From a Broken Neck to CrossFit Journalism (w/ Spenser Mestel)

Today we’re talking to Spenser Mestel, a journalist who has written for publications like the New York Times, Alpha XR, and of course, BarBend.com. Spenser has an insanely interesting athletic background, from competitive diving to parkour, a journey that includes ups like competing on American Ninja Warrior and downs that include breaking his neck in Egypt. Spenser has also established himself as one of the CrossFit community’s most impactful writers on a number of important issues in and around fitness. In addition, he co-authored Mat Fraser’s upcoming book, which will be released in January 2022.

Spenser Mestel BarBend Podcast

On this episode of The BarBend Podcast, host David Thomas Tao talks to Spenser Mestel about:

  • Spenser’s athletic background (02:30)
  • Breaking his neck in Egypt, and the road to recovery (05:00)
  • Gymnastics and diving: Why weren’t these considered “cool” sports? (12:10)
  • “I just love the gimmicky fitness classes” (16:30)
  • Co-authoring a book with Mat Fraser (20:30)
  • Training in Mat Fraser’s home gym (23:30)

Relevant links and further reading:

Transcription

Spenser MestelSpenser Mestel

 I tucked in and I rotate to a point where I hit my forehead. Then I’m in [indecipherable 0:04] and I feel everything in my body tingle for about a quarter of a second. I start to move my fingers and my toes, and because I can do that…

 

My neck hurts. It feels like there’s a piano crushing me into the ground on my neck. But because I can move, I don’t think that anything is seriously wrong because I didn’t know you could break your back and not paralyze yourself.

David TaoDavid Tao

Welcome to the “BarBend Podcast” where we talk to the smartest athletes, coaches, and minds from around the world of strength. I’m your host, David Thomas Tao, and this podcast is presented by barbend.com.

 

Today I’m talking to Spenser Mestel, a journalist who has written for publications like the “New York Times,” “Alpha XR,” and of course, “barbend.com.” Spenser has an insanely interesting athletic background, from competitive diving to parkour, a journey that includes ups, like competing on American Ninja Warrior, and downs that include breaking his neck in Egypt.

 

Spenser has also established himself as one of the CrossFit community’s most impactful writers on a number of important issues, I should say, in and around fitness. In addition, he coauthored Mat Fraser’s upcoming book, which he will release in January 2022.

 

Before we get to that conversation, I want to give a quick shout out to today’s episode sponsor Athletic Greens. I first tried the Athletic Greens back in 2012. It was already a massively popular daily supplement. Since then, they’ve undergone dozens of formulation tweaks, each an improvement on the last.

 

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Spenser, thanks for joining me. Full disclosure to everyone listening, Spenser and I are pretty darn good friends. I’d say we go probably way back at this point. We live in the same borough of New York. If I’m a little bit biased in thinking Spenser’s a knowledgeable, fun person, well, you have my bias now.

 

Spenser, give folks a little background as far as your involvement in the fitness community because it’s important context when we start talking about your journalism career and what you’re writing about today.

Spenser MestelSpenser Mestel

Yeah. First I’d like to say I don’t know if I’ve ever listened to an episode where you did not give a full disclosure. I know that you truly love it.

David TaoDavid Tao

I love disclosures and disclaimers. I can’t get enough of it. Oh, man.

Spenser MestelSpenser Mestel

Hopefully we can sneak another one in. A little bit about my own fitness background. I, growing up, my parents really wanted me to do team sports. My older brother played basketball, baseball [indecipherable 3:07] , and was athletic, but I was athletic in a different way. I did not have any interest in doing those kinds of sports.

 

My mom, they strongly encouraged me to do baseball in fifth grade, I do it for about six weeks. I slide into second base. I break my ankle. I’m so relieved because I never have to play it again.

 

When they wanted me to pivot to what I wanted the pivot to — gymnastics — they were super encouraging. My dad would drop me off. He would go do martial arts. I would do my gymnastics class. He’d pick me up. He’d always have a period of waiting. I cannot be more grateful to my parents for letting me do fitness stuff that interested me.

 

I had gymnastics until end of middle school. I dove in high school. I played tennis. I did [indecipherable 3:57] ball, and I ended up diving in college. After college, I studied abroad in Egypt, and I got connected with this parkour group. With that pretty strong acrobatics background, I was able to pick that up quickly, which was great.

