by Lindsay Miller
Every challenge we successfully conquer serves to strengthen not only our will, but our confidence, and therefore our ability to confront future obstacles. Pain and adversity can easily strip us of energy and heart. A crippling illness or injury, any devastating event, no matter how big or small, can leave us discouraged and exhausted. Will Moorad knows all too well the effects of bad news. He is known as a professional CrossFitter, but the last year of ups and downs has changed his life forever.
In 2015, Will competed at the Central East CrossFit Regionals and missed out on going to the Games by one spot. In 2016, he missed again. He was a fraction behind the last spot allotted to compete for the Fittest Man on Earth.
When it is coming down to that finish line, and you realize that a tenth of a second could decide the rest of your year, “that is real racing,” Will says. The 2016 Regionals came down to two tenths of a second and that doesn’t sit easy with most athletes, especially at this level of competitiveness. With such small margins of defeat or victory, CrossFit is sometimes hard to ever feel confident or comfortable. The sport values this edge because it challenges the thresholds of mentality.
Two tenths of a second can eat away at you or drive you for the upcoming year. Whether it enhances training or fills you with remorse, it is your choice. “I had real issues after that,” Will says. But rather than regretting his performance, he says he was just sad. “I think I had post traumatic stress! I was sick to my stomach and would wake up with night sweats.”
But let’s fast forward from past experiences to the 2017 season. “I was back on the train, prepping for competition and feeling really good,” Will explains.
The event competition Wodapalooza is held in January each year in Miami, Florida. It’s one of the last major competitions before the CrossFit Open and usually gives athletes a good idea of where they stand in a high intensity atmosphere. It’s also a good time to compare yourself to some of the top athletes in the world. For most, this event tends to spike adrenaline for the next coming months as the competition ball starts rolling. For Will, this would begin a different spiral; a series of doctors appointments and a life altering roller coaster for the following year.
“I finished the first event [at Wodapalooza] and then I got really sick,” he begins. “I was throwing up and really nauseous. I was totally destroyed. I was in the medic tent unable to talk. I ended up kind of recovering, but this was when things started to come unwound.”
He didn’t do too poorly in the second event, but was sitting in 14th at the end of the day. 14th could still put him in a position to be on the podium. There was still a glimpse of hope and no reason to give up just yet.
When he woke up in the middle of the night feeling intense pain in his lower back, he discussed possibilities with his wife, who is luckily a nurse. Although able to fall back asleep, he woke in the morning, made coffee, took a sip, and immediately ran to throw up. His wife recommended going to the hospital, seeing as this activity was not normal.
“I called my coach first,” Will remembers. He was still reluctant to remove himself from competition because, he says, “at this point, I was an insane athlete with not a lot of balance in my life.” While his wife was pushing him to see a doctor he still questioned whether or not to leave and it wasn’t until his coach, Max El-Hag with Training Think Tank, agreed he be admitted for medical attention.
At the hospital, Will’s creatinine level read close to 5.6 when it should have been closer to 1. His Glomerular Filtration Rate (GFR) was around 14 when it should have been around 90. Put simply, his kidneys were failing. Kidney failure symptoms include weakness, shortness of breath, lethargy, swelling, confusion, and back pain, like Will’s pain in the middle of the night and his inability to speak in the medic tent. Kidneys are the organ that filter your system and their failure leads to the inability to remove potassium from the bloodstream, potentially leads to abnormal heart rhythms and sudden death. Body fluids can rise to dangerous levels when kidneys lose their filtering ability. The condition will cause electrolytes and waste material to accumulate in your body, which can be life-threatening.
“I spent a week in the hospital but didn’t have to go on dialysis, thank God,” he says. Anyone can have an acute kidney injury. Dehydration, too much Advil, too high protein diet, and stress, can all affect how your kidneys function. Will was doing an abnormally high level of training, eight hours a day, for four years leading up to this moment. “So I guess I was stressed,” he says with a laugh. The doctor decided to take a biopsy of the kidneys and returned with information on IgA nephropathy (pronounced nuh-FROP-uh-thee), also known as Berger’s disease. Will was diagnosed with a rare autoimmune disease the same day he set out to conquer the podium.
At the age of 27, Will was a professional athlete and looking forward to starting a family. He was young, married, and planning to be around for that family in the future. He was training six to eight hours, five days a week when the doctor dropped a major remark: “You probably shouldn’t do that anymore.”
