate takeover if Lauren sold her half of the company, Glassman ultimately bought her out for $16.2 million. He met his current wife, Maggie Robinson, by happenstance two years ago: She was a waitress at a restaurant he frequented in San Diego. Or at least that’s the version of the story he prefers. “That’s what he told you?” Dale Saran, Glassman’s head of legal, says with a laugh. “No, no, Maggie was on a date with me.”

“Well, Dale fell asleep in the Jacuzzi,” Glassman concedes. “Someone had to take her home.”

In the late ’90s, Glassman began to amass a following as an unorthodox personal trainer who whipped clients into a frenzy of randomly assigned sprints and deadlifts—and coached them in libertarian philosophy. “First time I met him, I was like, Who is this grandiose motherfucker?” says Brian Mulvaney, who met Glassman in 1999 and eventually joined the CrossFit team as a strategist. “You’re on the bike just getting ground to pieces, and he’s trying to engage you intellectually.”

Glassman got kicked out of a handful of gyms for being disruptive before landing his own space in 2001. “I started out with military and baller-tech clients,” he says. “There’s a recognition among the tech guys that fitness comes painfully like code comes painfully. Also, those are the people with fucking jobs in Santa Cruz.”

Glassman began posting workouts online, and they went viral. Venture capitalist Bill Gross—who’d launched CitySearch.com and eToys.com—was poised to invest, and eBay billionaire Meg Whitman was floated as a potential board member. Then the tech bubble burst before Glassman took on funding. But CrossFit continued to grow.

Soon after, Glassman started certifying coaches and establishing “affiliates,” autonomous gyms that pay him an annual fee—though he was fiercely selective, aiming only for the most dedicated fitness fanatics. “We deliberately started at the top and back-filled,” he says. “No SEAL is going to do the fat people’s workout. But the fat people will do the SEAL workout.”

People were wary of CrossFit early on. It certainly looks alarming—weights flying around, people sprinting at random. And Glassman didn’t do himself any favors when, in 2005, he told The New York Times, “It can kill you…If you find the notion of falling off the rings and breaking your neck so foreign to you, then we don’t want you in our ranks.”

But injuries never seriously stunted the sport. That may be because the hazard isn’t actually abnormally high: With an injury rate of 3.1 per thousand hours of exercise, CrossFit is roughly the same as weight lifting or triathlon training, according to a 2013 study in The Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research. Or it could be because Glassman and his lawyers have aggressively gone after any organization that’s suggested CrossFit is especially dangerous. Or maybe the appeal of CrossFit’s community was just unusually strong, and happy participants turned into active recruiters. “I always get asked how many CrossFitters there are,” says Glassman. “I’ve got no fucking idea. Several million is the answer I’m most comfortable with. It’s like estimating the size of the universe.”

The week before watching Glassman deliver last rites, I meet him for lunch in Santa Cruz so he can size me up. Letchford warns me he’s walked out on reporters before. When I arrive at the outdoor café, I hear the grumble of large men before seeing them. “It’s go time,” one says.

Glassman’s posse—three guys, two of whom are former military—stand, a phalanx of pecs and traps, and then step aside. And there’s the great Greg Glassman. Sporting some gray stubble and an old T-shirt over a muscular barrel chest, he looks scruffy and imposing until he lifts himself out of the chair. Glassman is short, with narrow, off-kilter hips and a very noticeable limp. He doesn’t look like a health guru. He doesn’t look like the driving force behind one of the fastest growing gym chains in the world. He doesn’t look like he could throw tires or live on a gluten-free Paleo diet. If anything, he looks hurt: His thumbnail is black with a bruise, and his foot is in a brace (a compression fracture turned arthritic).

