Dennis Cole, CrossFit Master
Part 1: The Backstory
By: Bri Sweetland
The Dawning of an Athlete
It began with a request from his daughter to join her in running a half marathon. Now, ten years later, his daughter’s desire has culminated in an unstoppable CrossFit athlete—Dennis Cole.
“I didn’t want to be a skinny runner,” Dennis, who is heading to his 4th CrossFit Games as a Master’s Athlete and is currently ranked as the second Fittest Man on Earth in the 55+ age group, said of his half-marathon training.
To combat the leaned-out runner look, Dennis took to circuit training in his home gym, when a family member suggested trying CrossFit—that was 2007.
So he did.
He remembers one of the early workouts—“Elizabeth”, a 21-15-9 rep schemed “Girl” WOD that defeated him.
“I think I quit,” Dennis said remembering the workout that calls for ring dips and 135-pound cleans, which he had modified down to 100-pounds.
He may have walked away from Elizabeth that day, but he certainly didn’t walk away from CrossFit—he started working out three times a day—as much as he could, all while owning his own iron-working business in Las Vegas.
On weekends, his youngest son, Chad, would come home from college and work out with him in the casita-turned-gym he outfitted.
“He whooped my ass,” Chad said. “It wasn’t fair. It made no sense to me because I was a collegiate athlete.” Chad was playing college-level baseball at that time.
It wasn’t long before his entire family was working out with them in the home gym, and even the neighbors joined in too. But it was always Dennis and Chad who continued to push each other, but at that time, there was no intention of ever competing at the Games.
“We just wanted to be better,” Chad said.
Check out the video above of Dennis trying to learn Double Unders in the Casita gym.
It wasn’t until CrossFit announced they were adding a Masters Division in 2010 that it occurred to the Cole family that becoming a competitive CrossFit athlete could be a real goal for Dennis. Dennis was 49 then—the first Masters category was just that Masters—anyone over the age of 45 fell into it.
“Without a doubt we knew he had to go to the Games,” Chad said. “He is always the best. I mean he must be one of the best because… it’s dad.”
Back then, the Games were different—there were Sectionals and Regionals for all the athletes. It wasn’t until 2011 that CrossFit created the Open. Dennis looks back and wishes he had signed up and competed that year—he would have made it to the Games, but at the time, he didn’t realize he was at that level yet.
During the summer of 2011, Dennis competed in a local event, the Vegas Fit Wars. While doing 1-rep-max weighted pull ups, he tore his bicep—his first competition-related injury. He had surgery a week later, and got back to training as soon as he could. His resolve paid off—he entered the Open in February 2012, and he made the cut—18th fittest man in the 50-54 age group!
By the end of the Games, he stood in 13th place. It was an amazing experience—he got to meet a few of the athletes who inspired him, including Graham Holmberg and Rich Froning. And he found a true love of competing on an international level—he was only one spot away from making the cut to compete in the final workout that year, but not to worry, he would be back.
In October 2012, Dennis had shoulder surgery to repair a torn labrum, and even though the Open was only four months afterwards, he almost made it back to the games in 2013—he ended up in 22nd place at the end of the Open—only 2 spots outside of the cutoff.
2014 was a transitional year for Dennis—he closed down the iron-working business and began work on a new CrossFit gym—training was harder to get in and there was a whole lot going on with opening a small business. At the end of the Open, he was ranked in 145th position. This was the first year of the Masters Qualifiers that were added as an online “regionals” event the Masters had to go through to get to the Games. The Qualifiers were good for Dennis, but even with the skill-loaded Qualifiers, he ended up in only 46th place, well outside the cutoff.
In 2015, Dennis was at the top of his age division so he was focused on training for the 2016 Games instead, when he would age up into the next category. But the Open and Online Qualifier were well-suited to his strengths, and he made it to the Games for the 2nd time in 2015. The other amazing part? His son Chad also made it to the Games that year! Father and Son duo competing together, just like the old days
The 2015 Games were exciting—the competition had moved to the “big leagues” since his last time—new venue, in a real stadium at the Stub Hub center in Carson, CA—the last time, the Masters competed in the parking lot! But with his being 54 in the 50-54 age group, that had an effect—he ended up in 18th place overall, and again, missed out on competing in the final event. But he knew, the next year would be his year to make it!
