By Steve Madden
CARSON, Calif. -- If you're looking to feel inferior -- in just about any way you can think of -- I'd suggest a trip to the CrossFit Games, which concluded Sunday afternoon at the StubHub Center in suburban Los Angeles, with a win by Rich Froning, who took home a $275,000 purse. Samantha Briggs won the women's division.
It's not the athletes on the fields, track or pool who'll make you feel weak and out of shape; most of them are professionals, or semi-pro, and should look better than mere mortals. No, it's the spectators, 24,000 of whom packed into the home of the Los Angeles Galaxy over the three-day event. It's as if the Wimbledon Finals were attended by nobody but Serena Williams lookalikes, or the World Series stands filled with guys who had all played Triple-A ball. Perhaps only the PGA Tour attracts as many spectators who actually play the sport.
For the uninitiated, CrossFit is an exercise routine dating from 1995 that uses combinations of basic movements like calisthenics, running, rope jumping and Olympic weight moves, all done at lung-searing high intensity, to create what its disciples call functional fitness. (Full disclosure: the author, a an enthusiastic CrossFit participant since 2010, is one of those disciples.) Long a favorite of law enforcement and military special forces who needed to train for speed, power and endurance, CrossFit has grown at flank speed in the last few years, as a more mainstream fitness population has embraced the workouts made up of a combination of gym class staples like burpees and situps, Olympic weight lifting techniques like deadlifts, tire flips and 400-meter runs, gymnastic ring exercises and the odd sandbag carry, all of which give its most disciplined adherents, both male and female, physiques that rival Michaelangelo's David or "The 300." The workouts, say fans, are painful and addictive at the same time. They're also brutally time-efficient: very few CrossFit workouts last more than 20 minutes.
The Games, which started in 2007, are the culmination of a series of competitions that began at local CrossFit gyms last spring. The winnowing process produces a field of about 100 individual men and women, the stars of the sport, who compete over four days in workouts that take them from a pool to the track to the field. (The competition workouts aren't announced until just days before the games, so athletes must deal with the element of surprise; pool swimming was a new event this year. Organizers say springing an event on athletes is the best way to measure true fitness.) There are also masters events for those over 40, team competition and a teen division.
On Wednesday, under the gaze of judges watching every move and just dying to "no-count" a repetition, the elites swam and did pull-ups in one session, then rowed more than 20,000 meters on a stationary ergometer in another. On Friday morning, they competed in an event that demanded they run 2.1 miles, flip a metal sled dubbed The Pig the length of a football field, carry a heavy section of log 600 yards up a hill, then pull a weight-laden sled 66 yards.
And that was the morning workout.
Like any subculture, athletic or otherwise, CrossFit has peculiarities that could leave a non-CrossFitter at the games feeling as if he had just walked into a Star Trek convention -- albeit one in which Mr. Spock has insanely sculpted arms and Uhura can do pull-ups all day long. There's the lingo: Wxercising is WODding (an acronym for workout of the day, pronounced 'wad'); gyms are boxes; Fran, Grace and Helen are workouts. There's the diet: Lots of meat and vegetables, barely a soda, cookie or piece of white bread to be seen. There's the music: Pulsing, pounding and screaming to match or boost the intensity of the exercise. And there are the bodies on display in all their glory. Most men compete without shirts. They are all, each and every one of them, like the people in the stands, insanely fit and exquisitely built.
For a fan of traditional sports, the Kenny Powers line comes inevitably to mind: "I play real sports, I'm not trying to be the best at exercising." CrossFit likes to say it's the sport of fitness, but can fitness really be considered a sport? After all, much of the exercises these athletes are doing are found at other sports' combines, where they are used to try to predict future performance or potential. Can a training method be an end in itself?
That question doesn't even occur to people in the arena like Tom Bourdon, 55, a chemical company executive from Cartersville, Ga. A defensive back and athletic hall of famer at Massachusetts's Assumption College (where he was teammates with Notre Dame football coach Brian Kelly), Bourdon was brought into CrossFit by his daughter Lindsay, a coach and games competitor. He started slowly but now is competitive. But more importantly, he says "I feel 20 years younger now" than when he was competing in marathons and triathlons a few years ago. "And if anybody from the NFL or MLB thinks he's going to come over here and just do this, he has another think coming," he says. "The skills and flexibility required to do this are amazing. These guys are professional-level athletes. And everybody here knows how hard they work and how much it hurts because we've done it. That's the appeal."
Or as Denver trainer Alex Takacs, 24, puts it, "An Olympic weight lifter can't necessarily do CrossFit, but a CrossFitter can do Olympic weight moves. Look, it involves movement and you can quantify it. And it's really hard. Of course it's a sport."
Over a lunch of grass-fed beef and organic sweet potatoes, spectators Alex Carswell Engle, 26, and David Downey, 31, of Tempe, Ariz., said a big part of the appeal of the sport to spectators is knowing exactly what the athletes on the field are going through. "Every move they're doing, I've done," says Carswell Engle. "I know my numbers and I see theirs so I know how amazing and hard what they're doing really is." Adds Downey: "CrossFit has a really strong community aspect to it because we've all shared the same miserable experience, and laughed about it. It really hurts to do this well, and we've all been through it. That's why we cheer."
Adds Takacs, "There's a mental barrier we're overcoming on their way to pushing through a physical barrier that once made us physically ill."
That shows in how the competitors treat each other. Masters competitor Mary Beth Litsheim, 52, from Grand Junction, Colo., was interrupted mid-interview by a spectator who told her, "You were so much fun to watch," and then delivered a bear-hug.
And while the cheers were loud to the point of deafening for 2008 champ Jason Khalipa when he finished dragging his sled across the field in first place in Friday morning's burden run, they were just as loud for the competitors who finished 10 and 11 minutes behind Khalipa, struggling, tractionless, to get their sleds to budge the final yards. The cheers rose from the stands as competitors who were already finished and had regained their breath jogged over to urge the remaining competitors on. They finished and collapsed before being fist-bumped and pulled to their feet to stagger to an ice bath.
Competitors hitting it hard, giving it their all, then cheering each other on, basking in the praise of knowledgeable fans: Sure sounds like a sport to me.
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Steve Madden is the general manager of Sports on Earth.