For most of us, our early twenties are a time of growth through confusion, (hopefully) learning from mistakes. Whether it's a party phase or professional phase, it's still usually an experimentation phase, where we figure out what works (and what doesn't) and how we fit into this world.
It's doubtful that many of us were launching our own business and excelling as a high-level athlete at 23 years old. Team Bodybuilding.com athlete Saxon Panchik, however, can check both of those boxes off his list. You can chalk some of it up to certain harsh lessons he learned before he was even a teenager. Back then, his future as any sort of athlete seemed like a question mark.
At 12 years old, Panchik and his twin brother, Spencer, both took a fall from a slippery 75-foot cliff while hiking with friends. The resulting significant injuries left him not only sidelined from football, but doctors told him that contact sports would never be an option again. Any trauma to the head from here on out could be deadly.
"Thankfully, CrossFit entered my life six months later as a rehab tool," Panchik says. "Once Spencer and I found out that it was something we could actually compete in, we were hooked."
It didn't hurt that his older brother Scott was a perennial contender at the CrossFit games, regularly finishing within the top 5-7 spots.
In a matter of three years, Panchik worked his way up to his first Central Regionals competition, making appearances there from 2015-2018. In 2018, he finally earned a ticket to the CrossFit Games, where he placed 19th overall as a 22-year-old. And Panchik was far from peaking. His consistent performance in four sanctioned events and the Open earned him a chance to tackle the 2019 Games.
"CrossFit [HQ] gave me a little heads-up that the invite could be coming. So, throughout June and the beginning of July, I trained as if I was going to the Games and told myself that I was. To compete at all of the events that I did over the year and not qualify, but still get an invite just made all the hard work worth it. And it showed I'm a contender in the sport," Panchik says.
And a well-deserved invite it was, as Panchik ran, sprinted, swam, and lifted his way to a 9th place finish over the course of four full days and eleven events. And this time, it was all alongside his brother Scott, who finished fourth.
Between athletic achievements, Panchik also opened his own gym with his brother Spencer, CrossFit Cliffside, which they now tag-team as owner-operators. He's a young and driven guy who isn't going to slow down any time soon, so we sat down with him to find out what it is that makes him tick.
Back when you had your accident and the doctor told you that you couldn't play contact sports again, how did it change how you viewed your future?
My plan had always been to play football in college. So, when I heard that news, I was like, "Now what am I going to do? I guess I'll have to get good at school…" I always thought I would go to college, be an athlete, and eventually teach health and physical education in schools.
When did you realize that CrossFit was something you really wanted to dedicate your life to?
It was when I was watching my older brother, Scott, compete at Regionals back in 2012 and trying to qualify for the CrossFit Games for the first time. He was up against guys I looked up to like Rich Froning and Dan Bailey. I liked watching how they interacted with each other and to me, they looked like Greek gods. I just thought, "That's something that I want to be able to do one of these days." And sure enough, a few years later I qualified for my first Regionals.
Now that you've been at this for several years, what continues to drive you day in and day out?
My biggest thing is I want to prove to myself what I'm capable of and what my body's capable of, which I believe is eventually going to help me become the Fittest Man on Earth. I won't stop until I reach that. But it's not just that title; I want to bring a whole new outlook on CrossFit and fitness in general as something you should be enjoying.
You hear all the time how important it is to have fun with what you're doing within fitness. What is your mindset when going into competitions?
At one of these sanctioned events over the last year, I had the mind frame that I was going there to win and didn't want to talk to anybody. That ended up being one of my worst events because I was just so set on myself, rather than meeting new people and just appreciating the experience.
After that, every event I went into thinking, "I'm going to have fun and do every event with a smile on my face." Nobody wants to see someone out there miserable and not enjoying themselves. That goes against my whole goal of being someone people can look up to and see how great this sport is.
Some athletes seem to thrive with that "I'm here to rip throats out" mentality. Why doesn't it work for you?
Whenever you're too zoned in and focus too much on what your body is going to endure, it's almost like you're going through the stress of it all before it even happens. I saw a lot of people at the Games mean-mugging each other or looking like they were frowning. However, I think the men and women you saw succeeding there were the ones who were enjoying every moment and kept a smile on their faces. When you love what you're doing, it's easier to see positive outcomes.
Speaking of the Games, you and your older brother Scott had a unique opportunity to compete together and there were some really cool moments of brotherhood on display between the two of you. Can you tell us more about your relationship with him? Are you competitive with each other?
When I was a little kid, I was always going to his football camps and striving to keep up with him. He set the standards really high! But even though I was 10 and he was 18, I still had it in my head that I was going to kick his butt at everything. And that carried over once we came together again with CrossFit. We're pushing each other back and forth. It's still me trying to catch my big brother, and that forces him to stay on top of it so he doesn't lose to his little brother!
You definitely proved that you deserved to be at the 2019 Games competing with him and the other athletes. What made this year stand out for you?
This year, I was on the verge of getting cut with every event. But I had to take risks and lay out all I had. If I didn't, my weekend would be over.
Once I made it into the top 10, they weren't making more cuts, which was great, but I started to come down physically just a bit, which now I'll be better prepared for next year. You're only good for so many max efforts before you start to wear out, so I had to adapt to those side effects of accumulated intensity.