 

It’s such an easy way to hang out with Egyptians and enter this part of society that I never would have gotten access to otherwise. Ended up breaking my neck. Doing parkour, I over rotated a front flip. We’re at this park outside of Cairo. It was maybe seven feet high on this ledge. I jumped off, rotated, hit my forehead.

 

Long story short, I ended up moving back to the US in a neck brace. They weren’t sure if the bone was going to fuse naturally, if we’re going to have to do surgery. I got very lucky. I ended up seeing maybe seven doctors. All of them told me that it was very, very close to severing my spinal cord, but they cleared me to do sports.

 

I got moving into lifting. I wasn’t able to move at all until [indecipherable 4:57] to move my body again. I did that. I ended up lifting a lot more when I went to grad school in Iowa. I audition for American Ninja Warrior. I competed on season seven of that. Then when I moved to New York, I picked up CrossFit. That was about five years ago.

 

Sorry for that long answer. I feel fortunate, especially as a journalist, that I’ve seen a lot of different aspects of fitness.

David TaoDavid Tao

I love that background. I actually didn’t know this about the neck injury, you breaking your neck in Egypt. You’re in a foreign country. You can speak the language a bit. You can get around, but any injury can be traumatic, especially being so far away from home and a base of support.

 

Tell us about that recovery process, if you don’t mind. How long between the injury and you actually being cleared to get back to activity?

Spenser MestelSpenser Mestel

Yeah, it was really tough because I take off from this ledge, I do a front flip. What I’m most embarrassed about is that I should have [indecipherable 6:04] . I should have kept my legs straight. That would have given me a lot more control but I…

David TaoDavid Tao

That is the most former gymnast thing I’ve ever heard. You’re like, “Really it was on me. It was a technical error.”

Spenser MestelSpenser Mestel

Yeah, Dave Durante, also a friend of the podcast [indecipherable 6:19] , I know will be ashamed of me because I’m ashamed of myself.

 

I tucked in and I rotate to a point where I hit my forehead. Then I’m in [indecipherable 6:27] and I feel everything in my body tingle for about a quarter of a second. I start to move my fingers and my toes, and because I can do that…

 

My neck hurts. It feels like there’s a piano crushing me into the ground on my neck. But because I can move, I don’t think that anything is seriously wrong because I didn’t know you could break your back and not paralyze yourself.

 

Thank God I did not keep training, because all of these Egyptian bros were like, “You’re fine. You’re fine. Shake it off. Keep going,” but I take a cab home.

 

I did see a pretty bad Egyptian doctor the next day who says it’s just some muscular tension. I don’t think he took X-rays. He’s like, “You’re fine. You just need to massage it a little,” which is probably the worst advice he could have given me.

 

In Egypt, it’s probably was not the best doctor I’ve ever seen. Once I was at the American University of Cairo, so I [indecipherable 7:20] at the time. Once I got that involved, the next day I was seen by the head of spinal whatever in the best Egyptian hospital.

 

I think it was about 75 days that I was in a back brace. It was only on that last day, when I was back in New York, that they told me that didn’t fuse. The doctor said, “I suggest you take up a less risky sport like golf, but you’re good.” He just released me into the wild, and that was the end of it.

David TaoDavid Tao

Wait. Talk about this neck brace because the image I have in my mind…I don’t know if you’ve ever seen the movie “Bleed For This”? It’s about a boxer who breaks his neck in a car wreck. They literally screw a halo into his head, so he’s completely immobilized. Were there screws going into your skull to keep you immobilized?

Spenser MestelSpenser Mestel

Yeah, that’s such a good question. I don’t know why I didn’t get that when…I’m thankful that I didn’t. I got a plastic [indecipherable 8:12] take on cuff like an [indecipherable 8:14] brace for your ankle. That was horrible. It was the middle of the summer in Egypt, so it’s just sweating out your neck all day. The smell of it, as you can imagine, was awful.

 

Then I would also occasionally take it off. I’d just sit very, very still. Then, for maybe six months afterwards, I just never turned my neck. I just turned my whole body, but it was fine.

