"This is something I wanted a long time ago and I never stopped working towards it. It can happen. Dreams do come true."
Nicole Holcomb is a three-year regional competitor, but few knew her name until a couple weeks ago.
With three swift lifts, she introduced herself to the Central East in the first regional event, a one-rep-max hang squat snatch. After successful openers at 165 and 175 lb., she put up 185 lb. to win the event. The lift was 15 lb. heavier than what three-time CrossFit Games athlete, Julie Foucher, lifted in the final heat.
Two minutes later, the 27-year-old showed just as much ease on her hands as she did under the bar, walking 280 feet upside down for third place in Event 2.
Finishing in the top 10 across all five remaining events, Holcomb held a podium spot all weekend. On Sunday afternoon, she finished in second place overall, just 11 points behind Foucher, and 27 points ahead of third-ranked veteran Games competitor Michelle Kinney.
This will be Holcomb’s first trip to the Games, following two years of failed attempts. She put in 12th- and sixth-place regional finishes in 2012 and 2013, respectively.
“It feels amazing,” Holcomb said. “Ever since I found CrossFit and realized that there was a competitive element involved, I’ve been working toward this goal, so it’s been a long time coming.”
A childhood gymnast and bodybuilding dilettante, Holcomb found CrossFit in April of 2011 while sneaking in a workout on her Hawaiian honeymoon. Her globo gym treadmill had a perfect view of CrossFit Oahu, and the athletes flipping tires and kipping pull-ups next door seemed to be having a better time than she.
“People had their shirts off, and it looked so intense and like they were having fun,” Holcomb remembered.
She stuck to the treadmill that day, but after unpacking her suitcase back home in Columbus, Indiana, she went to CrossFit.com to learn more. Before a week had passed, she was practicing muscle-ups on homemade rings, slung over the pool at the globo gym where she worked as a personal trainer.
Each night, she studied videos of CrossFit athletes online, teaching herself the Olympic lifts. By day, she trained alone, following CrossFit.com and comparing her scores to those posted on the main site.
“There was definitely a void from gymnastics that (CrossFit) helped fill,” she said. “Being able to compare your times to other people and always chasing a new skill—it really clicked well with me.”
Weary of fighting bicep curlers for the squat rack, she quit her globo gym gig to open 812 CrossFit that May. Less than a year later, she qualified for the 2012 Central East Regional.
“I did well at it and I was shocked,” Holcomb recalled.
Her 12th-place finish planted the seed of a dream: to qualify for the CrossFit Games. To get there, she followed in Foucher’s footsteps, adopting programming written by Foucher’s coach and CrossFit Level 1 Seminar Staff member, Doug Chapman.
“(Foucher) moves very well and it’s very inspiring to watch her, so if it’s good enough for the best, it will trickle down,” Holcomb said.
In 2013, she halved her previous standing, finishing the regional in sixth place. This time, when she left the floor she wasn’t just fitter, she was wiser.
After going too fast in Jackie and too heavy in the overhead squat complex, she had little left to give in the burpee muscle-ups of the third event, following fifth- and first-place finishes with a plummet to 23rd.
“I had to learn a big lesson,” she said. “Like not going out too fast. If you hit it hard in one workout, you might not be able to perform as well in the next. It just takes one bad workout to knock you down.”
The weekend also exposed her tendency to cherry-pick. With distaste for both long endurance workouts and short lung-burners, she had always favored skill and strength work over developing her motor.
“I’ve always put an emphasis on weight training because I really enjoy it,” she said. “Sometimes it’s just hard to get your body to move … I’ve always been on the higher end of weight for CrossFit women.”
This year, she never finished outside of the top seven in any event. The improvement, she said, was her reward for tackling her biggest weakness over the past year: endurance.
To prepare for the 2014 season, she spent more time breathing hard, running and rowing 250- and 500-m sprint repeats. On active recovery days, she pulled a more leisurely 5- or 10-km row.
Five pounds lighter than last year, her efforts paid off with a tie for fourth place in Event 6, the 450-rep chipper that no woman across 17 regions finished within the 21-minute time cap. With a score after penalty of 22:11, she managed 29 box jump overs before the clock ran out on her return trip through the chipper.
Her coach commended her efforts.
“She does her work and is consistent,” Chapman said. “We do not leave holes in our programming, so when athletes do all the work, they fill in the gaps in their performance. She peaked well for the regional."
But it wasn’t just her lungs that improved. Two years of competing with the best in the Central East had helped to refine her mental game, as well.
“Through the years I’ve learned not to worry so much about other people, and to just stick with what you can do, knowing how to count your reps and when to take your rest,” she said. “This was the first regional that I did that and didn’t get caught up in what the person next to me was doing.”
Still, the regional wasn’t without lessons.
In Holcomb’s haste to beat the clock, she sacrificed form and standards in the fourth and fifth events. Hungry to string multiple strict handstand push-ups together, she was no-repped for arching her back excessively. On the rope, she tapped her lane number instead of the cross-beam, earning two no-reps and resulting in her worst finish of the weekend: seventh place.
It’s a mistake she doesn’t plan on repeating in Carson, California.
“I have to make sure that everything is exactly to standard, and slow down and make sure every rep does count,” she said.
To get there, she trains twice per day, five days per week with another coach at 812 CrossFit. Sessions begin with squats or deadlifts, followed by Olympic lifting, gymnastics skill work and metabolic conditioning.
“I’m very motivated right now in training to go out and do my best,” she said. “(The Games) are a very high level of competition … I’m expecting to be pushed and to try new skills.”
She’s also working on getting comfortable in the pool, hiring local high school swim coach, Jim Sheridan, to help build her endurance in the water and refine her stroke technique.
“I’ve never really swam before,” Holcomb admitted. “But I feel a lot more prepared than I would have been a year ago.”
To prepare for the possibility of a surprise ocean swim—as there was in the 2012 Reebok CrossFit Games—she plans to arrive a few days early to get the feel for live waves. Before then, Holcomb will join other Chapman and a group of other athletes who he trains for a fitness intensive in June.
“The training camps will definitely help, because it will be a couple days away from home where you don’t have your equipment and you’re not in your comfort zone,” she said.
Three years ago, Holcomb never dreamed she would compete alongside the women she’d studied on her computer screen. Now, she has become the role model for athletes to emulate.
“After the regional weekend, everyone (at 812 CrossFit) has started pushing a little harder and coming to me with goals of their own,” she said. “My goal is just to show people that this is something I wanted a long time ago and I never stopped working towards it. It can happen. Dreams do come true.”