Urban Sports Club Interview w/ Olaf
After our high intensity CrossFit class we sat in the sunshine on the roof of Black Sheep Athletics with Founder Olaf Zorn to find out the story behind the box and why this sport has such a bad reputation…
USC: Tell us about how you got into CrossFit…
I discovered American Football when I was 21 years old and it’s still my favourite sport even today. The friendships I developed there are life-long; my closest friends are from my days playing football. And I never found any sport that came close to it – I’d try something for two years then I’d get bored.
Then I was visiting a friend in San Diego 10 years ago and he said “Olaf, I’ve found a new thing. It’s called CrossFit. You have to try it, it’s like football but without a ball.”
So I tried my first CrossFit class with him. I considered myself pretty fit at the time. The workout we did was called Fran and it was 21 then 15 then 9 pull-ups and thrusters. I thought how hard could this be?
It took me close to 16 minutes and I was completely destroyed by the end. I couldn’t believe there were some guys in there who did it in 3 minutes. I was hooked. I went back to my friend and I said “We need to go back tomorrow.”
USC: How is CrossFit similar to American Football?
It’s a team sport in the sense that everyone around is pushing you to do better. One guy might be faster so you try to be faster, and the one who finishes last always gets the most applause. Everyone recognises that you’ve pushed yourself and it’s hard for you.
I was hooked on the community aspect and how the workout really pushed me. I knew I wouldn’t get bored of this sport and I could enjoy it long-term. There were so many movements that I’d never seen and I had so much to learn – enough for the next ten years.
USC: How did you come to open your own box?
When I was in San Diego in 2008 I didn’t think CrossFit would work in Germany. The community thing is not typical German. Fitness was supposed to be serious, not fun. German fitness was all about “What do you bench, bro?”
So I came back to Berlin and went on crossfit.com for the daily WOD and did CrossFit by myself. I bought a kettlebell, a barbell and a medicine ball and made a gym in my garage.
Then in 2012 a friend of mine had a spare room in his gym in Moabit and I started training there with about 5 or 6 people who were interested in trying CrossFit. Even though they were running marathons they were destroyed by the end of the workout. Through word-of-mouth more people joined and we started adding classes every week.
Then the gym got sold and we had three months to find a new place. When we first looked at the building we’re in now it was so ugly – really nasty. It had been empty for 150 years. But we worked on it for 6 months, knocked down walls and ceilings and we opened in November 2015.
USC: How did you come up with the name Black Sheep?
Even in CrossFit terms we think we’re different because we’re a little bit more easy on our athletes. Our workouts are hard but our focus is on having good technique instead of forcing you to lift as much as possible.
At the time my daughter loved sheep. I’d saved a cartoon picture of a black sheep for her and was looking at it one day. I realised that black sheep aren’t bad, they’re just different. And that was it. The logo has changed a little but it’s almost exactly the same as six years ago.
USC: What would you say to people who are intimidated to try CrossFit?
It has a bad reputation but people should not be scared to try it. People come here and say “I’ll come back when I’m fit.” But there’s no better way to get fit. We scale your movements, we scale your weights, we scale everything. 75-year-olds can do CrossFit, it’s no problem. You can be completely overweight, I don’t care. This is the magic of CrossFit. Smart coaches scale every workout for everybody.
For me it’s about postponing the retirement home. I do CrossFit myself because I want to move when I’m 70 the way I move now. I don’t want a walking stick.
USC: But what about the image of throwing a giant tyre across a room and then climbing a rope?
That’s an image we get from CrossFit Games. If you Google CrossFit, The Games comes up and you find these huge bodybuilders doing this. But most people will never do that. CrossFit is what we do here, to make people healthier and help them move better. If there’s no running, jumping, weights completely mixed up all week then to me it’s not CrossFit.
USC: What are the benefits of CrossFit?
It will improve your heart rate, your endurance, your strength and all the obvious stuff. But in my opinion the most important benefits are the little things like having open shoulders and standing straight and walking better.
Confidence is discussed the least but it’s what matters most. One of our athletes here is a hairdresser. She was on her feet 12 hours a day and always getting sick and felt like she shouldn’t eat certain things because she didn’t want to put on weight. Since starting CrossFit she told me she’s so happy in her own body. She weighs more than when she started but her dress size hasn’t changed at all. It’s just muscle.
And that’s what I want for my athletes – for them to learn and discover themselves and do things they didn’t think possible.
USC: What piece of health or fitness advice would you give to USC members?
This is really easy: you can’t out-train a bad diet.