 

I moved maybe 11 times since then. but I still keep those X-rays of the broken neck. I don’t know why. I’ve never looked at them. I just keep them in a box. Every time I move I’m like, “I guess I should take these to remind myself of my own frailty.”

David TaoDavid Tao

I moved with some of my college textbooks for like seven years after I graduated, so there are worse and heavier things to move with. It’s OK.

 

Thanks for sharing that. That’s something I actually didn’t know about you. I don’t want to trivialize it, but a fascinating story and I think that one of the more intense injury stories that we’ve talked about on the podcast.

 

Let’s talk about finding CrossFit. The reason you’re on this podcast, the reason I know you, is that you are a journalist. You’ve written for such esteemed outlets as The New York Times, Alpha XR, BarBend, just to name a few that are all in that echelon together, right? Also, here’s another disclaimer — Spenser has written for BarBend before.

 

How did you first discover CrossFit? How long was it between discovering that and getting active in the community, and actually starting to write on the space?

Spenser MestelSpenser Mestel

I was still at the University of Iowa, I was still at grad school. A friend of mine in the program just had these workouts that he wanted to do. I feel like this is such a common way people get into CrossFit.

 

What I remember so vividly, at the time, very traditional five by five, back-five, chest-five, legs. That’s what I was doing. I was deadlifting, horrible form as I would find out when I got into CrossFit. There was this nice indoor track, I mean the whole facility. That was the nicest gym I’ve ever been to.

 

There was this indoor track. It’s like we’re going to run 60-meter sprints, and we’re going to walk back, and we’re going to do that 10 times. I ran track in high schools. That seems like a pretty easy workout. I just remember the next day, the soreness in my ass.

 

Obviously, I was winded from that in the moment, but waking up and realizing that your body could be wrecked from such a simple workout to such an intense degree. I was into it, and then when I got to Brooklyn, practically across the street, there was a CrossFit gym, a CrossFit Virtuosity. The owner, Sam, was super welcoming.

 

I had a lot of pieces for CrossFit. Not a lot of the barbell work and certainly not Olympic movements, but I had a good foundation. It’s a phenomenal gym. I’ve been there ever since. It was not an easy transition, but a doable one.

David TaoDavid Tao

We’ll get back into the conversation in just a moment. First, a quick shout-out to our episode sponsor, Athletic Greens. Athletic Greens is the daily all-in-one supplement with vitamins, minerals, probiotics, adaptogens and more to help your body perform at the highest level. It mixes easily, taste delicious, and a personal favorite for me to start the day.

 

Yes, I actually am a repeat customer. Visit athleticgreens.com/barbend today to check it out. Now, let’s get back to the show.

 

You’re like a CrossFit coach’s dream. You don’t have the barbell background, but you come in with a gymnastics background. Handstands? No problem. Muscle-ups? I’m sure early on for you, absolutely zero problem. That is a CrossFit coach’s dream because then, they get to teach you barbell stuff, which is the fun part for a lot of coaches, I think.

Spenser MestelSpenser Mestel

Yes. Clearly, you’ve never taught me barbell movements because it’s not that fun. I will say it was funny for me, because growing up, even in Seattle, which is a pretty progressive place, being a gymnast and doing diving were not cool. Certainly in college, being an athlete in that way did not get any respect.

 

It was just considered too feminine. I wouldn’t say I was self-conscious, but I was certainly aware of that fact. Then you get to CrossFit and have all these movements come back and reframed this much more aggressive, masculine way, was interesting.

 

To have these bros, because the first thing I got into a gym, I go and do a muscle-up. I [indecipherable 12:41] just to have these like meathead bros really excited by that. It was so different from the context when I had done it a decade earlier.

David TaoDavid Tao

It’s so interesting how I think a side effect of CrossFit, becoming so much more mainstream and getting people exposed to many different types of athletic…many different athletic modalities.

 

You mentioned that I wouldn’t think today that gymnastics, diving, parkour, which by the way, is still an Internet sensation, in my mind, those sound like really cool sports. I’m completely biased because I’ve been in the CrossFit community.

 

I’m like, “Oh, my God, you must have been super, super cool in high school.” You’re a guy who can do flips and handstands and all that cool stuff, but it’s a very different experience now than your lived experience. I appreciate you sharing that.

