GROUNDBREAKERS: Celebrating Black History Month
GROUNDBREAKER: One that innovates
For Black History Month, we’re running a series entitled "Groundbreakers" featuring stories from Black athletes highlighting the people they see as having broken ground before them. New Groundbreakers are born every day. This month, we celebrate a handful of those who have inspired Black athletes of today.
I was 29 the first time I stepped onto a competition floor as an individual.
It was a local comp at a gym in Hoboken, NJ.
For the first time since I started Functional Fitness training 3 years earlier, I was surrounded by guys who were bigger, faster, and stronger than I was.
I got first place in one event!
But I did not win.
I finished middle of the pack on most events. And even finished close to the bottom on the rope climb.
Although I was relatively new to functional fitness, the podium was a familiar sight from competitions I’d seen on tv: Three white dudes with amply developed deltoids and quads.
John Davis was 17 when he won the Light Heavyweight crown in the 1938 Weightlifting World Championship at Vienna, Austria!
He was born in Smithtown, NY in 1921. He grew up and trained in Brooklyn, NY. But he competed for the York Barbell Club in York, PA.
After his premiere on the world stage in 1938, Davis went on to be undefeated in national and international weightlifting completions until 1953!
He competed for the United States and won gold medals in the 1948 and 1952 Olympics.
During his career, he won six world titles, 12 national titles, and set 16 world records: Seven in the Snatch, four in the Clean & Jerk, two in the Press, and two in the Total.
He also became the first ever man to lift over 400 pounds when he lifted 402 in the 1951 National Championship.
John Davis enlisted in the US Army during World War 2. His weightlifting accolades could have been even greater if not for competitions being cancelled during the war.
John retired in 1956 after suffering a severe thigh injury in competition. He died from cancer in 1984.
In 2013, I was just a year into my Personal Training career. I had left Corporate Banking three years earlier to pursue my passion, although I didn’t yet know what my passion was.
I just knew it didn’t involve me sitting at a desk calculating ways to make money for the sake of making money.
In my new mission to help people transform into the best versions of themselves, I wanted to see if I could also train myself to become one of the fittest people on earth.
The CrossFit Games were on ESPN and I wanted to be as fit as the guys on tv! But I had a LONG way to go from a strength standpoint.
Out of all the athletes at the Games from around the world, only one looked like me: Neal Maddox. A thirty-something year old former football player from California. He never won the title. But he was a consistent presence.
At that time, social media as we know it today didn’t exist. Virtual workout programs were non-existent. Instagram didn’t even have video sharing technology.
So I Googled “black strength champions” to search for some inspiration. I discovered John Davis along the way.
In addition to finding his amazing story, I also found excerpts from his training journal. And I based my proper Strength Program on movements, rep schemes, and percentages he used in training throughout his career!
Over the last eight years, I’ve certainly gotten a lot fitter, stronger, and smarter!
While I never personally competed in the CrossFit Games, I went as Coach in 2017 for the 18th Fittest Woman in the 40-44 age group.
That year, I also won Men’s Health Magazine’s Fittest Trainer Competition at age 31… just a few weeks after opening my own Gym in Jersey City!
If John Davis was alive today, he would have just celebrated his 100th birthday on January 12th!
While I no longer have ambitions of personally competing at a high level, I am inspired by and draw learnings from John Davis when strength programming for clients and athletes at all fitness levels.
And today, on any given weightlifting platform, you can witness men, women, boys, and girls of color breaking records, setting new ones, and winning championships across the world.
Rest in Power to John Davis!
About the author:
André Crews is a functional fitness athlete and coach, winner of the 2017 Men’s Health Fittest Trainer, and the owner of 150 Bayfit in Jersey City.
Follow André on Instagram: @andrecrews