From Tribulation to Triumph: The Inspiring Story of Thomas Jung

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Every January, like clockwork, my feed gets flooded with flashy ads whose headlines are all trying to say the same thing: Get inspired for the new year! Get inspired with this new supplement! Get inspired with this new product! Get inspired with this new workshop! 

But inspiration isn’t something you derive from the depths of Amazon. Inspiration is born out of connection and coincidence. It’s hearing the perfect story at the perfect time — the wisest words when you need them most. So, when I found out the theme of the January issue was Inspiration, my brain immediately flashed to the one person I knew was inspiration on legs: Thomas Jung. 

Thomas Jung is a 46-year-old video game concept artist, educator and dad. He is also a member, athlete and friend of CrossFit Renew. Thomas is the type of guy who makes everyone around him feel seen and important, just by being himself. He’s the jokester, the supporter, the one who shows up to the workouts that nobody wants to do, because he knows he can and he should — so he does. 

It was because of these great qualities (of which there are many more) that I knew I wanted to interview him for the Inspiration issue. Humbled but willing, Thomas obliged. 

 

Flynn: Tell me the story of how you came to find fitness.

Jung: When my son was born, my wife at the time did a hard push to physically rebuild from pregnancy. I watched her go through many paths to fitness. Everything from P90X to running to biking to, eventually, CrossFit. And it really changed her life. Over time, she gave me gentle (and not so gentle) nudges to find my own path to fitness. Eventually, I decided to give CrossFit a shot. I fell in love. Today, the barbell and I are particularly good friends.

 

Flynn: I can confirm that friendship. Over the last couple of years, you’ve really found your stride in the gym. How has it changed your life?

Jung: Fitness has changed how I view the notion of challenging myself. It’s taught me a ton about being in touch with my body and how closely it’s linked to my mind. As it’s become a critical aspect of my mental self-care, I’ve learned when it’s appropriate to push and when it’s time to take a break. Through this process, I’ve had to learn to forgive myself for my weaknesses, be patient as I work to improve on them and revel in my strengths when the opportunities present themselves. At 46, I need to be mindful. As much as I’d love to keep up with athletes in their twenties, it’s important for me to take a more measured approach to maximize my gains. All these things have turned into metaphors for my current set of life challenges. It’s all just focused into an hour of the day, so I have the pleasure of going through the mental exercise of facing a big challenge in a short time. I suppose it’s a sort of building of “mental muscle memory” to take with me into other parts of my life.

 

Flynn: As a coach, the mentality you apply to the gym is something we strive to teach our athletes. It’s important to take a measured approach so that you can possess a preparedness for life — specifically through strife. As you feel comfortable, describe your most challenging, life-altering experience(s). What kind of role did health and fitness play to help you work through hardship?

Jung: This is a hard one. In September of 2012, I stopped to help what I thought was a couple having car trouble on the side of the road, but instead I stumbled into a domestic dispute. As I parked my car across the street, a gun went off. When I looked to see what happened, the woman who had flagged me down was clearly dead, and a man who had just murdered his wife was now turning his gun in my direction. I managed to make it back to my car and escape, but not without him shooting at me as I drove away. Drawing an imaginary line between the entry hole in the driver’s side window and the exit hole in the front windshield, I estimate the bullet missed my temple by inches. Had I not turned my head away out of instinct, I have no doubt I would have died that day instead of walking away with some glass in my face. My 9-1-1 call led to the arrest of the killer while I was still on the phone with the dispatcher.

Moments before that second gunshot, I remember thinking to myself, “This is how I die.”

This event left no corner of my life unchanged. It put me in therapy. It forced me to look inward during a dark time and see how fleeting life is and how completely fragile I was. Over the next eight years, it took me on a path that would make me ask difficult questions about every aspect of my identity. One of the biggest realizations was that I needed to feel less fragile. So, I finally started moving.

Since then, I’ve lost a beloved family member to cancer, I’ve survived an amicable but indescribably painful divorce, I’ve forged myself into a full-time, single father to a thoughtful, loving, empathetic, creative and shockingly bright 13-year-old boy — but through it all, I’ve managed to keep working out.

There have been bumps and gaps. I’ve jumped gyms a bit. I’ve always struggled with eating, but I’ve never once thought of stopping. At first, it was about trying to craft myself into some perfect version of a husband and father. But as time went on and my place in the lives of others changed, I truly came to love it and do it for myself. 

The pandemic really brought to light how much I need fitness, especially the brand of community-based fitness I’m a part of now. When our gym closed and we all switched to online programming, I couldn’t have anticipated how difficult it would be for me — how much I would miss the humans. I’m a pretty dramatic guy, but it’s no drama to say that it was depressing to work out without my community; it got dark without them. When the gym reopened, it became a lifeline to cope. An hour of meaningful exertion could help me put things into perspective and breathe a bit. Working next to others helped me feel like I wasn’t alone in the struggle. It set into concrete how important fitness had become for me. I’m absolutely not the fittest, I might be one of the oldest and I’m definitely one of the loudest, but I would argue that I’m one of the happiest when we’re all there working at it together. 

