Recently there was chaos in Olympia. It wasn’t a protest rally at city hall or a sit-in at the Capital. It was a CrossFit competition at CrossFit Olympia called Chaos @ The Capital. In the middle of the action was Irakl Uong, representing CrossFit Lacey. Better known to his friends and coaches as Izzy, he was competing in an attempt to better himself and those around him. It’s an ever-growing goal that seems to be paying off for him and his fellow Crossfit athletes.

oly ortho logoThe 19-year-old Saint Martin’s University sophomore from Palau has been an athlete for most of his life. “I’ve been involved with sports all of my life,” says Izzy. “My parents began putting me in sports when I was six. I’ve been in soccer, swim, track, tennis, basketball, wrestling, volleyball, and now CrossFit.”

Things weren’t always easy for Izzy though. “I was a big kid growing up,” he says. “I think my parents put me into sports because of it. I was a couch potato and I got bullied in school. There were times I would just leave the classroom because I couldn’t take it anymore. I didn’t care about the repercussions. I just had to get out.”

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“I was lifting in the school gym with my headphones on and it just wasn’t appealing. I wanted the community. I wanted to be surrounded by like-minded individuals that come in and want to struggle together.” -Izzy Uong

And get out, he did. Moving on to a boarding school and beginning to wrestle started to change his body and his mind. “I was still the big kid in high school, but I started losing weight and I was more exposed to wrestling,” says Izzy. “I had been wrestling on and off but it was in high school that I learned the value and power you had if you were on top in athletics.”

“My cousin would give me that old school love,” says Izzy. “He would tell me, ‘You want it? I’m going to make you hurt. I’m going to try to break you and you’re going to earn it.’” Whether it was as a wrestler at his high school or currently in the world of CrossFit, Izzy strives until he reaches success.

Being accustomed to family who really challenge each other in incredibly supportive ways, CrossFit Lacey seems like a natural fit for Izzy. “He came to us last year super wet behind the ears,” says career firefighter, former United States Marine and part owner of CrossFit Lacey, Ronnie Knighton. “Izzy is a good kid, super young and super hungry. He wanted to get better as an athlete and he comes from a background of wrestling; that’s pretty similar to the athletic background of our other coaches here. He just wanted to come somewhere he could really train as an athlete, not just work out. I could see that in him. He seemed super coachable. I talked to him a little bit, and he just stuck with it.”

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Izzy and Melissa enjoy a well deserved celebration after a hard fought heat at Chaos.

That brings us back to Chaos @ the Capital where Izzy was competing as part of a pair with Ronnie’s wife and co-owner, Melissa. The gym was represented well with plenty of participants and a very vocal crowd of supporters. Izzy ended up with a clean and jerk weight of 255 pounds, which is short of his personal record. At the end of the day, the pair placed 8th out of 30 participants.

“I was pretty bummed,” Izzy admitted to me after the competition. “But Ronnie talked to me and showed me all the people from the gym who came out to support us. He really put it all into perspective.”

“Izzy really vibes off of our coaching staff and athletes here at the gym,” said Ronnie. “He likes hearing our background stories and the struggles we’ve all had to deal with. To see us continue to come in and work kind of puts things into perspective for him. We have people who are rangers, special forces, regular army and public safety (firefighters). He hears some stories of what these guys go through and can see how tired some of us are when we come in. But we continue to do what we do. We coach, we’re athletes, we work out and we don’t make excuses. We just get it done and we’re still getting it done with the quality that we always do.”

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Saint Martin’s University sophomore Izzy Uong poses with coach and mentor Ronnie Knighton outside CrossFit Lacey, located across the street from the Lacey Fire Department.

Izzy echoed that sentiment. “What gets me going on difficult days is that some of my coaches are fully employed firefighters. They are on 24-hour shifts and they save lives. They see some of the most gruesome stuff and they learn to keep it at the door and enjoy what they are doing in the gym. Ronnie just got off a shift this morning and had only a couple of hours of sleep and he’s a dad, too. He’s got to take care of business and he does.”

“I think of everyone else at the gym,” continued Izzy. “For me the workout is physically taxing but to them they have a lot more going on. When I think of how hard it is for me I consider that it’s probably twice as hard for them with everything else they are dealing with, and they are still in the gym. They rely on me to help them so it’s just a matter of how much I want it. I’ve got to make that sacrifice.”

The support and motivation goes both ways though. “It’s cool because he motivates and pushes us,” said Ronnie, considering Izzy’s impact. “When I see this kid come in that could be doing a million other things with his free time, I am motivated.”

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Izzy’s day starts in a tiny Residence Hall gym around 5:00 a.m. followed by an afternoon workout at CrossFit Lacey from 11 a.m. -3:00 p.m., all culminating with sauna time, biking, and stretching to end his night.

For Izzy it’s even more than a community, CrossFit Lacey is family. “Melissa and Ronnie made CrossFit home,” said Izzy. “They helped me transition to Lacey. I do not have any family locally. I call Melissa ‘mom’ half the time because she treats me like her own kid, like I’m family.”

The feeling of community was evident in the gym and at the competition with members hugging each other and cheering on fellow athletes. It’s easy to start thinking of CrossFit as a simple community to join but that would be a mistake. “When you come in, have the expectation that you’re going to have to work,” Ronnie reminded me. “It’s very rare that people can just walk in and pick this stuff up. For me I was a former college athlete, military and a firefighter. A lot of the movements for me weren’t an issue but when you have someone coaching you the right technique, it is different and it’s hard.

“You have to want it,” Ronnie continued.  “There are days your will is going to be tested and you have to want to be there to make it work. If you don’t want be there and your mind is not in the right place it’s going to be harder. It’s a long journey so you need patience. I’ve been doing it overall for five years and I’m still learning every day. But people here get better as athletes. They see results. Their bodies change because they are performing better and that’s where we start. We show people that journey and right up front we tell them it’s going be tough. We don’t sugar coat it. But people stick it out with us and our retention is great because of it.”

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Spectators at Chaos stand in silence, waiting to see if Izzy will lift 255 pounds. “Your guy’s a beast,” I was told when the bar went up. I looked at him with a grin and said, “I know!”

Izzy typically spends 6-7 hours a day working out. It’s clear that Izzy is dedicated to getting better. His advice to someone considering CrossFit for the first time is simple, “Do your research. CrossFit is about community so find a gym geared toward that and you’ll be in a good place. Just give it a try. Walk in and say I want to try this out. But give it a good week. Oh, and come to CrossFit Lacey!”

CrossFit Lacey is owned by Ronnie Knighton, Melissa Knighton and Rachel Janny.

CrossFit Lacey
1210 Franz St SE
Lacey, WA 98503
A schedule can be found here.

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