JOB SPOTLIGHT: Craig Stahl, head coach at Crossfit Menawa in Phenix City and a Columbus firefighter

Head coach at CrossFit Menawa in Phenix City and a Columbus firefighter

tadams@ledger-enquirer.comMay 26, 2013 

When researching a name for his CrossFit gym on Stadium Drive in Phenix City, Craig Stahl sweated the details.

A Native American of Cree Indian descent from British Columbia, Canada, he wanted something that reflected his heritage and personal drive, while honoring his two CrossFit partners, Mark Kane and Chris Kowalewski, both retired U.S. Army first sergeants.

Stahl, 36, a Columbus resident, eventually found what he believed was the perfect name, something that cut across his overall experience in life -- Menawa.

"In this area, there's a lot of Creek and Cherokee," he said. "I came across Menawa, which means 'great warrior' in Creek. I did a little more research and it was actually an Indian chief named Menawa and he was an unbelievable military leader and a Native American."

The name for the gym easily fit Stahl, who played hockey from 1993-2010 -- 12 of those years professionally -- before retiring from the Columbus Cottonmouths three years ago after seven seasons. He was a fan favorite for his gritty, hard-nosed playing style, becoming only one of four team captains in Snakes history, with his No. 32 jersey retired in 2010.

After leaving the team, he took up carpentry, but quickly followed another path. Upon the urging of former Cottonmouths teammates Tom Wilson and Mick Kempffer, Stahl decided to join them three years ago as a firefighter with the Columbus Department of Fire & Emergency Medical Services. He also became certified as an elite Georgia Smoke Diver, which requires brutal training and testing.

"I've often wondered why I played hockey and put myself through broken noses, teeth knocked out, shoulders, ankles hurting," Stahl said with a laugh. "Then I go to CrossFit and wonder why in the heck am I doing this? And then I go to Smoke Diver and ask myself why in the heck am I here? But I like to challenge myself."

His newest challenge as head coach -- or top trainer -- at CrossFit Menawa also is a tough one. He and his partners, Kane and Kowalewski, are turning a former auto-repair shop into a gym. Call it transforming a building that once overhauled engines into a place that now overhauls bodies.

The Ledger-Enquirer visited with Stahl recently to talk with him about his gym job, his other careers and what motivates him to keep moving and grinding it out. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

You started training with your partners at CrossFit in Columbus three years ago. What was the initial experience like?

Having Mark and Chris there for me, training me, working with me, it was unbelievable. They were very motivating. There were no mirrors. There's no nothing. They just came in there and cheered you on, and made sure you didn't get hurt. I was in and out of there in 45 minutes and I never quit going.

Just what is the CrossFit system or technique?

CrossFit, they say, is constantly varied functional movements at high intensity. The way I put it and slice it, is it's natural movements, always changing at high intensity.

Natural movements?

It's no different than picking up groceries. Every movement that you do in here is what you do in everyday life. So there's no machines (other than a rower). It's lifting stuff, picking stuff up, a lot of body weight movement. It's a core-to-extremity program.

How it works is if me and you go to the gym everyday and we do (the same exercises), your body gets used to it, like muscle memory. Here the workouts change every single day. So you're always confusing the muscle, therefore always breaking and tearing. That's why you'll see somebody start to transform in three months. But everybody's body is different, depending on your age.

Are there limits at all on workouts?

Some people do three days in a row, some people do four. Depending on your body and the type of shape you're in starting out, you can get the same workout in as Mark, who's been doing this forever ... We as coaches -- it's almost like a personal trainer -- we'll scale it to your ability.

You don't want anybody hurting themselves?

It's our job as trainers is to push, because a byproduct of the workout is to get the heart rate up, push yourself a little bit. But anybody inside two weeks, we cut the workout in half. So their workout may be 5 or 10 minutes. But they're sweating.

This sounds like it can be intimidating?

CrossFit gives off this aura like it's really tough; people see it on TV. I have a 64-year-old lady that's never worked out before, and she's getting after it with everybody else. And she loves it and does great at it. So it's for everybody.

The biggest step is coming into that door for the first time ... But as soon as you do come in, the CrossFit community is so cool. Everybody is so welcoming and

makes you feel comfortable.

How are the workouts structured?

It's called the workout of the day, and we put it up on the board as prescribed (by the national headquarters) ... What we do is warm you up, and demonstrate each exercise, and we give you a couple of minutes to set up. We make sure you've got the right weight. If you're inside two weeks, we cut your workout time in half. And then we start the clock, the music goes up and it's just you. It's not me against you. It's you trying to better yourself against the clock.

So it's about gauging your progress?

Three months is when we start to see bodies change and it becomes fun for everybody because you kind of start picking up on the movements. We also offer nutritional advice. We have seminars and bring in people who talk about diets and goal setting, and that's all free to members.