 

When was the moment, in your early days of CrossFit, where you were, “OK, I’m hooked”? There’s that moment a lot of people have it, where they’re, “You know what? I’m sticking around this for a while.”

Spenser MestelSpenser Mestel

Everyone says their first workout, which wrecks them, and it’s cliché, but I think that was the case for me. It was 2159 and air squats and burpees, and that CrossFit magic where you look at it and it just does not seem that difficult. Halfway through, you’re getting dizzy, and you don’t know what happened.

 

It was that, and I think that having coaching. It was so nice to be coached in college. Then to not have that relationship with anyone and to get it back, and to have them invested in my lifting [indecipherable 14:13] and to actually look at my deadlift and break it down then allowed me to lift to where my lower back was screaming from the first set. I was like, “Oh, it’s good to be back here.”

David TaoDavid Tao

All right, favorite barbell movement, least favorite barbell movement as someone who found the barbell after a gymnastics background?

Spenser MestelSpenser Mestel

It depends on the day. It depends on what I have to do. Obviously, least favorite is snatching, and most favorite, I would say, the cleans. It always depends on how well I’m doing that day.

David TaoDavid Tao

The best is when you have someone to answer least favorite snatch, favorite snatch. The same thing. Like you said, such a love, hate. Let’s talk a little bit about your actual day job. You’re an esteemed, respected, and accomplished journalist and writer, also author as well, which we can chat on a little bit in a second.

 

Something that a lot of folks might not know about this is that you cover voting rights and voting policy pretty prolifically as a writer, but you also cover CrossFit and issues within the fitness industry. What was the first topic you wrote about in fitness journalism?

Spenser MestelSpenser Mestel

The very first thing I published was actually about competing on American Ninja Warrior. It was for “Rolling Stone.” I pitched it maybe 12 other places before I got to Rolling Stone, and I remember that I didn’t change the name and the address of the editor.

 

I addressed the Rolling Stone editor by the wrong name somehow. They took a chance on me. He published that story, which was great. That’s a clip, five years later, that I still use with everyone. It’s a go-to icebreaker, talking about American Ninja Warrior. It was an exceptional experience. I’m so grateful for that.

 

That was the first thing that I wrote. Then I got pretty quickly into CrossFit. Actually, an interview with Mat Fraser is one of the first things that I published with “Men’s Health,” and one of my earliest flips.

David TaoDavid Tao

Got you. Now, what are some of the more memorable topics in fitness and in CrossFit you’ve covered? Does it necessarily have to be…because not everything you’ve covered is positive. It’s not all just like, “Hey, high five, this is great.” You’ve covered some pretty heavy stuff as well.

Spenser MestelSpenser Mestel

I love the gimmicky fitness classes, especially in New York, because there’s such absurd things you can do. “VICE” let me do this nude fitness HIIT class in Manhattan. It was $50 and bad, no coaching. The thing about it is that no one was wearing clothes. Not the routine that I would want to do, but I always think it’s good to see what the trends are.

 

I did, for myself, I took a [indecipherable 17:05] class with a woman that was consulting on [indecipherable 17:09] about [indecipherable 17:09] culture. That would be the lighter stuff.

 

The heavier stuff would be [indecipherable 17:15] , anti-mask, anti-vax strain within CrossFit. The company’s reluctance or inability to punish people breaking CTC guidelines. You have a large section of CrossFitters who just also didn’t believe that the pandemic was real or serious. If they did, they didn’t want to follow the rules.

David TaoDavid Tao

Are there any topics that you’ve pitched to editors that you haven’t gotten to write on, but you were especially disappointed that no one said yes to? The life of a journalist is getting a lot of rejections. A lot of people not in the industry don’t realize that.

Spenser MestelSpenser Mestel

We would need a separate podcast for all the stories that I haven’t been able to write. Certainly, what comes to mind — this might have gotten too niche, I can understand that — to me, what is so interesting about parkour and about its rise in popularity is that that was enabled by essentially insurance brokers.

 

Parkour used to be this activity started in France, very informal, very underground, and that’s how it spread. At some point it needed to get to legitimized if they wanted to keep growing.

 

They needed to go indoors, like into gyms to have coaches and training programs. Insurance was a big part of that because gym hosted it and insurance companies underwrite it. That was always something that interested me like how something becomes mainstreamed, and how it is these really prosaic, mundane details that ultimately allow it to do that.

