by Chris Colucci T-Nation
Here’s what you need to know…
• On the third day of a recent OC Throwdown, which challenged athletes with 11 different workout competitions, Kevin Ogar was paralyzed from the waist down on the first rep of a 3-rep “touch and go” snatch.
• Was this a freak accident that could have happened to any of us, on any lift, or is CrossFit type programming or event planning partially to blame?
Recently, an experienced CrossFit athlete suffered a devastating injury during a competition. Within hours, social media sites were spreading word of the terrible news, calling for prayers and positive thoughts, and, in that short time, even helping to raise several thousand dollars to help with impending medical bills for the uninsured lifter.
However, almost just as quickly, posts began appearing on blogs, Facebook pages, and forums with everything from insensitive attacks to calls for an official reconsideration of all things CrossFit related.
Now, several weeks since the accident, after having time to investigate facts instead of responding on gut instinct and rumors, we have a chance to take closer look at what happened and see what, if anything, could’ve been done to prevent this tragedy.
The Risk of Sports
At the 2012 Summer Olympics, ’08 gold medalist Matthias Steiner missed his second snatch attempt and dropped 432 pounds onto the back of his neck. After several frightening moments, he eventually walked himself off of the platform.
In December 2013, Anderson Silva, one of the most talented fighters in MMA, threw the same simple leg kick he’s thrown thousands of times before, and completely shattered his tibia and fibula when his opponent blocked the strike. His potential for recovery is still up for question.
In January of 2014, 28-year old Kevin Ogar, a Colorado-based CrossFit trainer and regional competitor, suffered a lifter’s nightmare. On the final day of a two and a half day event, an accident involving a missed 240-pound snatch left the former collegiate rugby star paralyzed from the waist down.
High-level athletic competition – whether in the strength sports, combat sports, or “ordinary” sports – carries a certain level of physical risk for those involved. The other team will try to stop you from scoring; the opponent will try to choke you unconscious; the weight will be something you haven’t lifted before in training.
Every athlete understands this, yet they still participate because the potential reward almost always outweighs any potential, legitimate risks. But there is always the random factor – that one-in-a-million, unpredictable, unexpected “something” that can cause chaos and failure.
Is that what happened to Kevin Ogar? Simple bad luck? Or were there underlying issues at play that could’ve prevented his terrible injury? Let’s look into it a bit deeper and try to figure out some answers.
Just What Happened?
Ogar had been a lifter all his adult life, beginning with some powerlifting and Olympic lifting through high school and into college. At the University of Missouri-Columbia, he was on the Division II rugby team, eventually becoming their strength and conditioning coach. Within two years, he helped lead them to become third ranked in the nation.
In 2008, Ogar was introduced to CrossFit, eventually becoming Level-1 certified and working at Colorado’s CrossFit Unbroken with owner Matt Hathcock. In training, the 6’2″ 210-pound Ogar had several impressive PRs including a 290 snatch, 335 clean and jerk, 385 front squat, 470 high bar back squat, and a 550 deadlift.
According to Hathcock, “Kevin was as healthy as they come. He had some shoulder mobility issues from rugby, but nothing major.”
Going into the OC Throwdown, which is a regional unsanctioned CrossFit event consisting of 11 different workout competitions held over the course of two and a half days, Ogar was on track to put up the kind of respectable performance he’d previously delivered in competitions.
The entire contest was spread out with heats of competitors performing every few hours, several events on Saturday and several events the following Sunday. Hathcock, who also competed in the Throwdown, explains, “The entire workload was spread across two days, except for the swim workout [the initial event, which alternated swimming laps with burpees] which was Friday night.”
One popular argument for a key factor in Ogar’s injury is claims of an excessive workload and improper event scheduling. Many believe the Throwdown organizers were irresponsible for placing a strength event (the one in which Ogar was injured) after other events that could’ve induced strength-sapping fatigue.
Saturday’s events included NFL-style combine testing (a 40-yard dash, bench press for reps, vertical jumps and agility drills), a familiar CrossFit staple involving squat cleans and handstand walking, and a twist on “Fran”, another classic CrossFit workout, which essentially had competitors doing a total of 9 sets of front squats, overhead presses, and pull-ups for up to 15 minutes straight.
