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How Australia’s Leading CrossFit Coach Turns Athletes into Legends
By Dan Williams | Oct 25, 2021
Shane Orr’s standout success as a CrossFit coach has carried him a long way from home. A Queenslander raised in Weipa, near the country’s northernmost tip, he smells the roses nowadays in Nashville, Tennessee alongside his wife, the all-conquering Tia-Clair Toomey. At home and in the gym, Orr has been at her shoulder and in her ear for every thrill and spill of a remarkable ride.
No matter how long you’ve been dealing with successful people, meeting someone at the top of their field can be daunting.
In this case, you wonder, what’s Orr going to be like? Prickly? Hyper-intense? Time-poor and thus impatient? Short with an interlocutor who’s not a CrossFit afficionado?
Happily, he’s none of these things. His emails suggest he’s keen to talk and happy to do so at the break of dawn to share the burden of an unwieldy time difference. When he answers his phone on a recent Tuesday, his first concern is that he might be keeping you up too late. Based on his solicitous, good-natured manner, you can’t help but take an instant shine to him.
Typically, a story about a top coach would start not at the beginning of his life but at some high point. There’s something about the trajectory of Orr’s career, however, that invites a more lineal tack.
He was born 32 years ago in Cairns, the second of three brothers. When he was little, the Orr family moved to Weipa, where his father worked in the bauxite mine and his mother at the hospital as a cleaner.
“Mum instilled in us boys to treat others how you want to be treated,” Orr says. “I still carry that today, especially when coaching. When giving advice, you don’t want to be too harsh.” His dad voiced a different mantra: there are no free handouts; anything you want, you work for.
While Orr is reflecting on role models, Toomey comes up, too. She and Orr were teenagers when he fell for her as she emerged from the surf during a local triathlon. It was a “Baywatch moment”, he recalls, with Toomey removing her cap and shaking water from her hair in what seemed to him like slow motion.
“I’m not sure she realises this, but Tia taught me discipline,” he says. “Every damn day, you’ve got to work for your craft. Before school, where she was a runner, she’d get up and go to the track or go to the pool. She’d do the normal kid thing and go
to school, and after school she wouldn’t have free time – she’d train again.”
In his youth, Orr played a lot of team sport, which was another pillar of his education. They taught him, he says, that success depends on trust and that you won’t get far on your own. In rugby, he was a fine outside centre, though not sufficiently exceptional to crack the game’s highest tiers. Even so, there was something unusual about him. “At training, I might have sounded like a smartarse, but I was always curious about the why,” he says. “I’d chat with the coach: ‘Why are we doing these intervals? Why are we doing these drills?’ I was already thinking like a coach. I was already interested in sports performance.”
On finishing school, he started a mechanical fitting apprenticeship and manned the front desk of a small Weipa gym before heading some 2000 kilometres south to settle in Gladstone. Come the rugby off-season, his coach suggested the players do CrossFit to stay in shape.
In 2013, when Toomey joined Orr in Gladstone, he encouraged her to try this CrossFit caper. But as it happened, Toomey hated her first taste and didn’t go back for months. It was during her second stint that her passion for CrossFit was stoked – and her extraordinary talent revealed. Though he didn’t know it yet, the course of Orr’s life had been set. His future would be not in mechanical fitting – the assembly of machines – but rather in athletic performance – the making of flesh-and-blood champions.
AT YOUR SERVICE
In 2015-16, Orr twice watched Toomey finish runner-up at the CrossFit Games, the sport’s annual world championships in the US. The second time, he recalls, “to see her so distraught, just shattered… it lit a fire in me. I didn’t want her ever to feel that again”.
The question was, what could he do about it? If Toomey had a weakness, Orr explains, it was in the strength department. Conversely, strength was his forte. And because they wanted to train together – attack the same workouts at the same time – something had to give.
Orr told Toomey they were going to focus on making her stronger, which meant Orr would be spending extra time working on what was already his strong point instead of targeting his weakness (his aerobic engine). In other words, Orr chose to abandon his own ambitions as a CrossFit competitor and concentrate on helping Toomey. While he enjoyed competing, “I figured that in order for one of us to succeed at the highest level, the other had to make a change”.