He shakes my hand and asks me to sit. Today Glassman doesn’t want to talk about CrossFit. He’d rather talk about a Twitter fight he’s having with the pop singer Nick Jonas. The squabble began back in April, when CrossFit tweeted a photoshopped picture of a soda bottle next to the words open diabetes. Jonas, a diabetes sufferer, fired back with a tweet accusing CrossFit of conflating type 1 and type 2 diabetes. “This is not cool,” it began. Later, when ABC News asked Glassman about the spat, he claims to have replied, simply: “Fuck Nick Jonas.” I don’t believe him, so Glassman pulls out his phone to show me the e-mail. Indeed, that’s what he wrote—“Fuck Nick Jonas”—and he tells me he wants to fly a banner over the CrossFit Games that says it as well.

Over a meal of fried calamari, guacamole, and crab cakes, I learn that Glassman sees himself as a man at war on multiple fronts—with Big Soda, with sports-medicine associations, with anyone who questions the value of a squat. Right now, his biggest threat is a slew of proposed laws in several states to criminalize fitness trainers who don’t acquire certification from the American College of Sports Medicine or the National Strength and Conditioning Association. If enacted, it would be possible for police to charge CrossFit trainers with an aggravated misdemeanor. One such law already passed in D.C. “I’m not going to surrender myself to assholes with lobbyists,” he says. “I’m going to get my own asshole lobbyists.” Six months ago, he hired powerful D.C. fixers to battle the legislation. “I’m going to fuck some people up.”

The following Monday, I drive up to Glassman’s new 16-acre property in Santa Cruz, on the edge of Larkin Valley, overlooking the water and not far from the CrossFit media headquarters. He wears an Indiana T-shirt and backward baseball cap, and carries a can of LaCroix sparkling water. He shows me a whiteboard in his kitchen where he’s scrawled dozens of math equations that he says prove CrossFit has made people lose “80 million fucking pounds of fat.”

There’s a grand piano he believes he can learn to play by applying a “CrossFit mentality” to the task. “I don’t know if I have any musical aptitude, but what if you just took lessons every fucking day? I also got a hot piano teacher. That helps.”

Glassman’s personal aircraft is a tiny silver prop plane. Its four leather seats are CrossFit branded, and its tail number refers to his second wife’s resistance to its purchase—123FU. The control panel bears a plaque: HAND-BUILT AND INDIVIDUALIZED FOR GREG GLASSMAN.

There’s a CrossFit box at the bottom of the air control tower, and Glassman tells me that one of the controllers is “a CrossFit hottie.”

The pilot, wearing a tight CrossFit shirt, cues up a mellow coffeehouse mix that plays as we fly to San Diego. Glassman bought his other new house there in May with the staging furniture still in it. He likes it for obvious reasons (roof deck, pool) but specifically because he can see the TV from the kitchen through the central fireplace tower—and for the fish. At the door, he pauses in front of the koi pond. “They’re so smart,” he says. “I fucking love the shit out of these guys.”

Later, we stop for a quick lunch (Glassman orders the cheesesteak sandwich) and then he takes me to CrossFit’s Solana Beach office, where he keeps the company’s fine-art collection and his stable of extremely muscular lawyers, about half of whom are at standing desks in tight pastel spandex. The decor includes what is seemingly a portrait of a nun in a habit but, upon closer inspection, is actually a collage of photos of women in lingerie.

Along a back wall is a curious display: an elaborate chart on a whiteboard crowded with head shots and a timeline that attempts to draw a connection between soft-drink companies, sports-regulation associations, athlete deaths, and a study that links CrossFit to injuries. It also includes a section called Victims, featuring photos of athletes who died of overhydration linked to Gatorade. An additional timeline tracks various events, like when Gatorade donated to the sports-regulating body the American College of Sports Medicine, and when that body linked CrossFit to health problems.

We get back on the plane and set off again across the bright blue water up to LAX, where we meet Letchford, whom Glassman first found during a CrossFit seminar for Canadian armed forces. “Jimi was a stud in Fallujah,” he tells me as we touch down on the tarmac.

The three of us grab dinner at the airport, where Glassman and Letchford spot a couple of “CrossFit hotties.” Competitive CrossFit men are quite small. The best tend to be built like gymnasts, around 5’10” and 185 pounds. The best CrossFit women are also tiny, but tough. It’s a distinctive body type, Letchford explains. “The body tapers, strong traps, tiny waist, developed hiney, strong legs: clearly female but nothing frail.”