The event prior to the injury was Sunday’s first event. It had competitors running three miles, carrying two 53-pound kettlebells for the first, one kettlebell for the second, and finishing the last unweighted. Ogar completed the entire run in just under 30 minutes, leaving him time to rest and recover. According to Hathcock, “It was like 8:00am [for the run] and then 12:30 for Kevin’s next event.”
After the run, the strength event called for a 3-rep “touch and go” snatch – comparable to touch and go deadlifts, rather than lifting each rep from a dead stop – followed by a “3-position clean and jerk” – one clean from the floor, one from knee-level, one from the hang, and one jerk – and finally a 2-rep max back squat.
The Experts Weigh In
Was it “irresponsible” for the OC Throwdown organizers to place a strength and power-focused event after more endurance-based tests? Or was it a valid way to test the athletes’ true abilities? Olympic lifting expert Wil Fleming explains the possible influence of those previous events:
“Fatigue could certainly play a role in a bad miss, but the extent and nature of that role can differ,” Fleming told T Nation. “Was Ogar’s muscular fatigue such that he didn’t have the capability to lift the weight? Or was fatigue such that his reactions were slowed and he was unable to safely dump the bar?
“I have a personal record in the snatch of 300 pounds, and I’ve been known to miss a rep here and there at 235, so it’s not impossible to think that it was just a funky rep that went really wrong. Most of us will never be in a position where we fully exert ourselves in a day and then come back the very next day and try to fully exert ourselves on a 3-rep max snatch, so it’s hard to say for sure.”
T Nation coach and veteran Olympic lifter Christian Thibaudeau adds, “Excessive fatigue can always be a factor since it can detract from proper technique, especially with near maximal loads. But I wouldn’t necessarily put the blame on the event organizer.
“CrossFit athletes are known for their huge workload during training. So I’d say that if fatigue played a role in his injury, fatigue accumulated during the weeks or even months before the competition would probably be more problematic than the fatigue from the day’s event. He did have several hours to recover from a workload that wasn’t higher than what he was used to.
“Furthermore, Kevin was very good at the Olympic lifts, in the upper echelon of CrossFit competitors, with above average technique. This would lead me to lean more toward the freak accident theory.”
We asked Thibaudeau about another debated element, the “touch and go” lift:
“The danger of the touch-and-go snatch or clean, when performed with heavy weights, is worth consideration here,” Thibaudeau said. “These lifts, due to the focus on volume, are almost never done with an optimal and safe technique. The lifter normally doesn’t set up properly the reps after rep one. In other words, his hips stay high and the bar is bounced slightly on the floor. When the lifter does that it essentially becomes an ‘explosive lower back lift’ which can put a lot of stress on the spine, especially when done with loads that are in the 85- to 90-percoent range.
“Once you add in the leg fatigue that results from performing a series of heavy touch-and-go reps, you get even more of a back-dominant movement. The bounced bar can cause a sudden increase in spinal loading when the momentum from the bounce dies off. So if I were to blame anything, it would be improper technique performed with heavy loads, with leg and lower-back fatigue as a contributing factor. But a lot of CrossFit athletes are doing this without getting injured, which is why I tend to believe there might have been an underlying back issue prior to the event,” Thibaudeau concludes.
The Blue Plates
When discussing the accident, attention also needs to be brought to the lifting platform and the much-debated blue plates. At Ogar’s lifting platform during the snatch competition, there were several weight plates stacked just behind him. While this is clearly contrary to official Olympic standards, and probably common sense, it’s unclear why they remained there during the lifts.
A common argument is that, after ditching the bar during the failed snatch, the barbell may have struck the misplaced plates and rebounded into Ogar’s back, actually causing the injury.
On Youtube, there are currently two videos of the lift and injury occurring, a 5-second “edited” version and a longer 15-second version. They’ve been analyzed, broken down frame-by-frame, slow-motioned, and basically been given the full Zapruder treatment. [Editor’s note: After much debate, we’ve decided to include the edited version of the video below for analysis purposes.]
