Blair Dudley is not easily intimidated.
He spent two decades as a semi-professional cyclist, racing alongside — and often ahead of — elite athletes in that sport.
When his oldest daughter developed a Wilms tumor, he advanced his way to a new career in health care.
So he wasn’t intimidated when a former cycling teammate encouraged him to check out a CrossFit gym in Ann Arbor — until he checked the gym’s website.
“There were words that made it seem like it wasn’t for beginners or the faint of heart, but if you were serious about training, it was the place to be,” Blair said of the now-defunct HyperFit gym.
“When I walked in there were a lot of people doing really heavy lifting and things I’ve never seen before. Are these people gymnasts, endurance athletes or weightlifters? I found myself really intimidated because there were a lot of good athletes at this gym.”
Ten years later, CrossFit has become a big part of Dudley’s life and that of his family.
CrossFit is a constantly varied, high-intensity exercise program that involves all forms of functional movement—Olympic lifts, squats, and gymnastics, to name a few. CrossFit prides itself on a sense of community and support, and despite his initial hesitation, Dudley discovered that to be 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 saying, ‘Try this instead of doing it that way.’ I’m like, ‘This is really bizarre. Here’s this guy who’s really buff and an elite athlete and he wants 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 in time I’ll learn to get to that level of skill, or maybe not.”
A certified registered nurse anesthetist — or CRNA — at Michigan Medicine, Dudley has reached a high enough level in CrossFit that he’s entered competitions. He has competed in two CrossFit Open competitions, the next step of which is the prestigious CrossFit Games.
On November 21, he planned to complete his training sessions for the Zelos Games, which take place in person in Las Vegas, but also for virtually anyone to participate.
One of the first of the four workouts involved in the competition was hang power cleans, burpees, thrusters and more burpees. Contestants have seven minutes to complete five, then seven, then nine sets of each of these in succession.
For Dudley, the lifts are not a problem, but gymnastic movements, such as handstands, remain difficult.
“I had an athletic background, so I progressed through some things quickly because I had good body awareness,” he said. “Some things I’ve become good at, but other things I still stink at. Gymnastics is one of those things, unless you’re a gymnast, it doesn’t come naturally.”
His athletic background began many years ago when he jumped on a bike in high school and started competing in bike tours.
“There was always this incentive or feeling of wanting to go faster,” he said. “Every day I was there, I was striving to go faster and faster.”
Bike tours turned into small local bike races, and this eventually led Dudley to the United States Cycling Federation where he competed as a semi-professional cyclist around the country for about 20 years. At his peak in the early 1990s, Dudley competed in more than 30 races a year, sometimes several races each weekend.
He and his wife, Dianne, moved to Ann Arbor and Dudley formed several bicycle teams, including one sponsored by his employer, Ford Motor Co.
“You didn’t make a living out of it by any means, but it was still high-level competition,” he said. “It was difficult to compete at that level, but I held my own.”
His wife, who was a runner, briefly took up cycling to spend more time with her husband, but both eventually switched from the sport by the early 2010s.
Several years earlier, their oldest daughter developed a Wilms tumor, a nephroblastoma, and the family was suddenly plunged into the world of health care that came with the chemotherapy and radiation sessions and surgeries that accompanied the diagnosis.
“About 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 was time to make a change,” he said.
He began an accelerated nursing program at UM in 2004 and finished in a year, eventually advancing to anesthesiology school and joining Michigan Medicine in anesthesiology in 2010. Two years later, his cycling knowledge introduced him to CrossFit, and his family’s world again alter.
“Fitness is something my wife and I have always encouraged with our children,” says Dudley, who has four children with his wife.
Getting involved lately has meant getting competitive for Dudley, who traveled to San Diego last year for a CrossFit Legends competition. He plans to compete in a CrossFit Legends competition next month in Cookeville, Tenn., and the CrossFit Open is coming up in February.
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Dudley has unfinished business in the latter, having reached the quarter-finals of the Open each of the past two years but failed to progress further. Last year, online judging deemed one of his moves not up to standard, costing him a chance to reach the semi-finals in his 55-59 age group.
“Once you get to the quarterfinals that’s when the rubber hits the road because these guys are all very 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 maximum four-rep 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 haven’t done as well as I have.”