After making a name for himself during the 2016 Atlantic Regionals, Chandler Smith —a West point graduate who is currently serving as an officer in the U.S. Army — was a name to watch this CrossFit Games season.
Despite his workload, hectic schedule and often times being out in the field and unable to train like a traditional Games hopeful, Smith was ready to build on a ninth-place from last year.
But on Friday, February 24 —the first full day of the CrossFit Open— tragedy struck. A side armor piece of a tank fell on his left ring finger during a training exercise, breaking it in two places and slicing off the tip.
“As soon as it happened, I knew the Regionals and Games was over,” Smith said.
He hopes not for good.
Smith, who was rushed to the hospital, was optimistic that his finger —which later ended up rolling out of the truck — would be sewn back on. But it wasn’t the best course of action medically. The bone itself is fine now, but he’ll always be missing that tip of his left ring finger.
It doesn’t impede him from living a normal life by any means. But pursuing a sport that involves gripping a barbell or a pull-up rig? That’s a different story.
“The goal was always go to the Games in 2022, and I think getting close last year and knowing how good I was this year before the Open started has made the mental part of the injury really, really difficult to handle,” Smith said. “Because I know where I was and I know where I’m at now. And I don’t now if where I’m at now is ever going to be good enough to take me to those places or to perform at that high of a level.”
Movements that were previously so simple, like dumbbell cleans, are now incredibly tough. The front rack position and grip-intensive workouts he’s significantly worse at. It may always be an issue for Smith’s left hand, that split-second perhaps altering his CrossFit future.
There’s no way to tell. There was also no way to see it coming.
They were a group of 20 rushing the cleaning of the tank that day. The piece that Smith was loading up, the smaller of the two, came down quicker than anyone expected. It was heavier than the group thought, crashing down into the truck and taking his finger with it.
Smith shook his hand out in pain and glanced down at his glove. It was covered in blood. When he threw off the glove to get a closer look, blood started shooting everywhere. What followed was the toughest weekend of his life.
“For a while, I was too sad about the fact that I couldn’t compete to really want to work out,” said Smith, who took a few months off following the accident. “And the additional mental challenge of missing out on a year at the age of 23, in what seems to be a sport that trends younger, the fact that I will never be as good as I probably could have been…”
He stops for a minute. But this is cathartic, letting the fears that bubble up on a daily basis out and into the open.
Smith has always had a tough road, has never made excuses. He’s out in the field the next three nights, where he won’t touch a barbell at all. After that, it’s Bulgaria for nine months.
‘There wasn’t a lot working in my favor to begin with and then to have a setback it’s even more frustrating,” he said.
“Maybe I have good genes for the sport, but in some regards, injuries made a pretty difficult dream even more difficult to achieve. It’s a little mentally daunting to have that.”
That doesn’t mean Smith is giving up.
He was always playing for the long game, finding CrossFit in 2012 and deciding if he worked really, really hard for a decade maybe he’d be Games-worthy by 2022. He knew his work schedule could potentially be better by then, allowing him the time to train and get consistent sleep and nutrition.
But then last year’s success happened and now it seems excruciating to go backwards when Smith was so close to fulfilling his dream.
“Sometimes I look at some [other athlete], and think ‘What if I was training full-time? Am I missing out on the years?,” Smith said. “But then I think about what I’m doing and, ultimately, that leaves a bigger legacy than the sport.”
For the first time, Smith has a coach this season as he’s working with Training Think Tank and pushing to get back to his former self. He had a major breakthrough last week, hitting a 345 lb. clean and jerk personal record and a 590-lb. deadlift.
Perhaps he won’t come back as the same athlete.
Perhaps, he will come back better.
Perhaps Smith’s legacy —fueled in his Instagram bio with #ChasingGreatness— is in never giving up and inspiring others to overcome adversity.
“I think people are able to identify with people who just try to get their workout in or sometimes don’t even get to because you have priorities that conflict,” Smith said. “I think [my situation] helps me relate to people. But also I struggle with feeling sorry about that a lot, too. I’m grateful to have people reach out with their stories because what I’m going through pales in comparison to what other people are going through.”