Just a few years ago, Steve Swistak was a typical 35 year old: focused on career, raising a family, and not in the best of shape. After landing a job as a regional vice president for an insurance company, he was regularly eating large lunches and dinners with clients and physical fitness became a thing of his past. “Over the years, I got out of shape,” he explains. Yet, just five years later, he’s headed to Carson, California to compete in The Reebok CrossFit Games in the Master’s 40-44 division.
As a teen, Steve was an Olympic lifter. With a father from Poland where weightlifting is a popular sport, it seems Steve was destined to fall in love with the barbell. Whereas other boys his age were playing catch with their fathers, Steve says his dad “pulled out a barbell and we started to lift weights.” He was 11 at the time.
He later had the privilege of living, training, and competing with the best of American lifters at the Olympic Training Center under the guidance of American head coach of the time, Dragomir Cioroslan, and his assistant, Bob Morris. Reflecting on the experience he exclaims, “When I look back at my life, there’s so much that I learned from that experience beyond just the weightlifting side of it. I mean, I became the person I am today because of my experience of being an athlete at the OTC during my late teens and early 20s.”
But once his weightlifting career ended at age 22, he left the sport completely and by 35, thirteen years off had left their mark. He recalls thinking to himself, “Gosh. I should probably get in there and start working out” but it wasn’t until his wife said that she wanted to get in shape that he found CrossFit. Coach Burgener, who is a level 5 Senior International Weightlifting Coach with USA-W as well as the head coach of CrossFit Weightlifting, has been a mentor of Steve’s since his weightlifting days and he suggested that Steve’s wife give CrossFit a try.
At first, Steve was confused by CrossFit’s programming. He says, “my wife would come home and say, ‘We just did ‘Isabel” where I snatched 30 reps for time.’ I just thought, ‘That’s crazy.’ The Olympic lifter in me was like, ‘Why would you ever want to snatch 30 times for speed?’ It just didn’t make any sense to me. But even while CrossFit’s methodology differed from what he knew from his Olympic lifting days, his interest was peaked when he noticed his wife’s newfound passion for fitness and a difference in not only her physique but her attitude. She was, as he says, “a lot more positive” and that motivated Steve to check out his local box.
Despite his background, Steve faced the same difficulties that any adult with a family and a job has when trying to get in shape. Time was a limiting factor. He started by going to the gym just two days a week and his only real goal, he says, “was to off set all of those other bad things I did which was eating unhealthy, drinking, and all of those things that normal human beings do in their mid-30s.”
But what started off as an attempt to reverse damage caused by vices quickly turned into becoming a full-fledged athlete once again. His thought process changed and he began to think, “Hey, I wonder if I can add an extra day… I wonder if I can start to eat a little better during the week…” Soon, he says, “I started to become more competitive with CrossFit and started to treat it more like a sport. It became, ‘Okay, what four or five competitions throughout the year am I going to peak for?’” Eventually, his passion led to opening Downstate CrossFit with his partners in February of 2014.
He approaches his CrossFit training in much of the same way that he had once approached his Olympic lifting. He explains, “What I mean by peaking is finding the competitions and training like I’m going to win the damn thing. There’s a process to it. I start with: Here’s the beginning phase of the cycle, here’s the volume part of the cycle, and here’s the deload phase right before I get into competition…. I just feel that’s the proper way to train. You can’t train at 110% all year long and expect to see gains. You need to have goals in mind- short and long term in order for you to get better at the movements. And when you get to a competition, you identify even more weaknesses that you can go back to and hone in on when you get back into the gym”.
One of the biggest events he trains for is the CrossFit Open. He says, “It’s kind of a running joke in my gym that after every Open, I post a sheet listing all of the things that we’ve seen historically in the CrossFit Games Open workouts.” Of course, most competitive CrossFitters have seen articles that list the likelihood of movements showing up in the Open, but the difference is that these articles tend to emerge every January and February when the Open is right around the corner. Instead, Steve immediately adjusts his training to focus on weaknesses a year in advance in order to prepare for the following CrossFit Open. It is that diligence and planning that enables him to continue to be competitive with athletes who are still in their 20s.
But even with his dedication to improving his weaknesses, Steve started to notice that many of the “youngsters” he was competing against “took off running” as he says. He explains, “They were way beyond where I ever thought they would be in such a short period of time. When they qualified for regionals last year, I reached out to them.” He asked what program they were following and their answer convinced him to switch from CrossFit Weightlifting to the programming put out by MisFit Athletics. While he believes that CrossFit Weightlifting is a solid program with a sound structure to it, he decided to follow the MisFit program because he wanted to be able to train with is competitors in order to push himself to get better.
His schedule is hectic- He’s still working full time in the insurance industry, a partner at Downstate CrossFit, and has a family, but he manages to train five times per week most weeks. And in addition to competing, he’s prioritizes giving back to both sports. He coaches at Downstate CrossFit where he emphasizes the importance of scaling and modifying workouts to safely and effectively train his athletes. He also coaches several youth weightlifters, including his own daughter, Kiele.
His daughter became interested in lifting after watching one of the other girls on his team, Olivia Barnett, compete at the East Coast Gold Championships. During the drive home, she asked if she could start training. He says, “It was really up to her. I never pushed her into the sport. She made that decision on her own because of what she saw and the experiences that she saw the other girls having.”
In June, four of his lifters competed at USA-W Youth Nationals. Steve said, “I couldn’t be more pleased with how Kiele, Lexi, Livie, and Izzy did at the Youth Nationals… [It was] absolutely amazing to see what they accomplished.” But accomplishments aside, Steve believes his role as a coach is to help develop girls who will becomes strong women with leadership skills. He focuses on their character development as much as he does their lifting. Developing confidence, after all, is an essential bi-product of sport.
Confidence is exactly what Steve is bringing with him to Carson. Of all the movements that will be demanded of him, muscle ups give him the most “mental trouble.” He says, “I can do them. I can get more technical, but they can get in my head… I’ve worked very hard over the past several years so that they don’t feel that way anymore… It’s being confident when I need them most that’s the biggest thing for me. It’s going into a workout and knowing that if muscle ups are thrown in there, I’m going to be fine.”
Luckily for Steve, the Master’s events have been announced and ring muscle ups have been paired with snatches in a couplet called Adios Amigo. The workout calls for 12-9-6 of snatches that increase each round and muscle ups. Snatches are in Steve’s wheelhouse, of course, so he’ll be ready to attack each muscle up with energy and vigor.
When asked what his goal for The Games is, he states, “Let’s just say this: I’m not going there for the free stuff. To me, it’s to take every bit of it in. I’m excited to get there, but I’m also excited to compete agains the guys who are my age and we’ll see what happens. I’m going to go in there and give it my all.”
The Barbell Press would like to wish Steve luck at The CrossFit Games! He’ll be competing starting tomorrow (Tuesday) and the final event takes place on Thursday. His motto is to “work hard and let success be his noise” and we can’t wait to hear about his accomplishments in Carson.