So, Orr took one for the team. But please, he says, don’t portray him as a saint. Yes, he says, he was a good competitor, “but she had more potential”. His ceiling was at a regional level, he suspects; Toomey, on the other hand, who following those two runner-up finishes has won the last five CrossFit Games . . . well, you’d need the USS Enterprise to find her limits. The athlete who at one time wasn’t strong enough to rule CrossFit won weightlifting gold in the women’s 58kg class at the 2018 Commonwealth Games, a feat she squeezed in during her ongoing reign as the Fittest Woman on Earth.
Safe to say, Orr’s decision to focus on coaching has been vindicated. Today, his stable of athletes includes James Newbury, Will Moorad and Brooke Wells, and he leads a team of coaches. He and Toomey also operate PRVN Fitness (), an online business that makes the power couple’s knowledge and expertise vis-à-vis optimum performance accessible
WHERE GIANTS ROAM
A few years ago, with Orr and Toomey having moved to Tennessee, Orr had the chance to work with CrossFit’s premier male athlete, Mat Fraser, who at the time had prevailed at the previous three CrossFit Games. It was Fraser who suggested they do a few sessions together at the storied CrossFit Mayhem in Cookeville, Tennessee.
“That was a no-brainer for us, to train with the best,” says Orr. “It was a great opportunity for Tia, and I was sure Mat would get
a thrill out of training with Tia as well. What’s great about male-female training partnerships is that you can go head-to-head without things getting complicated. If you come off second best in a particular workout, that’s okay because the other person is not a
“The course of Orr’s life had been set. His future would be in athletic performance – the making of champions/”
Before long, a few sessions morphed into a bona fide coach-athlete relationship that lasted two-and-a-half years, in which time Fraser claimed another two Fittest Man on Earth titles before retiring in February. What, you ask Orr, could the rest of
us learn from a titan like Mat Fraser?
“There were two things I took home,” he says. “Firstly, he’s very methodical with all his workouts. He’s very conscious of pacing and execution. He breaks it all down, from the sets he’s going to do to the chalk breaks he’s going to have.
“The other thing I appreciated was that he genuinely dedicated his life to being a champion. When most of us get home after a day’s work, we switch off. But Mat would get to work with his recovery tools. He had two Theraguns because he’d burn one out and then pick up the other one. Then he’d roll out and stretch. Throughout the competitive season, he’d go to bed at 8:30. It was a case of, this is what I’m going to do, and I’m going to succeed. And, you know, we could all put that level of professionalism into whatever we do. Because there’s simply no way you won’t succeed if you have that mentality.”
Not that Fraser was ever some humourless automaton, Orr stresses. The Canadian-American loved the laidback Australian manner, the banter and sarcasm, and could bring a lighter touch to training. “I wish I could have recorded more footage of Tia and Mat training together – more like The Last Dance – because, man, I’m so lucky to have witnessed all that and to have been part of the process.”
Many coaches would shrivel in the presence of a GOAT athlete. They’d think, what the hell can I teach this guy? And sure, Orr asked himself that question. But the point is he had an answer – and it wasn’t, Nothing! His own research told him that, like everyone, Fraser had weaknesses (relatively speaking), with swimming top of a short list. “That was something we worked really hard on,” says Orr. “That was glaring . . . a hole in his game.”
Orr knew the score. He was taking on a champion and there were three possible results: he could make the guy better; he could keep him where he was; or he could make him worse. “The goal I set was to make him better, and I homed in on that goal”.
And did you succeed?
TRICKS OF THE TRADE
The advice Orr’s mum gave him – to treat others as you’d like to be treated – well, he applied that adroitly to coaching Toomey and Fraser.
Let’s say they were practising the clean and jerk, and Orr noticed that Tia wasn’t utilising the fullest-possible extension of her hips, knees and ankles in the clean phase. Instead of saying, “Babe, your extension sucks”, Orr would turn to Fraser and say, “Hey, I love your extension! You’re doing a phenomenal job on that”.
The result, says Orr, is that the non-complimented athlete thinks, Hell, I want that recognition – I’m going to do that! “You boost one athlete, while subtly giving a pointer to the other.”
Like Tia, Orr can’t stand still. He tells me they’re about to go into camp with the Australian women’s bobsled team before next February’s Winter Olympics in Beijing. “I’m assisting the coach and Tia is competing,” he says. “We’re finding ways to stimulate us to keep going.”
By Dan Williams
Dan Williams, Men’s Health’s Associate Editor, is the magazine’s most experienced presence. While his body protests more than it used to, he still insists it honour the MH way, with regular dawn workouts mingled with punishing sessions on the tennis court – all against a backdrop of abstemiousness: he turns into a pumpkin at 10pm.
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