Admittedly, Sam Briggs sometimes misbehaves.
“I think I am hard to coach as I love to train, so sometimes I'll do what has been programmed for me,” she explains, “then do more.”
Her coach knows as much and likewise factors in Briggs’ unplanned workouts into his programming for her.
“Sam’s Sam. At the end of the day, it’s still got to be fun for her,” Karl Steadman, head trainer at CrossFit 3D in Manchester, England, says.
Despite the occasional unscheduled workout, the deviations are a far cry from how Briggs was training a year ago.
“I used to just like to do anything and everything,” Briggs, who placed fourth at the CrossFit Games in 2011, says. “If someone was doing a workout, I would like doing it.”
Steadman describes Briggs’ former approach as mostly comprising met-cons “and more and more and more, and she was just kind of smashing herself into the ground.”
A serious knee injury forced her to change all that.
Disappointment and Frustration
In March 2012, Briggs announced her withdrawal from Games competition that year, citing maltracking of her right kneecap that had been ongoing for a couple of years.
Steadman and James Jowsey, Briggs’ sports therapist, made the decision to pull her out of contention.
“We just knew that running wasn't comfortable for her and if she was unable to perform one of her strengths to her full ability, then how much justice was she actually going to do herself at the Games and, more importantly, at what cost,” Jowsey explains.
Days after the two men gave Briggs the disappointing news, she came clean with just how much pain she’d been enduring.
“Basically sleeping, walking, driving, everything. Not previously disclosed to her therapist (because) she knew what would happen,” Jowsey recounts. “Explains how she just never stops in a WOD.”
It turned out Briggs, a career firefighter, had a fractured patella.
“I got used to sitting next to her and a bag of frozen peas on the sofa each night,” Briggs’ partner, Jo, says.
To make matters worse, the patella didn’t fuse back together.
“She was given the option of surgery to remove the bone fragment, but the surgeon couldn't guarantee that the scar tissue would be less painful than the fragment being left,” Jo says. “She opted to cope with the discomfort of keeping the fragment in.”
Still, knowing the patella was fractured translated into valuable knowledge for Jowsey.
“This proved how important the mechanics were because the sequencing of the bone rotations was causing the patella to get knocked about,” he explains. “We improved the mechanics so the patella stopped getting hit, the pain eased quickly in the first week even though the fracture was present.”
To further develop muscle strength, Jowsey had Briggs do single-leg work targeting the quads, glutes and hamstrings. Squatting began once the orthopedic surgeon gave the OK.
“I couldn’t do anything with my legs for three months and then coming back from that, it was working with James Jowsey and he gave me movements and stretches, which I had to do two to three times a day, which sometimes took two or three hours,” Briggs says, “just to get the legs working.”
By the time Regional competition began, she was back to doing lighter workouts and then full training by the time the Games started, Jowsey adds.
How’s Briggs these days?
“I’m perfect,” she says with a laugh.
Although she was frustrated and disappointed by missing last year’s Games season, Briggs admits she’s better for it.
“Ever since that time, it’s been doing me lots of good,” she says.
Briggs took the time not only to focus on her lifting and gymnastics technique, but also to open her own affiliate, CrossFit Black Five, in January 2012 in Manchester, England.
“It came at a good time (with) being injured because I focused my attention there versus on what I couldn’t do,” she says.
But now with better movement patterns, Briggs has a few things to brag about.
“Yesterday I (PRd) my squat clean at 100 kg,” the 132-pound athlete said in early March. “Before, with my knee injury, anytime I went over 80 kg on the squat clean, I wouldn’t be able to do anything the next day with my knee.”
Watching from the sidelines as other athletes competed during last year’s Games season was incredibly difficult for Briggs, Jo says.
“She worried that they'd all be light years ahead of her when she'd finally be allowed to squat with weight again,” she recalls.
Briggs says having to slow down made her mentally stronger.
“I just have to work really hard,” she says, “whereas it would have been quite easy to give up.”
She adds: “I just had to be more focused, really. My training has to be more scheduled, more regimented and I have to be more disciplined with myself.”
Jo echoed those sentiments.
Not only did the rehab time likely save her CrossFit career, it saw Briggs become a better athlete, Jo says.
“I see videos of her climbing a rope upside down or stringing together bar muscle-ups one after the other with such improved technique now and just think, wow, this was the best thing to have happened to her, to have forced her to take a giant step back and have to focus on gymnastics and not the 'fun' weight and met-con chippers that she just thrives on usually,” Jo says. “It's humbling stuff that an athlete can take a knock like that — both physically and emotionally — and come back fighting and hungrier than ever.”
Briggs, Jo adds, has become more focused.
“Sam has always been known for her strength and stamina to just keep going when, by rights, she should be exhausted. So to see her have to call on her mental ability and approach it from a completely different angle and mindset this time has been a real testament to her determination and growth as an athlete,” she says.
“And I've not seen the bag of frozen peas in a while, thankfully.”
After the Open’s first workout, Briggs stood in second place in Europe and third place worldwide on the Games Leaderboard.
On March 14, her birthday, she completed the Open’s second workout as a “birthday treat.”
Her goal this season is simple: push.
“Definitely just to get back to the Games,” Briggs says. “I think to come back from injury and still be competing at the top level with the other athletes will be mission accomplished, really.”
Of course, she continues, her performance at the Games also will depend upon the programming.
“I think I’m a little bit more rounded,” Briggs says, adding that she’s back to doing a 20-minute 5K, and she’s back squatting more than double her bodyweight.
Steadman, meanwhile, is shooting higher.
“Podium, without a doubt,” he says. “That fourth (-place finish) wasn’t a fluke … and she’s better now than she was then.”