By Jeff Bleiler
The University Record
Blair Dudley is not easily intimidated.
He spent two decades as a semi-professional cyclist, racing alongside — and often in front of — elite athletes in that sport.
When his oldest daughter developed a Wilms tumor, he fast-tracked his way to a new career in health care.
So he was not intimidated when a former cycling teammate encouraged him to check out a CrossFit gym in Ann Arbor — until he checked out the gym’s website.
“There was verbiage that made it seem like this was not for beginners or the faint of heart, but if you were serious about training, this was the place to be,” Blair said of the now-defunct HyperFit gym.
“When I stepped in there, there were a lot of people that were doing a lot of heavy lifting and things I’d never seen before. Are these people gymnasts, endurance athletes, or weightlifters? I found myself being really, really intimidated because there were a lot of really good athletes at this gym.”
Ten years later, CrossFit has become a huge part of Dudley’s life and that of his family.
CrossFit is a constantly varied, high-intensity exercise program that involves all manner of functional movement — Olympic lifts, squats and gymnastics, just to name a few. CrossFit prides itself on a sense of community and support, and despite his initial hesitation, Dudley has discovered that’s exactly the case at Wolverine Strength & Conditioning.
“As good as these people were, they were still welcoming and open to helping you,” Dudley said. “I remember talking to a guy who was a CrossFit Games athlete and was saying, ‘Try this instead of doing it that way.’ I’m like, ‘This is really bizarre. Here’s this guy who is really buff and an elite athlete and he’s wanting to help me out.’
“Over time, I became more and more comfortable with those around me knowing that they were doing their own thing, I was doing my thing. I wasn’t at that level, but maybe with time I’ll learn to get to that level of proficiency, or maybe not.”
Dudley, a certified registered nurse anesthetist — or CRNA — at Michigan Medicine, has reached a high enough level in CrossFit that he’s taken part in competitions. He has competed in two CrossFit Open contests, the next step from which is the coveted CrossFit Games.
On Nov. 21, he planned to complete his workouts for the Zelos Games, taking place in-person in Las Vegas but also virtually for anyone to take part.
One of the first of the four workouts in the competition involved hang power cleans, burpees, thrusters and more burpees. Competitors have seven minutes to complete five, then seven, then nine sets of each of those in succession.
For Dudley, the lifts are not an issue, but gymnastics moves, like handstand walking, continue to prove difficult.
“I had an athletic background, so I progressed quickly through some things because I had a good body awareness,” he said. “Some things I got good at, but other things I still stink at. Gymnastics is one of those things, unless you’re a gymnast, it doesn’t come natural.”
His athletic background began many years ago when he hopped on a bicycle in high school and began taking part in bike tours.
“There was always this incentive or feeling that to want to go faster,” he said. “Every day I was out there, I was striving to want to go faster and faster.”
Bike tours turned into small local bike races, and that eventually led Dudley into the United States Cycling Federation where he spent about 20 years competing as a semi-professional cyclist around the country. At his peak in the early 1990s, Dudley was taking part in upwards of 30 races a year, sometimes multiple races each weekend.
He and his wife, Dianne, moved to Ann Arbor and Dudley formed several bike teams, including one sponsored by his employer, Ford Motor Co..
“You weren’t making a living at it by any means, but it was still high-level competition,” he said. “It was tough to compete at that level, but I held my own pretty well.”
His wife, who was a runner, briefly took up cycling to spend more time with her husband but they both eventually transitioned from the sport by the early 2010s.
Several years earlier, their oldest daughter had developed a Wilms tumor, a nephroblastoma, and the family was suddenly immersed in the health care world that came with the chemotherapy and radiation sessions as well as surgeries that accompanied the diagnosis.
“Around that time, I had an epiphany, between what my wife and I were talking about and what I was doing career-wise, that maybe it’s time to make a change,” he said.
He started an accelerated nursing program at U-M in 2004 and finished in a year, eventually progressing to anesthesia school and joining Michigan Medicine in anesthesia in 2010. Two years later, his cycling acquaintance introduced him to CrossFit, and his family’s world changed again.
“Fitness is something my wife and I always encouraged with our kids,” said Dudley, who has four children with his wife.
Getting involved lately has meant getting competitive for Dudley, who last year traveled to San Diego for a CrossFit Legends competition. He plans to take part next month in a CrossFit Legends competition in Cookeville, Tennessee, and the CrossFit Open looms in February.
Dudley has unfinished business in the latter, considering he’s reached the quarterfinals of the Open each of the past two years but has been unable to advance further. Last year, online judging deemed one of his movements to not be up to the standard, costing him a chance at reaching the semifinals in his 55-59 age group.
“Once you get to the quarterfinal round, that’s when the rubber hits the road because these guys are all really strong and fit and there’s a lot of things they all do pretty well,” he said. “You have to make sure everything is buttoned up, so you don’t have any holes in your fitness.”
Still, the CrossFit Open provided one major highlight: He won the four-rep max front squat in his age group.
“It was pretty neat to see my name up there on the leaderboard,” he said. “It’s pretty cool to see that all the other best guys in the world who are in my age group didn’t do as well as I had done.”
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By Jeff Bleiler