Fittest on Earth 2016
You could say Dennis was training for the 2016 Games for several years. This was “his year”—the 55+ age group is the first scaling for weights that CrossFit offers—all the other years, Dennis was using the same weights as the young kids in the Individual competition. At 167-lbs, that’s sometimes a lot to ask, but obviously was always able to do it, and do it well. But reduce the weights a little, and he was going to be unstoppable.
His training paid off—he excelled at all the events—ring muscle ups, rope climbs, heavy snatches, bar muscle ups, all of it. At the end of six workouts over three days, Dennis was in 5th place overall—he made it to the final event! Dennis remembers watching the announcement of the final workout details, which included rounds of DT, one of his favorite hero WODs. “I was excited—nothing was an issue—the axle bar made it different than your average workout, but I wasn’t worried.”
The final workout consisted of:
Then, 2 rounds of:
9 hang power cleans
All movements to be completed with a 155-lb. axle bar.
Dennis headed to the athlete warm-up area with Chad, who was acting as his trainer at the Games. He pra
cticed with the axle bar, warming up to the 155-lb weight. No problem. Not until he went to practice with a reverse grip on the axel bar—a technique he would only resort if the bar got heavy. It was at that moment he tore his bicep—warming up for the final event… in that one moment, years of training and all the excitement of competing were gone—he knew just what it meant. Another year where he didn’t compete in the final event after all.
Chad fought for his dad to still compete—had Dennis walked onto the competition floor for the final event, and just taken a zero score, he would have come in 5th place overall. Unfortunately, the judges wouldn’t let an injured athlete onto the floor. He was medically withdrawn, which left him in 10th place instead.
“It was a huge disappointment I wasn’t able to do the last workout on the big stage where I knew everyone was waiting and watching,” Dennis said.
His wife, Lisa Cole, recalled sitting in the stands when she got the text from Chad with news of the injury. She was in utter shock.
“My Dad withdrew from the competition. He tore his bicep. Those were the words—so simple. I actually thought Chad was joking.”
She recalled looking around at friends and family who had come to the Games to support Dennis.
“They were all so excited. I have this knowledge. All I could think was, I can’t tell these people,” Lisa said.
Lisa and crew left the stands, meeting up with Dennis outside the stadium. She remembers Dennis looking calm and focused. All he could think about was getting it fixed and making it back again. Most people take any opportunity to quit as soon as it presents itself, but Lisa describes her husband as the opposite of that mindset.
Instead of using the injury as an excuse to quit training, Dennis had surgery scheduled immediately to repair his arm—Chad was able to get a call with a Las Vegas orthopedic surgeon by the time he got back to his hotel room. Six days after the bicep tore, Dennis had surgery, and within three weeks he was back training. Now, going into his 4th Games performance, he’s just as laser focused.
This year, Dennis finished 2nd in the World in the 55+ age group. This is his highest finish yet, which provides a lot of motivation to win. This year, he’s determined to be at his very best when he arrives in Madison, WI in early August. As a Masters athlete in general, and as a man who has had several injuries, Dennis has a different mindset this go-around. Dennis trains two days on and one day off, working out twice per day. His focus is on quality over quantity, harkening back to those running days of long ago—no junk miles needed.
He is his own trainer; something he describes as a struggle.
“It’s tough. It’s really, really tough. At 8 o’clock in the morning no one is here. It is hard to keep motivated. It is hard to push yourself,” he said.
However, solo training is also a mental trick he uses as his competitive advantage—training alone forces you to fight through it more.
“It is so much easier to get out and compete when I am around people,” Dennis said—that drive to go hard by myself pushes me past the other athletes and it doubles the effect.
Yet he still enjoys competing against himself.
“I always loved the challenge of doing something faster the next time.”
Dennis’s routine consists of working on strength in the morning and metabolic conditioning in the afternoon. He goes heavy still, but also works the lighter weights faster to prepare for competition.
This time he is determined to not just compete in the final event, but to podium as well. If Dennis earns the title of Fittest Man on Earth for his age division, he is looking at collecting a prize of $10,000.
As family and friends rally, they hope to see him use past events as a catalyst—a motivation for victory.
“I am hoping that he has been training with a chip on his shoulder this whole year and hopefully he will use that,” Chad said.
In just about five weeks, we will find out.