The nature of CrossFit competition is changing and athletes, as they seek to gain an edge over their fellow competitors, are more and more turning to other people to program and coach for them.
Of course, this is the norm in other sports, but historically competitive CrossFitters have programmed for themselves. Even among elite CrossFitters with coaches, 2011 Spirit of the Games winner Annie Sakamoto is outspoken in her appreciation for her coach, Gary Hirthler.
At first glance Gary does not fit the characteristics of a typical CrossFit coach. Lean and soft-spoken, wearing a Costa Rican Imperial beer tee, Gary looks more like the archetypical Santa Cruz surfer. Then you listen to him talk about CrossFit, and his passion, knowledge, and commitment to his members are all readily apparent. And you realize that he is the coach of one of the fittest women on the planet, as well as the co-owner of an affiliate with one of the most impressive CrossFit pedigrees around--CrossFit Santa Cruz Central was founded by some of the most experienced trainers in CrossFit, including Annie and fellow ‘Nasty Girl’ Eva T.
Gary’s own pedigree is nearly as impressive. He started CrossFit more than six years ago at the old headquarters in Santa Cruz, and would train there every summer and on breaks from pursuing a degree in kinesiology. Graduating from college after the old HQ closed, Gary returned to working out at an affiliate with an eye toward becoming a trainer himself. Gary was always old school about his CrossFit training, focusing on General Physical Preparation as a foundation for life and sports, mainly surfing.
Gary says he never thought about being Annie’s coach. His transition from affiliate member to fellow trainer to personal coach was a gradual and organic process, rooted in his own abilities and Annie’s initially unrecognized need for a coach. Since Annie competed at last year’s NorCal Regionals on a whim, she had never seen the need for a coach, but Gary’s help, advice, and support at Regionals was so invaluable that she turned to him 100 percent in preparation for the Games.
After the 2011 CrossFit Games, where Annie placed 9th and won the coveted “Spirit of the Games” award, Gary and Annie made the decision to focus on a return trip to Carson, Calif., in 2012. Gary decided their first concentration needed to be strength. Annie is not a big athlete and the workouts seemed to be getting heavier and heavier. He put her on a basic strength program heavily influenced by kettlebell guru Pavel Tsatsouline’s “Power To The People,” which he says has been very successful. The closer Regionals looms, Gary says, the more Annie will shift from a dedicated strength program to straight CrossFit, with her weightlifting being done in WODs.
According to Annie, working with Gary is totally different than her early training with CrossFit co-founder Lauren Glassman, her first coach. With Lauren, Annie was part of a class, where now she has a deep one-on-one relationship with Gary. “Gary knows just how to play me,” she says, adding that she wants “eyes on, not just a distant but famous coach.” Looking back over her many years in CrossFit, Annie says that coaching a competitive CrossFitter “is much more difficult than teaching CrossFit in the old days. More in-depth, but more varied.” A good coach “needs a broad eye and mindset, but still retains the CrossFit fundamentals.”
Programming for Annie has been a real learning experience, Gary says. Gary has teaching experience and a degree in human movement, and he “researches, studies, and thinks about CrossFit a lot,” but the difficulties involved in programming for a Games athlete need to be experienced to be understood. Added is the fact that Annie is 36 years old, with different recovery and volume capacities than her competitors, the majority are much younger. Current Games champion Annie Thorisdottir is 22.
Being the coach of a well-known athlete can be very nerve-wracking, with an enormous amount of pressure. Gary says working with Annie was “intimidating at first”, but he never felt any real pressure. “It’s only pressure if I feel it’s pressure,” he says.
This year, with greater expectations and greater publicity, it is harder to have that mindset. Gary acknowledges that it is “easier said than done,” but both Annie and Gary are trying always to remember that if Annie doesn’t go to the Games, “so what? The gym will be the same. Take it all away, we are just doing our thing.”
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