The four-time CrossFit Games champion lives out his motto: Hard work pays off.
“The brace didn’t work. You’ll never train seriously again. If you’re lucky, maybe you can go for a light jog.”
The words of the orthopedist hit Fraser like a ten thousand-kilogram barbell. In 2009, Fraser broke his back—his L5 vertebrae in two places—during a heavy lift. He was 19, a young and promising Olympian hopeful.
He could not believe that he spent four months in a back brace only to hear the doctor say that it was all for nothing. The doctor suggested spinal fusion. He rejected it and took a different route.
One year later, the weightlifter who was told he could never lift again, was back in the weight room. He even went on to become a four-time CrossFit Games champion.
Read on and find out how Mat Fraser worked his way through to become the Fittest Man on Earth.
As a teenager, Fraser struggled with alcoholism. Fortunately, his love for sports saved him.
Fraser came from a family of athletes. He is the son of two Canadian Olympic figure skaters Don Fraser and Candace Jones. He has an older brother, and the four of them would often hold handstand competitions at home.
Fraser used to try all sports at school, including football, just so he could spend time with his friends. He started weightlifting at the age of 12. Once, he competed against his friend to check who could lift a heavier load. A coach saw them and intervened in their super unsafe “competition.” He taught Fraser that proper technique should come first before adding weight. He listened and trained properly even if it meant losing to other kids in the short term.
His hard work paid off. He bagged his first national title in weightlifting when he was 13 years old. At a young age, he already learned the importance of training.
Unfortunately, during this time, he was also getting addicted to drugs and booze. Fraser and his friends started experimenting on drugs and alcohol at the age of 10.
As a teenager, he thought it was normal to stay up late with his friends and get wasted. He was drunk three out of four training days. His addiction went on for years—until his wake-up call happened one evening. He was 17.
"One night, I got in trouble. I came home, and it was that my dad wasn't mad,” Fraser narrated. “I showed him the paperwork of the fines I'd gotten and the trouble I'd been in, and he was just like... he didn't even interrupt his phone call. He didn't care. And that broke my heart. That was the last night I drank."
Fraser realized that he had become an alcoholic and self-destructive. He met someone who became his mentor on overcoming addiction. He decided to shift his focus and become the best athlete he could be.
Fraser accepted a scholarship offer as a resident athlete in the US Olympic Training Center. It helped him to go back on track, develop his weightlifting skills, and pursue his dream to become an Olympic champion. After a year, he was already able to Snatch 130kg and Clean and Jerk 160kg. In 2009, he became the junior national weightlifting champion. His Olympic dream was within reach.
Or so he thought.
The doctor told him he wouldn’t be able to lift again, but Fraser isn’t someone who easily accepts defeat.
Fraser injured his back when he was 19 years old. He was training for the Junior World Weightlifting Championship in Romania. For four months, he wore a plastic corset that trapped him from hip to chest, only to find out that his back had not healed. The doctor recommended spinal fusion, but he knew that he wouldn’t be able to train properly with a fused spine. He said no.
Fraser chose an experimental treatment that had a 50-50 chance of recovery. The surgery involved re-breaking his back and attaching two plates and six screws to his lower vertebrae. He went through a year of rehabilitation at the Olympic Education Centre in Michigan where he took the opportunity of studying math and physics required for a mechanical engineering course. His roommate had to carry him out of bed so he could attend his classes.
Almost 18 months after his injury, he joined the 2010 American Open. He placed third. He knew he had his body back, but not his passion.
He got burned out from weightlifting after a while. He realized that he was giving everything for an athletic career that could be ruined by a single injury.
“I was training with resentment every day,” Fraser recalled. “I lost my love for the sport I was in. So I just realized, Okay, time to move on to that next stage of life.”
He decided to finish his degree in mechanical engineering at the University of Vermont. Afterwards, he worked for an aerospace company that manufactured missile actuators. He would spend 90 hours at work every week, leaving him no time to train. As he slowly drifted away from fitness, he felt that something was missing in his life.
“I looked up CrossFit gyms in the area to see if I could use their bumpers and do some Olympic lifts,” Fraser shared. Champlain Valley CrossFit opened their doors to Fraser, and it totally changed Fraser’s life.
Fraser admitted that he was initially put off by the chaotic nature of CrossFit classes. But things changed when he started spending more time at the box. Jade Jenny, Champlain Valley’s owner and head trainer, saw Fraser’s potential as a CrossFit athlete. 2013 CrossFit Games participant and coach Danielle Horan agreed.
Fraser acknowledged it, too.