David TaoDavid Tao

Give us a little snippet into that. Was there one insurance company or one insurance underwriter that was like, “OK, we’ll get behind this, and we’ll figure out a way to insure parkour gyms”? That’s a heck of a thing to take a chance on?”

Spenser MestelSpenser Mestel

It is. I wish I could remember the details a little better. This was years ago, and then I gave up. I talked to one guy. He used trampoline parks as his reference. I think he had all this experience of going to trampoline parks, and looking at why it was that they were so dangerous. Why were people getting injured?

 

They would do this disco night where they would turn off all the lights. Then, let people jump on these trampolines and obviously injure themselves en masse. He worked with them. I really liked this guy because he was like, “My job isn’t to come in and tell people what to do. It’s to work with them to mitigate their risk. We can cover them, and they can continue to operate.”

 

They figured out a safe level of brightness for the facility. That was his experience. They also did roller coaster parks and zip lines. He was like, “OK, I can try and make this work for parkour.” His company ended up insuring 90 percent of the gyms in the US.

David TaoDavid Tao

You couldn’t pay me money to go to a lights off disco night at a trampoline park. That shows the spectrum of what some humans will like because that sounds like my own little version of hell personally.

Spenser MestelSpenser Mestel

I broke my ankle on the trampoline. Broke my ankle four times growing up. Once on trampoline, baseball, basketball, and just running through the woods. I’m good. I’ve seen it. Even when I didn’t have fear as a little kid, I’m just wrecking myself. I haven’t been on trampoline since, to be honest.

David TaoDavid Tao

I’m not a very adventurous person and I still find ways to get injured. That’s the great factoid about me. One other thing I want to talk about in your writing career is that you are a published author.

 

When I say author, I mean yes, you’ve written a ton of magazine profiles, articles. You’ve written online. You are also the author of books, at this point, plural, I believe. Is that correct?

Spenser MestelSpenser Mestel

I am the author of one and a quarter book at the moment.

David TaoDavid Tao

One and a quarter book. I don’t know. I don’t want to share too much. The cat is out of the bag that with Mat Fraser, you authored a book. Can you tell us a little bit? What can you tell us about that? I understand some of that is confidential. The book is not yet available for public consumption.

 

I don’t want to get you in trouble, but tell us a little bit about that and how that might have happened. How you were able to link up with the five-time fittest man on earth.

Spenser MestelSpenser Mestel

I reached out to Mat, as I said earlier, in 2016. I think that he had just won regionals. CrossFit was still doing regionals. I guess they’ve gotten back to that now. I was in New York, and I saw him. I met him in person.

 

It’s funny to see how Mat’s persona has changed since then. He was successful at that point, but he obviously wasn’t where he is now. He was the five-time CrossFit champion. He was very serious, but very gracious. That is very easy to work with, because he is quite intelligent. He’s very self-aware.

 

We had a great interview. Men’s Health published it. Then periodically, I would check in with him usually around the start and the end of the CrossFit season. We did that for five years. Maybe a year before, maybe four years after that, I started talking to him about a book, and eventually it came together.

 

He and I, there was a lot of material that I already had, between my own interviews, BarBend, of course, other podcasts that he had done. Then we spent four pretty intense days together. We collaborated for probably a year after that. Now we have this book. In some ways, it was an easy process, but in other ways, it was a very long one.

David TaoDavid Tao

I imagine those four intense days, since you’re both CrossFitters, you treating it like a training camp. You go in and you’re like, “OK, we have to cover this chapter. For time, we have like 60 minutes. Go.”

Spenser MestelSpenser Mestel

Yeah, you’re going to give me a factoid about yourself every minute, on the minute, for 14 hours.

David TaoDavid Tao

Then we’re going to do an AMRAP of factoids and anecdotes.

Spenser MestelSpenser Mestel

Yeah. The irony was that Mat takes his off-season so seriously, so he refuses to do any kind of exercise for at least a month after the games. I saw him in November and he was firmly in his fat Mat, no exercises mode. He’s not running. I’m at his house, for sure I’m going to do my own workout.

 

That was maybe the most surreal part, was being in this garage/home gym that I’ve seen on social media so often, doing my bullshit front squats at a quarter of the weight that he does. It was great. It was a great experience. I wish that he and I had gotten a chance to work out together.