Flynn: That’s an incredible story and an even more incredible outlook. I love the energy (drama) you bring to the gym, and I LOVE watching you work toward your goals. What are some of your proudest in-gym milestone moments? 

Jung: There are a couple of things that stand out as achievements at the gym for me this year. The first is in my running. I remember once in college trying to do this 30 Days to Run 30 Minutes challenge — basically a scheduled program to get a person ready to run for 30 minutes without stopping. It started with two-minute increments and worked up from there. I couldn’t finish it. Running five minutes straight felt like a frickin’ eternity. As a kid, I was a kickboxer and we never ran. We just jumped a lot of rope, hit and kicked bags and did a bunch of sit-ups so we could take a hit to the gut. In boxing, they train you to go for three-minute rounds with breaks in between, so I never really figured out how to build the endurance part of my body. About a month ago, though, I showed up to a workout that was 45 minutes of non-stop assault bike, rowing or running — athlete’s choice. Of course, I put on my good little CrossFitter hat and blurted out, “I’mma run! It’s my weakness!”

And I did it. I ran for 45 minutes straight! 

I’d been frustrated for a long time with my cardiovascular fitness, as I didn’t feel like it was getting any better. But completing this workout was a huge step in a new direction. So, my mission for the new year is to become a runner. I even signed up for an eight-week running program at the gym. It’s been so great to not feel like a slug when I hit the pavement.

The other notable moment was hitting a new snatch personal record of 155 pounds. I have a vivid memory of not being able to even clean 150 pounds in my first year of CrossFit. It felt impossibly heavy. I’m especially proud of it, because the snatch is such a technically challenging lift. It’s a movement that really requires good body mechanics and sound technique. Hitting that lift felt like the culmination of some great coaching, a lot of learning and even more hard work. Finally, after all this time, I feel I can face this lift with the confidence I can improve rather than be intimidated by it. 

 

Flynn: I had the great privilege of being present for both of those milestones! The sense of pride and accomplishment after nailing both made me all warm and fuzzy inspired, even. If I handed over a magic time communication machine, what would you tell Young Thomas to inspire him to be the best version of himself? 

Jung: My entire life, art has been an integral part of me. I’d sit him down to say, “Don’t lose sight of why you first loved drawing.” I suppose it seems like that’s not fitness related, but I believe that it’s all related.

Hear me out: I believe that we have a peak moment or a memory from childhood that takes us down the path that leads to our Life’s Work. Capital L. Capital W. I don’t mean one’s job — I mean the thing that a person dreams of doing should they be lucky enough to not have to worry about money. For me, it was the first time I drew something that didn’t suck. I’d learned a new concept that had forcefully opened a door in my mind. I walked through that door, and I was able to draw on a level that I couldn’t before. It was the first time I was aware that there was no turning back. I must have been 9 or 10 years old. I knew I would forever label myself an artist, and there was no activity in the world that could create more joy. But over the years, I’d lost track of joy in my art. Once one becomes a professional artist, it’s easy to lose track of such things when creating becomes “work” — that sad, grown-up thing people do to make money. The trap of “results in exchange for reward” makes us forget about how it felt to love the act of creation just for the simple sake of creating. I believe the most emotionally honest moments in our lives come when we’re free of the constraints of commercial considerations, and we are acting on the same impulse that led us to fall in love with our Life’s Work. Capital L. Capital W. It’s when we’re the closest to being a kid again.

I believe this is true for all types of work. Especially the most vital work of being physical, because running and playing, lifting heavy stuff and having the wherewithal to not be fragile in the face of adversity — physical, mental or emotional — is a universal human desire. So, I’d tell my younger self not to lose track of why I love drawing, as it’s the one thing that’s remained a constant though every chapter of my life. It would be my hope that a younger version of me would hold to that lesson and have it carry over into every aspect of his life. I have no doubt it’s what I want for my son. 

 

Flynn: So at the end of the day, who or what inspires you?

Jung: It’s a bit of a trite answer, but my son inspires me to be a better man. I grew up with a bit of an angry core that’s very hard to work through, but I am able to learn from his kind heart every single day. As we get older, some of us can forget how important such a simple thing as kindness can be. I’ve certainly had chapters when that’s been the case. Many of my continued efforts at self improvement are so I can be an active and prominent presence in his life for as long as possible. To make that meaningful for him, I need to keep working on being the influence I’d like him to be on others. I don’t always succeed, but I keep working at it. 

 

Sadie Flynn is a CrossFit Level 2 trainer and former collegiate athlete with a penchant for power lifts. As a new mom, Sadie is deeply passionate about pregnant and postpartum fitness and wellness, and she works hard to help women take care of their bodies before, during and after birth. When she’s not coaching at CrossFit Renew, or forcing her ‘90s alternative music beliefs on you, you can find her somewhere outside with a beer, her husband, two dogs and their rambunctious toddler.  

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