And when people come to me, there's a base-line workout. You can't go over 11 minutes, and I put you through basic body weight movements, and then I write your time down. On May 18 a lady did it, and I'll retest her on Aug. 18 and they'll see how much she's improved. So it's a little sense of gratification, because 99 percent of the time they improve.

It sounds like the workouts can be somewhat customized?

You can make it as hard or as easy as you want to. It's all up to the individual, because everybody is different. We're there to say: go, go, go, watch your form, track the knees. We make sure your form is perfect. Now, if you're getting tired, of course, you're going to rest. But you want to keep your rest minimal.

The only thing that we in the CrossFit community strive for is technique. We don't want injuries. It's a lifestyle, it's not a workout. And usually once they get into it, they never get out because it becomes a part of life. It will change lives.

There's a bit of a military feel to this, though.

You see all the flags out there (on the ceiling). It's gratification to me and a way to give back to Mark and Chris. They've been like the mentors to me. They're the ones who got me into it and they coached me along, from working out to putting me in here as coach. They've seen my passion for it, just like hockey. Firefighting was the same thing. It was a passion.

So there are similarities with your hockey career?

Definitely with my work ethnic. I wasn't a goal scorer when I played. I was kind of a lunch bucket guy. I've always been kind of a blue collar, hard worker guy, and everything I do I try to do 110 percent and give it my all. That's whether it's serving the community being a fireman with my brothers there, or giving it everything here.

Can hockey players and firefighters come in here and be challenged?

Oh, yeah. Anybody can come in here and be challenged. I thought I was in shape when I came here. But, no. I thought it was, but it's just a whole different ballgame. Still, it's stuff that we used to do as kids that you kind of lose along the way -- air squats, pushups, sit-ups and pull-ups.

So how did CrossFit help you get ready to be a firefighter?

It wasn't easy by any means. I just did CrossFit in order to prepare for the (Candidate Physical Ability) test. I passed it and went through interview process. I was one of the older guys in my class. Most of these kids come out at 20 years old and they're young in the fire department. I've been doing it for three years, and it's been one of the best experiences in my life. I was one of the older rookies to be cleaning the toilets there. (Laughs)

In a nutshell, describe the Georgia Smoker Divers experience?

They call it the elite few strong in mind and body ... It's probably the worst week-long test you can be put through as a fireman. When you're broken and the chips are down and you can't breath and you're tired and shot out, that's when they test you mentally and they stick you in situations. Some people make it, Some people don't. Check out the videos online.

It seems as if you would have a made a good military person?

Yeah. This is my way to give back. I'm an older guy. I can't be part of the military, but I can show Mark and Chris some respect ... And this is my way of showing how much respect I do have for the military here. That's why you see those flags up there.

What are the 'hero workouts'?

We have what's called hero workout Friday, when we honor a fallen soldier or a first responder, somebody that's given their life to make ours better. We do a little bio up on the board.

This week is probably the worst week (physically) in CrossFit before Memorial Day because we do a week of hero workouts.

A lot of times the rep scheme, meaning how many reps you do, will have something to do with a unit they were in, or the day that they passed away ... I'm going to have a hero wall in here with all of the soldiers' faces that have passed away that we have workouts for.

Are you where you want to be in your life; are there more career changes on the horizon?

No. I'm happy being a fireman. Those guys are like brothers to me down there. And I've got my family here at work, with my best friends in the world.

I know it's hard work right now. But if you love to go to work everyday, it's not work. And that's the way it was with hockey.

Sure, everything in life, to me anyway, it's not always easy and you're going to have those days. But I believe if you work for something and just put your heart into it, and enjoy doing it, everything will be alright.

Name: Craig Stahl

Age: 36

Hometown: Cranbrook, British Columbia, Canada

Current residence: Columbus

Education: Went to high school in British Columbia; began playing junior league hockey with the Tri-City Americans in the Western Hockey League at age 15; took a two-year carpentry construction course at Columbus Technical College

Previous jobs: Drafted in the 8th round, 215th pick overall, by the Detroit Red Wings in 1996. A forward, he played professionally from 1993-2010, including seven seasons with the Columbus Cottonmouths, with the team retiring his jersey; became firefighter with Columbus Department of Fire & Emergency Medical Services three years ago; has done some carpentry work

Family: Michelle, wife of 10 years (on May 31); son, Jagger, 8, and daughter, Nevaeh, 3; and two family pets, both English bulldogs -- Clark and Madeleine

Leisure time: Doesn't really have any free time

For more information: Visit online at or call 706-577-3870

Ledger-Enquirer is pleased to provide this opportunity to share information, experiences and observations about what's in the news. Some of the comments may be reprinted elsewhere in the site or in the newspaper. We encourage lively, open debate on the issues of the day, and ask that you refrain from profanity, hate speech, personal comments and remarks that are off point. Thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts.

Commenting FAQs | Terms of Service