How Vellner, Letendre Defy the Expected Athlete-Coach Relationship
It’s Friday at the Reebok CrossFit Games East Regional. A sea of men are gathered in the warmup area at the Times Union Center, as the first individual event of the competition is just minutes from kicking off. Several of the men are shaking out their legs. Many are seated on Assault Bikes loosening up before the cardio-heavy Triple Three sets in.
And then there's Pat Vellner.
The reigning Third Fittest Man on Earth can be found in the center of the warmup area, but unlike his peers, he’s not in motion. He stands in place smiling – laughing, actually – as he chats with his coach and fellow Canadian Michele Letendre, who is by his side.
“Pat warms up his mouth,” says Letendre, which again erupts Vellner in laugher.
They’re visibly relaxed. It’s clear there is a comfort between the two.
Vellner went on to take a commanding first place spot in his heat of the Triple Three, which proved good for a third place overall.
And while the world watched him, I watched Letendre.
That sea of men in the warm-up area remained intact even as the competitors exited the warmup area to take their places on the competition floor. You see, coaches too are allowed in this section, and from the looks of it, the majority of these male athletes brought along a male coach. Except Vellner. Another factor separating him from the masses.
Even at 5’1”, Letendre had no problem standing out among the other coaches. She watched her athlete surpass theirs.
“It's not something that I think about when I work,” she said when asked about being one of the few women out there.
“I'm not gonna sit here and say that I never actually was self-conscious about the fact that I'm a female trying to coach elite male athletes,” Letendre continues. “It is intimidating. But then again, nothing that is worth doing doesn't have a little bit of intimidation.
I'm not gonna sit here and say that I never actually was self-conscious about the fact that I'm a female trying to coach elite male athletes.
“I pride myself on the fact that I've never let that stand in my way.”
Vellner jumps in.
“As far as I'm concerned, it looks like it's working pretty well,” he says, a subtle nod to his podium performance at last year’s CrossFit Games. “More people should do it.”
A Chance Meeting
CrossFit OG’s will remember that before Letendre was the coach and programmer behind Deka Comp, she was a six-time Reebok CrossFit Games qualifier herself. It was, in fact, back in 2014 while she was competing at the Canada East Regional when she first spoke to Vellner.
“I remember that we were at Regionals and everyone's like, ‘Who's Patrick Vellner?’” jokes Letendre, who proceeded to finish in fourth place at the Games that year while Vellner failed to qualify.
Vellner rolls his eyes.
“That year, I didn't actually train at a CrossFit gym. I just was working out at school,” he explains. “Then after that Regional, I started training at the gym that Michelle was working at. The team I went to the Games on, actually, was at that gym. So we kind of met there and started to build a little bit more of a relationship.”
The following year, 2016, Vellner returned to individual competition and earned his first Games qualification. Meanwhile, Letendre was training for what she had already announced would be her final Games before retiring from elite competition.
I remember that we were at Regionals and everyone's like, ‘Who's Patrick Vellner?’
“I was just living in Montreal in the summer, and Michele had moved to Deka CrossFit in Blainville to train there. I sort of was just living in Montreal with no direction,” reflects Vellner. “So I contacted her again to say, ‘Hey, I'm here for the next month and a half or so and was wondering if we could get together.’”
And just like that, Letendre invited Vellner to live with her and her boyfriend for the summer.
“He needed a place to stay and we had room in the house,” says Letendre, clearly still unfazed by her act of kindness.
The two spent that next month and a half training together day in and day out. While Letendre was not yet Vellner’s coach officially, he admits, “I would just do whatever she was doing.”
“We were opposite athletes so it was very helpful in a very frustrating way,” Letendre adds. “We'd get to kick the crap out of each other.”
We were opposite athletes so it was very helpful in a very frustrating way.
Vellner nods in agreement. “You'd win one and then she'd win one. We’d trade bullets all day.”
“And being male and female, there was no competition,” says Letendre. “It was a healthy competition.”
And it was effective.
So effective that rookie Games qualifier Vellner would find himself standing atop the podium at the end of that year’s Games.
A post shared by Michele Letendre (@mich_letendre) on Aug 5, 2016 at 5:19pm PDT
‘Treading New Waters’
Following the 2016 Reebok CrossFit Invitational, which reunited Vellner and Letendre as part of Team Canada a few months later, Letendre would follow suit with her retirement plans and officially launch Deka Comp. Vellner signed on immediately.
“It was perfect for me,” he says. “We had already worked together that summer and things worked out very well for me that year, so it seemed like a great idea to try to continue that relationship.”
Today they work together from afar, as Vellner now lives in Toronto while Letendre is still in Montreal. Neither view the distance as a disadvantage.
“My entire athletic career I had coaches that were far from me,” says Letendre. “Pat is a smart athlete. He thinks about things. He educates himself about things. He knows where he's going, so he doesn't need me there. My role with Pat is more of giving him a plan and a program and helping him stay in line. But he needs freedom to do things his own way.”
When asked if he ever questioned the fact that he was choosing a woman as his coach, Vellner replies, “It's not something I even considered.”
“I don't see Michele as a woman coach. She's a coach who was an athlete. She's a coach with experience on the floor, which is super valuable."
I don't see Michele as a woman coach. She's a coach who was an athlete. She's a coach with experience on the floor, which is super valuable.
“She's good at the things that I'm not good at and has experience. She's a great weightlifter, and those are areas that I could stand to improve in. Having that sort of experience in different areas that I don't have is super valuable for me. That was more important than having a male or female coach.”
And while Vellner admits he never really thought about this, Letendre says the topic is something that inevitably crosses her mind from time to time. “It's a scary situation when the third Fittest Man on Earth asks you to be his coach,” she says.
“I'll talk about programming and I'm just sitting there thinking how most of the people who I've seen talk about programming are male. I'm treading in waters that are new. I take it as an advantage.”
I'm treading in waters that are new. I take it as an advantage.
The seriousness in the room lasts for only a few seconds before Vellner jumps back in to joking.
“Sometimes, I would say from a programming perspective, I worry that there's weight conversion issues and I feel like maybe she is scaling them weird because she's not sure what men's weights should be like. But I think that's mostly just me deflecting because the workout was really hard. I swear, she's lowkey trying to kill me some days.”
Letendre laughs. “Pat will read the programming and come back with, ‘This is bonkers. You can't make me do this.’ My reaction to that is usually that of resistance. You are the third fittest man. Don't tell me you can't do this.
“It's such a good ‘shut up’ phrase,” confirms Vellner.
On to the Next One
Vellner won this past weekend’s East Regional, punching his ticket back to Madison. The first week of August he will compete in his third Reebok CrossFit Games as an individual athlete.
Already, he is not shy about announcing his goal for this next stage of the season: “I wanna win the CrossFit Games. Let's do it. Let's say it.”
I wanna win the CrossFit Games. Let's do it. Let's say it.
It’s a statement that breaks Letendre into a smile.
“I think Pat's an athlete that is super talented, but it feels like there's a fear of putting yourself out there,” she says.
“I had that when I was competing. There's a fear to assume who you are and what you want. I think that once a person can really assume their desires and their wants and their abilities, they're unstoppable.”