While the video is absolutely not an ideal viewing angle, it does seem to show the bar contacting Ogar’s upper back/shoulders and then making contact with the plates as he continued to fall. Ogar’s eventual medical diagnosis was separation of the T11 and T12 vertebrae, which are essentially the upper part of the lower back.
Hathcock has offered his take those crucial moments, saying, “I’ve asked Kev about it and I have my own feelings on what happened based on professional opinion. I can tell you that Kev told me, ‘I felt the bar hit my lower back.’ This was still a freak accident, but making sure the lifting area is completely clear is definitely a smart decision moving forward. I do know that the bumpers [plates] on the floor behind Kevin played a role. That’s all I can say.”
I first heard the term “CrossFit slop” in a previous T Nation article and I truly thought it was the author’s exaggeration. But in fact, it’s an actual phrase that the CrossFit community uses to explain their version of “ideal” exercise technique: Never shooting for textbook-perfect and instead opting for just enough loose form to allow more work to be done.
While not every CrossFitter believes in or encourages CrossFit slop, it still seems to be taught at their entry-level certification courses. Whether the trainers then adhere to that once they’re out in the world is, obviously, up to the individual coach.
But if I had a dollar for every picture I’ve seen of a mother in her third trimester performing high-injury-risk exercises in a CrossFit setting and another dollar for every simply crazy looking stunt I see photographed in CrossFit gyms (like handstand push-ups on several stacked kettlebells or neck-supported ring push-ups), I’d have enough to put together one heck of a home gym.
It could be argued that CrossFit is inherently relatively-high risk, since most workouts involve blending strength work with endurance work, questionable high-rep Olympic lifts, and other techniques that would often require one-on-one trainer supervision unlikely to be found in a typical CrossFit-style group class.
However, as Mark Rippetoe discussed here, it may not be such a black-and-white situation. While CrossFit as a whole has gained a general reputation for allowing and sometimes encouraging less-than-proper form, CrossFit gyms aren’t unlike other commercial gyms.
The quality level of individual coaches will fall along a spectrum. For every doof that preaches “CrossFit slop” as gospel, you’re likely to find a reasonably qualified and level-headed coach who actually holds their clients’ strength and health to be equally important qualities.
The CrossFit Ranks
When asked about the injury potential of his training methods, Greg Glassman, who founded CrossFit over a decade ago, once famously remarked, “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.”
While many recent CrossFit gyms seem to distance themselves from Glassman and “CrossFit HQ” (the primary CF site), it’s worth noting that neither Glassman nor CrossFit HQ have publicly acknowledged Ogar’s situation as of this writing, aside from a forum post by a staffer. No mention on the CrossFit site that’s updated daily, no quick Facebook post of encouragement, not even a simple re-tweet of somebody else’s message. (It should be noted that many of the top CrossFit athletes and Games champions have reached out to Ogar.)
The word-of-mouth fundraising and morale-raising has happened primarily thanks to dozens of individual CrossFit affiliates, the “box” gyms and their members, without any apparent assistance from the multi-million-dollar parent company.
It’s important to understand that the accident happened on the first rep of a snatch with a significantly-sub-maximal weight. While the context of the competition may have contributed to overall fatigue, it was the exact same kind of rep performed by thousands of lifters everyday.
In my opinion, calling this a “CrossFit injury” is creating a quintessential strawman argument and does nothing to allow intelligent discussion. If Ogar had, as Glassman so elegantly forewarned, fallen off the rings and broken his neck while performing spasmodic kipping muscle-ups, then you could call it a CrossFit injury.
While Ogar’s situation is far beyond being simply unfortunate, it’s not necessarily a mark on CrossFit as a whole. The guy was big, strong, experienced, and in the middle of going balls-out during a tough competition. Using his tragic accident as just another chance to knock the entire CrossFit community is just lousy. For sure, we can take the opportunity to examine general competition safety, maybe for all strength sports, but let the conversation be productive instead of letting it be an excuse to drive a wedge further between any groups of dedicated lifters.
To learn more about Kevin Ogar and, more importantly, to find out how to be part of the fundraising efforts, please visit KevinOgar.com.