 

Like I said before, I think it’s still hard for me to understand just how committed he was to the sport because it’s really just the volume, just waking up every day and doing the same thing. There was just so little variety in his life for so long. I think, especially as a freelancer and one who really appreciates novelty, I just know that it’s not possible.

 

When I competed on American Ninja Warrior I did three weeks of that kind of lifestyle on a much smaller scale, and it was awful. You don’t realize how much socializing and eating, and not being part of a routine, contribute to your mental health and to your happiness.

 

Once you lose those things, I, at least, go to a pretty dark place, pretty quickly. He was able to live there, really without exception, except for maybe a month off each year for a long time, for six, seven years.

David TaoDavid Tao

I can just imagine you at Mat Fraser’s home gym, front squatting, lifting, doing your workouts. He’s just standing there, leaning against the doorway, sipping coffee…

 

You just have the most accomplished fitness athlete off all time looking at you while you’re just struggling away. For me that would be a tough environment to work out in. Kudos to you for sticking with it during that.

Spenser MestelSpenser Mestel

Yeah, yeah that is a recurring nightmare I have. Also his wife Sammy, because she’s a pretty good Olympic lifter too. Mat and Sammy, side-by-side, watching me try and snatch, I’ll avoid that at any cost.

 

David TaoDavid Tao

[laughs] That was your, “Are you worthy? You have to go through this trial.”

 

When is the book available? We’ve actually previewed it a little bit on BarBend, but when is the book going to be available for people to purchase, to read, and what do you hope they get out of it?

Spenser MestelSpenser Mestel

January 4th you can get it through Penguin Random House or through Amazon.

David TaoDavid Tao

January 4th, 2022 correct?

Spenser MestelSpenser Mestel
  1. Yeah. Takes a long time to write and publish a book, little did I know.

 

What do I hope people get out of it? I’d say what I’m most proud of the book is that CrossFit prides itself on being infinitely scalable, so accessible to anyone, and I think the book really is in line with that. The chapters go through progressions. Mat, especially, is so emphatic, that people need a strong foundation.

 

I know, especially for myself, there is such eagerness to [indecipherable 26:53] the book, see what the hardest workout is, [indecipherable 26:57] and how you compare. I hope that the more accomplished athletes really do go through the progressions and realize that that is how you get better. It is through your zone 2 training. It is through your activations and your warm ups.

 

We hammer that message home a lot. I think that is good for the people who are coming into it with a lot of experience. I hope that people aren’t intimidated by it. Obviously, Mat is an intimidating figure by virtue of his success. I think that anyone, with any experience, can come to this.

 

Maybe you need to live at that beginning part of each chapter a little bit longer, do the ring rows, and the easier scaling options. You can certainly do it. We’re talking to Ben Bergeron, another pretty prominent coach in the space, and somebody who coach that — about people who want to do CrossFit, but aren’t ready to start. How can they prepare?

 

He’s like, “Just do it.” He’s like, “You just get into the gym and you start it. It’s going to be difficult. If you’re at the right gym, people will be there to support you. You should never feel embarrassed or self-conscious about not being as strong or as fit as someone else.”

 

I think and I hope that the book does a good job of being in line with those values.

David TaoDavid Tao

Spenser, we’ve come to the end of our time here, although you and I are very much due for an in-person catch up soon here in Brooklyn. Where’s the best place for people to follow along with what you’re writing, the work you’re doing, and more projects as they come onto the horizon for you?

Spenser MestelSpenser Mestel

It’s Spenser Mestel. Spenser with an S, Mestel. That’s my Instagram, my website, my Twitter. I would say, check it out probably on Twitter if you want to talk about voting. Check me out on Instagram, if you want to talk about CrossFit, but I will talk about CrossFit any time in any situation.

 

Shoot me an email, if you’re in Brooklyn, if you want to do some weird fitness stuff or if you’re planning on going to the Games. David, you and I may be going to the Games together. I’m quite excited by that prospect.

David TaoDavid Tao

Excellent. Thank you so much for joining us. I’m very much looking forward to that book, January 4th, 2022. I appreciate it, Spenser.

Spenser MestelSpenser Mestel

Thank you.