Eric Brown battled hard. Real hard.

The torn nerve in his neck was one thing, but nothing compared to the silent injury corroding his confidence, self-worth and direction. Somewhere in his brain, his sense of self had changed.

Eric didn’t want to give up, but his mind was working against him. Nightmares of the injury filled his sleep and the days seemed long and devoid of purpose.

“I literally gave up at one stage there. And it took my sister to say, ‘Please don’t do this to yourself, your family loves you.’”

For weeks Eric had looked inward, searching his dark mind for who he used to be. But his sister’s words helped him realise that the light he was looking for actually existed outside his mind: his kids.

“Every morning my kids ask me, ‘Dad, have you been training?’ and I am proud to say that I have.”

Eric’s day starts at 4am with a 15-minute breathing routine designed to stimulate the release of adrenaline. Then he has a cold shower, before starting his first workout at 5am.

Before you think ‘that’s crazy’, take a moment to assess the theory. A cold shower at 4:15am is entirely outside most people’s comfort zone, especially on the temperate NSW South Coast. It forces you to be in the moment, to ignore your anxieties about the future or regrets of the past. There’s only one thing: responding to the sharp cold water on your neck. If you can handle a 4:15am cold shower, then you can handle whatever else is coming that day.

It’s in this discomfort that Eric has found purpose again.

In 2011 Eric was playing in an Aboriginal Knockout Rugby League competition in Cairns. Five minutes into the second half, he copped a knee to the neck. He tore nerves from his spine which controlled the use of his left arm, resulting in a permanent injury.

He has no tricep muscle and the muscles used to open his left hand are shot.

Eric fell into depression and admits that he turned to substance abuse to try to find a way back from the dark. Predictably, it only drove him deeper. He was diagnosed with PTSD.

“I would stare while people were talking to me, but I wouldn’t hear anything they said.”

Eric didn’t know who he was after the injury. After his sister’s tough talk, Eric realised he needed to talk to his elders.

“My injury brought me back to my culture a lot more,” Eric said.

From the elders of the Yuin nation on the South Coast of NSW, Eric learned how to tackle his anxiety. The lessons boil down to this: if you live in the past, you’ll be sad, and if you live in the future, you’ll get anxious, so live in the moment.

“Culture has been a really strong thing – helping me with my calmness. You need calmness in CrossFit,” he said.

The father of four listened and started to practise the teachings of the Yuin nation. In this process, he found sport again. This time, in the form of a competition for people who have lost the use of their limbs: the WheelWOD Games.

The WheelWOD Games are an independant competition designed for CrossFit athletes. Eric had to complete five week’s worth of CrossFit inspired workouts, logging them online. He watched his name jump up and down the leaderboard, hoping to make it to the top 12 in the world to reach the World Championships in Canada.

“It was pretty nerve wracking and motivating at the same time,” Eric said.

The gruelling five-week process, of learning the workout on Friday and completing it by Tuesday, wrapped up. He watched his phone like a kettle as the results dropped.

“It was just really overwhelming. I sort of knew I was in, I was literally driving and crying all the way home.”

He ended up placing 12th in the world, one of only two Australians to go to Canada this July.

“It was a good reflection on where I’ve come from with my injury. I struggled with depression, anxiety, drug and alcohol addiction for two years. Being able to come out of that a lot better than when I came in.”

The relief he felt was quickly replaced by a new emotion: pressure. We spoke with Eric in the midst of his preparations to take on 11 other elite athletes at Worlds. His 4am wake-ups look a lot more impressive when you consider the rest of his schedule. After his 5am workout he helps get his four boys ready for school, then goes to work as an Aboriginal Juvenile Justice Caseworker, before tucking his kids in at night and finishing the day off with a second workout at 8:30, sometimes 9pm.

How does he manage it? He’s building a legacy, something his kids will look at and be inspired by.

Talking to Eric you realise this goal straight away. It’s well-rehearsed leaving his lips, reflecting a clear mind, conscious only of the moment. Here and now is all that matters, no need worrying about the future.

Culture brought Eric back to his physical and mental best, because he knows he’s doing it for something bigger than himself.

You can stay up to date with Eric’s progress via his CrossFit group’s Facebook page: Crossfit Inventive.

By Keiran Deck