Justin Liwanag: Finding the Road to Redemption Through CrossFit

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Justin Liwanag: Finding the Road to Redemption Through CrossFit
Justin Liwanag is competing at the Canada West Regional. And then he’s going to prison.

There is no shortage of stories about how CrossFit has transformed peoples’ lives. But in Justin Liwanag’s case, it just may be saving him.

Two years ago, after hearing about CrossFit from a friend, Justin, along with his brother Jessie, walked into the Undefeated CrossFit box in Winnipeg to try out a free trial class.

“I’d finally found something that beat the shit out of me, something that required work ethic. It made me want to find out what I was capable of,” Justin explains.
He knew he would be back. His brother Jessie recalls, “We had a hard time filling out the membership form because our hands were shaking so bad.”

Undefeated box owner Matt Winchar gives his first impression of Justin: “There was this inherent humbleness. I was able to see a natural athletic ability in him, but it was held back. Justin didn’t quite believe in what he possessed and needed exposure from other athletes and competitions to truly understand his potential.” He goes on to describe a humility and politeness in Justin that seemed remarkable and unusual.

A Dark Past

As one world was opened up to Justin – one that would shape and define his future — another much darker world was about to come crashing down.

[CrossFit] taps into an integrity and work ethic that Justin had abandoned when he engaged in dealing drugs. It also rekindled his natural athletic ability, another quality he’d long since forsaken.
Two days after his very first CrossFit class, a police cruiser smashed into the side of Justin’s car and police pointed a gun at his head.

Justin was arrested as part of a drug trafficking bust that seized three kilos of cocaine, with a street value of $150,000. Justin, along with two others, was about to face very serious drug-related charges.

For a lot of people, this might be where the story ends. For Justin, it’s where the story begins. And it’s a story of reflection, redemption and change.

Justin was charged and awaited trial; he was required to live with his parents and abide by a strict curfew. His driver’s license and communication devices were revoked.

That first CrossFit class must have made a real impression on Justin. Despite everything going on in his life, he continued to return to Undefeated. Either Justin’s dad would drop off him off at the box or he would bus across town to get to classes. CrossFit gave him a positive focus in the midst of a lot of turmoil.

At 5’8”, Justin is so soft spoken that I have a hard time hearing him above the music and din of the restaurant. I have to keep asking him to repeat things. It’s difficult to imagine him pinned up against a car by police officers.

As I listen to Justin talk about CrossFit, it becomes evident that the appeal of it for him is that it demands hard work, commitment and discipline. It taps into an integrity and work ethic that Justin had abandoned when he engaged in dealing drugs. It also rekindled his natural athletic ability, another quality he’d long since forsaken.

In high school Justin was a talented basketball player and top scorer, earning several MVP titles. When he told his coach he wanted to play basketball at the University of Manitoba – his coach said he had no hope whatsoever due to his lack of height. It was a defining moment for Justin, and it devastated him.

He went on to take an automotive course at Red River College. By the age of twenty, he was living on his own, struggling to survive and wafting aimlessly through life without much focus or discipline. He saw friends buying rounds of drinks for the entire bar and driving expensive cars. “I wanted that. I wanted money, easy and fast,” Justin explains.

He was so bored and frustrated with life that when he was introduced to the drug trade, he thought, What do I have to lose? Nothing. Dealing drugs provided direct access to the money and the lifestyle he desired; it presented an appealing, high-adrenaline way of living that jarred him from his boredom. Winchar says that he too grew up in a bad neighbourhood and muses, “I only wish CrossFit was there for him just a few years earlier.”

CrossFit & the Open: Turning Things Around

CrossFit & the Open: Turning Things Around

“[CrossFit] makes me feel like I have no limitations, and every time I see that lift number go up, it makes me believe I can do anything.”
Within his first year of joining CrossFit, Justin ranked 65th in the Canada West division of the Open and earned an invitation to Regionals. But that invitation landed in his junk email and he missed the time frame to indicate his acceptance.

In the following year, as Justin stood trial, was found guilty of drug trafficking and awaited his sentencing, he trained for local competitions like FrostFit, where he found himself on the podium.

He set his sights on the 2014 Open. If he could earn an invite to Regionals without serious training, imagine what he could do if he trained for it. He looked at that 2013 Regionals invitation every day. It motivated him and reminded him of what he is capable of. He started pulling off lifts that were both technically sharp and poetic to watch. He was breaking his own PR’s.

Justin connected with 2013 CrossFit Games competitor and icon Tyson Takasaki: “I remember him during my handstand walk to finish off the final event of FrostFit. That I will always remember because he’s such a high class athlete and he’s cheering me on, the little guy,” Justin laughs. Takasaki has developed special programming for Justin, and they sometimes train together. “Just having him around and knowing he is actually keeping an eye on my progress means a great deal to me,” Justin says, genuinely humbled by Takasaki’s attention.

Takasaki himself is impressed by Justin’s commitment to both CrossFit and the altering of his personal journey.

I’ve gotten to know him both as the type of athlete he is, as well as the type of person he is. He works extremely hard and is diligent in his approach to skills and the things he needs to improve on. CrossFit can help people not only physically, but in all aspects of life. I think with Justin this holds real meaning…he’s done a complete 180.

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