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Testing toughness in North Tonawanda

Nick Vona was an all-Niagara Orleans League baseball player at Newfane High School, a second-team all-league selection in basketball, an honorable mention in football.

He played two seasons of Division III college basketball and still runs the floor in the local rec leagues and tournaments.

But Vona, 23, has never felt as triumphant as he did last Saturday in the parking lot of North Tonawanda’s Gateway Center.

With 400 pounds draped on his back and more than 100 people – friends, relatives and competitors, alike – cheering his name, Vona squeezed out a smile and sprinted to a first-place finish in the final workout of the Western New York Summer Classic competition hosted by CrossFit 716.

“Crossing that finish line with everybody going nuts,” he said, “was definitely one of the coolest things I’ve ever done.”

More than 50 men and women competed in the Summer Classic, heaving heavy barbells, kettlebells and Atlas Stones, running with weights, jump-roping and rowing as hard and fast as they could, while DJ Optimus Prime spun records, Lloyd’s Taco Truck served the masses, and parade-goers on nearby Webster Street wandered over in wonderment.

The inaugural event raised more than $1,700 for the Remember Ryan Foundation and gave Niagara County its first taste of what Forbes magazine has called “The Next Great Spectator Sport.”

Every entrant performed three times in the makeshift ring of yellow caution tape on sun-baked asphalt. The workouts tested physical strength, mental toughness and mastery of exercises common to CrossFit training. Women performed the same workouts as men, but with less weight. After three events, the top 10 men and women advanced to the final workout of the day, or WOD, a grueling series of challenges that forced a fast pace by cutting the field down three times during the workout.

The men’s mega-WOD consisted of 10 repetitions of a 135-pound barbell snatch, 150 double-under rope jumps, 10 power cleans with a 185-pound barbell, 50 meters of walking lunges with a 45-pound weight held overhead, an 800-meter ergometer row, and a 25-meter sprint down and 25-meter slog back carrying the 400-pound strongman yoke.

At the end of the day, the man who designed the workouts, CrossFit 716 co-owner Dennis Lesniak, implored competitors to “enjoy your soreness.”

Vona, the lightweight in the men’s field at 165 pounds, finished the final WOD in 9:53, a minute faster than any other athlete. The performance earned him third place in the overall competition. As the CrossFit phrase goes, “every rep counts,” and Vona’s 10th-place score in the third WOD involving Atlas Stone hoists and barbell thrusters slotted him behind men’s champion Pat Corrigan, 25, a former college baseball pitcher from Rochester who trained at CrossFit 716 while earning his master’s degree at Canisius College, and Robby Dinero, 41, a former Marine, boxer and owner of Athletes Unleashed, a CrossFit affiliate in Orchard Park.

CrossFit competitions wouldn’t have suited Vince Lombardi. Winning is not the only thing that matters. Dinero showed up with his shaved head, foot-long beard and T-shirt with the slogan “Making People Hard to Kill Since 2012,” but showed more passion for his clients’ performances than his own.

“I don’t do this competitively,” he said. “I came out to 716 for a couple reasons. When I first opened my gym in December, Dennis and (his wife) Jenn brought a team of people to compete, and I wanted to return the favor. I love coming out to the local competitions. I wanted to expose some of our athletes to the community and give them their opportunity to shine.

“That’s what’s beautiful about these competitions. A 40-year-old mom can shine and own that moment for eternity.”

Women’s champion Laura Comstock, 28, had no athletic background when she began taking boot-camp classes at Lesniak Chiropractic in 2011. She had just moved to North Tonawanda and found a Groupon offer to the closest gym to her new house. As the Lesniaks converted their office into a CrossFit-affiliated box, Comstock was transforming her body and discovering her competitive spirit. She broke through for her first victory last weekend after she “finally learned to compete with myself and not the others.”

Emily Ciraolo, 25, the bronze medalist in the women’s division, swam for Holy Angels Academy in Buffalo and St. Bonaventure University before burning out on competitive sports. “I thought I was good with going to the gym, getting on the elliptical and watching Family Matters,” she said. A year later, she placed 118th out of more than 3,000 athletes in the open qualifying workouts for the CrossFit Games Northeast Regionals.

“Once you get into CrossFit, there is a competitive atmosphere, and you want to do the best you can do,” Ciraolo said. “And everybody pushes you past what you think you can do.”

CrossFit originated in the 1990s in the California garage of a gymnast, Greg Glassman. It has grown into a full-fledged fitness craze with more than 6,000 affiliated gyms, a robust virtual community online and mainstream exposure through the Reebok-sponsored CrossFit Games that will air on ESPN2 in July.

CrossFit 716 has more than 150 members, of which only an elite few could ever conceive of qualifying for the CrossFit Games. The Summer Classic was created, in part, for the gym’s novices to experience how competition brings out the best in us all.

“The first time you do a competition, the big thing that happens is you hit another gear that you didn’t even know existed,” Dennis Lesniak said.

“And then you see the training change and athletes elevate their game elsewhere. It’s really cool to see how that happens from just one competition.”

Joe Cardinale, 28, a former college rugby player who lives in Lockport, made his competitive CrossFit debut at the Summer Classic and said afterward, “I did things today that I have never been able to do in a workout before.”

“The mentality changes,” said Jennifer Lesniak, who placed 25th in last month’s CrossFit Games Northeast Regionals. “Once they become competitive, they are more apt to push themselves to a new level. You really feel like an athlete. People who were athletes before, they say, ‘This is what it used to feel like when I would compete.’ And the people who have never had that before, it gives them the opportunity to rise to the occasion and be an athlete.”