What was your favorite event this year?
I had a lot of favorites, but I have to say the one that I won: the sprint event. I was sitting eight spots down from moving onto the next round. It was super quick and not much thinking was required, you just had to go for it.
On my first heat, someone made a false start and I was already halfway down the field. They told us we had one minute to reset, and I was like, "Wait, you gotta give me more time than that! I basically just did the event right there!" It really forced me to push my body past its boundaries and work at a very high output and set the expectation for the next heat. And honestly, I never sprint in my training; that was the first time I've sprinted all summer!
What was the toughest event for you?
The ruck run. Which is interesting because I was doing a ton of rucking up to that point on my own, but when it's 95 degrees outside with that weight on your body, for that distance, I just couldn't move anymore.
Yet I didn't do any sprints and I won that event. It just goes to show that training different modalities can carry over into other things. I was doing a ton of glute-hamstring developers this year, which I've never done before, and I wouldn't be surprised if that's what helped me with my sprinting.
How do you deal with nerves or doubt when you compete?
No matter what, there's always going to be nerves with any athlete put in these situations. But putting yourself in more of those situations, like more sanctioned events throughout the year, helps you get used to being out there on the floor competing. I think that definitely helped me feel more comfortable. And you have to believe in your training and the hard work you've put in, too. Whenever I see an event, I think back to a time in training where I did something very similar, and that gives me the confidence to go out there and crush that workout.
What has been your most memorable moment in CrossFit and why?
There have been so many, but I would say it's any time I'm on the floor with other athletes and sharing a moment of celebrating success. Like winning that sprint and being able to celebrate with my brother. Or that race with Noah [Ohlsen] at the end of the clean event. When we crossed the finish line, we gave each other a big hug knowing we both laid it out there and gave everyone a good show and nothing else mattered at that point. I think the best moments are when I can show that it's not all seriousness, and that encourages and draws others to the sport.
How would you say CrossFit has shaped you as a person outside of the gym?
I think the opportunities I've had competing and running the affiliate gym with my brother have exposed me to the community so much, and I've learned that everyone has a story. Being able to listen to people's lives and what they've overcome is something special. It has taught me to be a better listener to people in and out of the gym, and that a lot of people just want to express what they've been through to you.
And now I want to hear as many stories as I can! I ask members of my gym why they do this and it's amazing to hear what brings people in there. It's not all about competing.
Speaking of your gym, what made you and Spencer decide to open CrossFit Cliffside?
When I was working at Scott's gym, CrossFit Mentality, he would leave for weeks and I would basically end up running it while he was gone. Then one day I thought, "Hey, I could do this on my own now."
He told me, "Move on and open something of your own and take a ton of pride in it." We've been open for eight months now and down the road we'd love to franchise out to other cities.
It sounds like you already knew what to expect, but were there any concerns or fears about owning your own business?
I think there are always concerns with starting anything. You're investing a ton into something and you don't know how or when it's going to pay off or if people are even going to show up. But it's a matter of having confidence in the product or service that you're offering, and knowing people want it and want to learn from you. Believe you'll be great and be all-in on it.
Watching Scott run his gym gave me the unique opportunity to see the things he struggled with and what took off. I took what worked and what didn't and applied that to our own gym. Thankfully, everything's been pretty smooth up to this point.
What advice would you give to somebody your age who is motivated to compete and has ideas they want to make happen, but is maybe afraid or doesn't know how to start?
Don't compare yourself to anyone else, especially anyone older than you. No one knows you better than you do and that's what you have to work with.
Also, don't let the idea of lifting massive weights distract you from doing the groundwork. A lot of the people you see doing that are at a very high level, and everyone has to go through the process of learning and progressing. When you're lifting heavier than you should, that's where you put yourself in a position to get hurt. That's something I went through—tweaking my back because I was lifting more than I should have been. Give yourself time to get there and you'll be able to do it longer and better.
So now you have the gym, big goals in CrossFit, and you're newly engaged! How do you plan on making sure you're taking care of all these areas and staying focused?
I just want to enjoy the process throughout it all. I have always trusted that as long as you're enjoying what you do, everything else will fall into place. It's easy to get caught up in the tiny details of planning, to-do lists, and fitting in training sessions, but enjoying every second is going to carry you a lot further than viewing it all as a stress factor.
What would you say you credit your overall success to at this point?
Just sticking to what my goals are and not looking around at too many other people. If you're just following other people, you're going to end up exactly like them and lose yourself. I wanted to set my own path and that goes for even doing my own programming. I set the tone for myself and that's what's going to help me continue to improve and continue to compete for the next 10 years with success, rather than doing what works for others.
- Best Lifts: Snatch 295 pounds, Clean & Jerk 360 pounds, Deadlift 500 pounds, Squat 470 pounds
- Favorite CrossFit workout: Jackie (For time: 1,000-meter row, 50 thrusters with 45/35-pound bar, 30 pull-ups)
- Favorite post-workout meal: Pizza. Only before a rest day, though!
- Favorite food in general: Pizza. But for the sake of variety…steak!
- Favorite place you've traveled to for a competition: Brazil
- Supplement you can't live without: Signature Whey protein, oatmeal cookie flavor!