Naturally, Will’s mindset had to change due the realization his career was over. Training would come to a screeching halt. He says, “Looking back, it was a good thing.” But once discharged in Miami, he found his nephrologist, Dr. Chanda in Nashville and started regular visits.
“I would like to think I am good at dealing with trauma. I have had a lot of situations in my life that taught me to cope,” Will says. “But I had to realize this happened and I could be upset, but at the same time I had to think, ‘maybe this is just what’s next.’ I’ve had a great CrossFit career. I got to do a lot of things most people haven’t gotten to do. I had amazing sponsors and previously competed in the 2014 CrossFit Games. I can be happy with that.”
Leaning more towards the silver lining, Will chose to focus on the diagnosis as a way to look back on the positive experiences the sport gave him. He says it’s more about short term memory, but his modesty is underrated. He is more of an optimistic guy and doesn’t dwell on the negative. The average CrossFitter fights a constant battle to push themselves through workouts daily. As a professional, sometimes doing seven workouts in three days, he couldn’t afford to dwell on one bad performance. He had to learn how to bounce back. His approach to his newfound health crisis would be no different.
“I just looked forward to what was next and went full steam ahead into that,” Will says. He owned a gym at the time but decided to sell in May 2017. Within those months, he began working for a tech company in order to focus on a new career path. Although he wasn’t training like his previous days, he continued to Olympic lift and take his time with lighter workouts all through the summer and fall.
“I had forgotten what beer tasted like,” he jokes. He enjoyed the summer with his friends and got back to living a life more like an average 28-year-old. He would tell himself, “It’s just a barbell, don’t take it too seriously.”
When his friends, Noah Ohlsen, Travis Mayor, and Max El-Hag texted him to join a team at the 2018 Wodapalooza, Will was tempted to give it another try. This time it would be for fun and not without consulting his doctor first. I warned them though, he says, “Guys, I am not where I was. I’m not an athlete anymore.” Regardless, they wanted him to compete so he started training again.
The major plot twist? Will’s condition ended up being a misdiagnosis. After January of 2017, he regularly went to his physician and his health continued to improve into August, when he went back for a full check up. After his blood work came back perfectly healthy, the doctor said, “Look, I studied your pathology report, and I don’t think anything is wrong with you. I think you have been misdiagnosed.” Will and his family were shocked. “You are free to do what you want,” The doctor told him. “Just be conscious of your health, seeing as you have had this scare.”
It’s been determined that Will’s acute kidney injury led to kidney failure, but the staff in Miami coincidentally found the autoimmune disorder because of the biopsy. “My nephrologist in Nashville had a lot of thoughts about this disease being misdiagnosed, but even doctors are still human. He made a mistake. I changed my life because of it, but we are all just human.” Although this news would essentially change Will’s outlook, yet again, he was hesitant to jump back into heavy training.
“It was a traumatic event and it scared me. I was worried about going back into that pain cave,” he admits. So while continuing to work full-time, he timidly eased back into old habits and slowly got comfortable with the psychological components. Mostly because competing at a high level demands extreme levels of suffering. He had to relearn how to turn off the normal response to pain in order to keep going and to continuously improve, all the while knowing this would take him to a dangerous place.
“It’s a lot on your body,” he states. “You can do everything you can to control what you eat, not over training, sleeping eight hours at night, staying hydrated, getting routine blood work, but at the end of the day you can’t control what happens out on the competition floor. You can try and control anxiety, but the strain of profoundly difficult events over multiple days will still take its toll.”
Will, Noah Ohlsen, and Travis Mayor ended the 2018 Wodapalooza competition standing on the podium in second place. “I was really happy,” he says, “seeing how this event put me in the hospital last year.” He reminisces, “This year I was standing on the podium with two of my best friends after I thought I was done and never doing this again.” Shortly after the event, Will left his job at the tech company.
In reality, Will came back as a full-time professional athlete in February 2018, only a few weeks before the Open workouts would determine his fate. With such a short time of training hard, he did not have expectations for making the CrossFit Games. He is realistic in terms of the volume, time, and training it actually takes to make it where he wants to be as a Games athlete.
The infamous song reads, “Don’t call it a comeback no / This witness was injured and overthrown away / …By will alone we set our minds in motion / …Setback after setback the need to play remains.” And although he cannot change the past, Will is fighting like hell to regain his present, and working every day, multiple times a day, to set himself up for the future he has envisioned for years.
Will Moorad did not make the 2018 Regionals this year. He tied for 31st in the Central East, missing by 11 spots. He has already put his focus on the 2019 season though. And this is why we don’t call it a comeback…yet.