“Gal looks like she plows, you know?” Glassman adds for clarification. It’s an aesthetic he calls “the better beautiful.”

When they’re together, Glassman and Letchford are endlessly boyish. They nudge each other if they spot an attractive waitress or doctor or pedestrian. Women, in turn, love them, especially Letchford, who has blue eyes, wears skintight T-shirts, and looks like GI Joe, and whom the flight attendants on the way to Boston corner by the bathroom for half an hour.

At airport security, the woman behind me passes through the metal detector thanking Glassman profusely. I ask why. “He just gave me such great advice on my cat,” she says. Glassman bids the woman farewell and adds, “Bye-bye, Penelope” to her cat.

If CrossFit is a religion, the annual games are its Hajj. Every July, CrossFitters from all over the world gather in Carson, California, and Glassman walks among them shaking hands, receiving the faithful, and hearing stories of how the sport has changed their lives. The Games, which have turned fitness into a spectator sport, might be the largest athletic event in the world: Two hundred seventy-three thousand people competed in the Open this past February.

As soon as Glassman starts signing people’s body parts, I set off to explore on my own. Next to the arena is “Vendor Village,” where dozens of CrossFit-related companies set up tents to hawk their wares. It’s a hot day, and the place is packed.

One of the first booths by the gate is for Qalo, “the functional wedding ring for an active lifestyle.” At the Affiliate Guard booth, I meet Vaughn T. Vernon, who sells insurance for CrossFit gyms. I ask if they typically cover things like broken windows. “Sure, or if they get rhabdo,” he says. What? “Rhabdomyolysis—when the muscle fibers come off and go into your bloodstream and get into your kidneys. Your muscles hurt for a few days, and your pee is the color of Coke. It can be fatal.”

Later, when I look this up, I discover Uncle Rhabdo, a clown attached to a dialysis machine, and an unofficial CrossFit mascot.

I get a text from Letchford. Glassman is moving: “hustle.” Letchford, Glassman’s bodyguard, Travis, and his 28-year-old blogger, Russ Greene, surround the boss as he makes his way to the tennis stadium. Everyone wants a picture. Some grab onto his hands and thank him, saying how much he means to them, how much he changed their lives.

In the tennis stadium, we watch from Glassman’s private box as people “snatch” 190- to 215-pound barbells. The weight isn’t much, Glassman explains. The event is about speed and precision—“being an inch too far forward or back means you drop the bar.”

For all the machismo in CrossFit, it’s actually a very egalitarian culture. Male and female athletes win equal amounts— $275,000 each, plus millions in endorsement deals—and at certain points in the Games compete on teams together. “I just would never think to pay women less than men in sports,” Glassman says, shaking his head. “Who do I want to watch more?”

As I’m about to leave, a buff, smiling man in a wheel-chair rolls in. Kevin Ogar was competing in an unofficial CrossFit competition called OC Throwdown (OCT) when he snatched but dropped a barbell that severed his spinal cord, leaving him paralyzed. The video is brutal.

“Sue them! Sue!” Glassman says, embracing Ogar and ushering him into the box. As Glassman later explains, “I invented a sport, and these fly-by-night fucktards imitated me and hurt a kid.” (Darren McGuire, who owns OCT, told Maxim that safety engineers approved the event and doctors were on-site.)

The day prior, I had asked Glassman what he wanted to do with all this: whether he wanted to sell it or pass it on to his kids or take on funding. “I don’t want to pass it on,” he said. “I’m doing what billionaires hope to do when they retire. We’re making people healthier every day. I look at what Bill Gates does, and he wishes he could be Greg Glassman.” Then he added: “I always say CrossFit is a religion run by a biker gang. And what if we are leading a cult and we don’t even know it? That’s the worst fucking kind of cult. I don’t recruit. If you want out, I want you to fucking leave.” ■

Photos by Carlos Chavarria