“When I joined Kings of Grit I found a way to embrace my SELF DOUBT and my FEAR and turn them into my greatest strengths…’I’ll never be able’ became ‘I’m doing this.’ ‘What if I fail ?’ became ‘When I succeed’. Being a King of Grit means reaching deep inside yourself and pushing your limits. Giving up is not an option.” —G Brown, 201 Polar inmate
Every Thursday afternoon, CrossFit athlete James Lancaster is here.
Like clockwork for the past two years, Lancaster leaves his full-time coaching gig at CrossFit Hit and Run and heads for 201 Poplar, the Shelby County Criminal Justice Complex in Memphis, Tennessee. One of the most crime-ridden cities in America, Lancaster makes his way to the F-Pod of the local jail, where the 18-24 year old inmates are housed.
For the next hour, Lancaster —who will be competing this weekend at the CrossFit Games Central Regional— does what he does best: coach group fitness. But it is so much more than that in this 40 x 50 cinder block space with an old basketball rim and anywhere from 25-35 athletes assembled.
Kings of Grit is about teamwork. It’s about second chances. And inmates are finding out more about themselves in lugging sandbags or sharing rings —all equipment Lancaster lugs in an army bag each week— than they ever imagined possible.
“I’m not in there to fix people, I’m in there to show them that they have another option,” said Lancaster, who breaks the group up into teams of four to further the camaraderie. “Whatever negative stuff the world is telling them, that’s not necessarily the case. You can’t mimic what team athletic competition does for you and how it helps you learn.”
Kings of Grit was born when Lancaster’s good friend Joc Crawford —who spent some time in a juvenile detention center— was asked by one of his mentors in that center, Reverend Audrey Gonzalez, to speak at 201 Polar. Lancaster came up with a workout after the speech and the rest is history.
When Crawford moved to Brazil, Lancaster kept up the Thursday afternoon tradition, officially forming the non-profit that he hopes can be a model adopted by correction centers around the world.
“At first, nobody spoke to each other, no one really knew how to reach across the room,” Lancaster said of the program. “Sometimes you have to go on faith.”
The four core values that Crawford and Lancaster challenged Kings of Grit participants to have were simple.
- Be relentless.
- If he doesn’t know, teach him.
- Show some grace.
- Unity. We’re all in this together.
“We are all in this together. And over time, they built trust with one another,” Lancaster said. “We’ve never had a fight break out. We build each other up in there. We’ll talk trash but at the end of the day, we’re picking each other up.”
Lancaster, who is working on further funding for Kings of Grit (check out his GoFundMe page here), doesn’t make any money off of this.
Instead, he’s allocated the funds raised on prizes for the guys after each team challenge, healthy snacks to bring in for them and a shiny plaque that will showcase the names of team winners.
I’m not in there to fix people, I’m in there to show them that they have another option.
“I’ve been blessed with a lot of mentors and coaches in my life. It was an easy decision to give them what was given to me. They deserve to have that, too,” Lancaster said. “Some of them have never seen that. Some of them have made bad decisions because they had nobody to look up to.
“I love [competitive] CrossFit but it’s not the end-all be-all for me. There’s a much greater story to be told. There’s a lot more going on in the world than strategy for [Open workout] 18.3.”
His dream was to play in the NFL. But life had other plans for Lancaster, who saw his pro dreams dashed when he tore his ACL.
For essentially three years, he couldn’t run or jump. In between knee surgeries, his aunt introduced him to CrossFit. When a friend in Little Rock, Arkansas won a Twitter contest that included two free trips to the 2013 Crossfit Games, Lancaster sat in the stands and watched.
“I was like, ‘OK, this is for me,’” said Lancaster, who is in the background of an infamous shot of Rich Froning after he was crowned Fittest Man on Earth.
Lancaster was hooked, but he still had two more left knee surgeries to get through. So he spent his time holed up in bed watching behind-the-scenes videos of the Games, until he was finally cleared at the end of 2015.
His first CrossFit Open was 2016 and Lancaster qualified for his first Regional in ‘17. Amazing, considering how new to the sport he was. Even more unbelievable when you take into account that Lancaster was too poor to buy proper food, let alone afford supplements, programming and other extras that most of his competitors were utilizing.
I love [competitive] CrossFit but it’s not the end-all be-all for me. There’s a much greater story to be told. There’s a lot more going on in the world than strategy for [Open workout] 18.3.
He was selling scrap brass to help him get by, wandering around the city passing out cards for personal training before he started full-time coaching CrossFit. Lancaster also now works for the supplement company Regime Nutrition.
“I could barely pay my bills. I was literally just eating deer meat and sweet potatoes because that’s all I could afford, ” said Lancaster of that year. “I used Google to increase my aerobic capacity. When I got in touch with Chastity at IN3 Nutrition– my nutrition game changed. That’s where the game changes, [in] how you recover.”
Lancaster, who is now an IN3 Nutrition coach, works with Training Think Tank for his programming and feels better than ever this season as he vies for a qualifying spot at The CrossFit Games.
“I didn’t get into CrossFit to just have fun. I got into it to compete,” he said. “So, [going to the Games is] the ultimate goal. When that happens is not really a concern of mine…I feel like I have unfinished business still.”
Lancaster get emails from all over the world about Kings of Grit. He’s seen both sides of the justice system at work (he went through the police academy in Arkansas) and is convinced that action, not ballots cast, will be the true catalyst for change.
“If we could literally do a little bitty thing, focus on encouraging people in your immediate environment,” Lancaster said. “We’d see the grand scheme of things how much that changes.”
It is a far cry from the boy who grew up dreaming of the NFL, these cinder block walls and the belief that the good outweighs the bad. The real changes comes in this room on Thursday afternoons; the real challenge is what happens when these inmates leave.
We are all in this together. And over time, they built trust with one another. We’ve never had a fight break out. We build each other up in there. We’ll talk trash but at the end of the day, we’re picking each other up.
“They made bad decisions, that’s why they are in there. I’m not saying they didn’t or ‘poor pitiful kids, they grew up bad.’ I’m not saying that,” Lancaster said. “The cards were stacked against them, but the glass is still half full. If you look at it that way, you can change your life. I’m not saying it’s going to be easy, but having that mentality is what’s going to change your life.”
Lancaster’s workouts are something these inmates can believe in, something constant in a world of upheaval. He won’t give up on them and he hopes they don’t give up on themselves.
There is no time for quitting, which is why being relentless is the first King of Grit core value. Giving up is not an option, Lancaster says. Not here at Polar 201 or on the competition floor at Regionals.
“I have a story now unfolding that I never could have seen coming,” Lancaster said.
“I’m a regular guy, I just stress the details-that’s why I’m at where I’m at. I pack my food, I put the phone down, little things. I say no to things. You have to be a little selfish, you have to be a little crazy sometimes to get where you want to get.”
For more information on Kings of Grit, you can follow them on Instagram here. Lancaster started a GoFundMe page to raise awareness and funds for Kings of Grit. Donations go toward challenge prizes and a plaque to put the winners’ names on. The team that wins a challenge receives a clean pair of underwear, socks, a t shirt and bar of soap. Visit their GoFundMe page here.