“Before I knew it, I wasn’t focusing on the Olympic lifts anymore, but doing more and more (metabolic conditioning),” he shared.
Eventually, his competitiveness resurfaced. He joined a one-day competition at Champlain Valley CrossFit, won his first CrossFit event, and the rest, as they say, is history.
But things have not always been easy for him.
The loss that led to a legacy: Fraser’s second silver medal finish at the Games taught him discipline, commitment, and the importance of recovery.
Fraser made an impact in his CrossFit Games debut when he landed at the second spot in 2014. The rookie of the year stood at the podium next to the legendary Rich Froning Jr., the first athlete who won the CrossFit games for four consecutive years.
He became the crowd favorite the following year. But he blew a 100-point lead and finished second again—this time to Ben Smith. It’s a win that he’s not definitely proud of.
"I hated my 2015 medal, you know, I got second place. And that second place to me just represented the cut corners, the slacking off, the thinking that I could out-train a bad diet. Simple stuff like that," Fraser admitted in an ESPN interview.
He continued, “For a long time, I hated that medal. It kept me up at night. It was a source of disappointment. Now, I wouldn't trade that medal for anything."
The reason? His second silver medal taught him that he had to stop his unhealthy habits and improve his work ethic. He’s guilty of eating badly, not getting enough sleep, and neglecting his warm-up and cool-down exercises. He realized that he could not keep on cutting corners and expect better results.
Fraser revealed his secrets to success:
Identify your weaknesses and work on them. After every Games, Fraser goes through the video footage to review his performance and identify his areas for improvement.
During the 2015 Games, Fraser had a devastating finish in sprinting events. He improved his technique by practicing with a local high school track team.
He also knew that his short levers are his assets in weightlifting, but can be a disadvantage in rowing. He sought the help of the employees of a rowing machine manufacturer in his home state to teach him the right technique. After “a million meters” of rowing exercises, he finally got the hang of it.
Fraser’s humility and openness are his not-so-secret weapons to keep on breaking and setting records in CrossFit Games.
Bid the junk goodbye. One of the biggest changes in Fraser’s lifestyle was his diet. He let go of eating a pint of ice cream every night and half a dozen donuts regularly. Within weeks, there were less wear-and-tear on his hands whenever he performed gymnastic movements like chest-to-bar pull-ups and muscle-ups.
Today, he hardly eats at restaurants or indulges in packaged foods. His regular diet consists of vegetables, meat, and a ton of rice.
Have a varied training program. Most athletes prefer to start their day with strength training and schedule cardio exercises in the evening, but Fraser isn’t one of them. He wants to change the timing and format of his workouts from day to day. He works on everything—from endurance to agility to strength to flexibility. Having a variety of workouts helps him to be as well rounded as possible since CrossFit Games is infamous for being unpredictable.
Stay focused—no matter how nervous you are. Believe it or not, Fraser still feels the nerves before the Games. He often dry heaves up until he steps on the floor. To counter this, he reminds himself to focus on the things that are within his control and let go of what’s beyond him.
Fraser holds on to the prayer tattooed on his shoulder: “God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can and the wisdom to know the difference.”
Include recovery in your regimen. It’s a must. His life-changing injury awakened Fraser’s understanding of the importance of recovery. He used to rush back to the gym and shortchange his recovery time, but he knew better now.
Fraser’s recovery tips are pretty simple: sleep as much as possible, spend a couple of minutes in the ice bath, sit down for an easy static stretching for 20 minutes, or use foam rollers or massage guns to relieve your muscle pain.
Massage guns are handheld percussive therapy devices that can help reduce delayed onset muscle soreness, improve flexibility, and ease muscle tightness. For CrossFitters and other high-performing athletes, finding the right sports recovery device is the key to a quicker recovery.
Aside from its post-workout benefits, massage guns can also warm-up your body for an intense workout—something that Fraser strongly recommends. He used to think that warming up is only a waste of time, but now he understands that he has to prepare his body properly for his workouts to go well.
He says, “Doing everything in my power to prevent injury and just make sure I feel good before training is super important, but it also makes a huge difference in how I feel going into the next workout.”
At 30, Mat Fraser is still at his prime. And he has still so much to offer.
Fraser is a strong testament that hard work truly pays off. He never lets his injuries, weaknesses, and doubts get in the way. He is not afraid to do what it takes to become better. He looks at the challenges squarely in the eye and overcomes them like a true victor.
This is the heart of a champion.
Are you ready to set your own record?
Follow Fraser’s lead. Push harder. Be better. Get stronger.
What are your takeaways from Fraser’s inspiring journey? Let us know in the comments section below.