With hundreds of thousands of athletes entered into the 2016 Reebok CrossFit Games Open, it can be hard to choose who to follow.
Here are 10 athletes on my shortlist. They run the gamut from Teenagers to Masters athletes, and top Games veterans to newer athletes who will likely opt for the scaled version of the week’s workout. I’m going to be watching all of them closely for the next five weeks.
Zach Ruhl is helping push the limits of what’s possible for himself and other adaptive CrossFit athletes.
Born with a condition that necessitated the amputation of both of his legs when he was just two years old, Ruhl has lived a life that exceeds all expectations: playing varsity football in high school, winning a professional arm wrestling competition, and doing CrossFit and opening his own affiliate, CrossFit Uncontested, which offers free classes to anyone with a disability.
Ruhl has been featured in Men’s Health, People, and the documentary Tin Soldiers. He regularly shares his workouts and achievements on his Instagram, @pitbullruhl. There, you’ll see Zack performing feats that are, simply stated, amazing. Muscle-ups, freestanding wheelchair handstand push-ups, rope climbs, 400-lb.+ bench presses…
Ruhl shows the world that playing the hand you’re dealt doesn’t mean settling for less.
Get used to hearing the name Tasia Percevecz.
The former University of New Hampshire gymnast made the switch to CrossFit three years ago, and for the last two seasons has been a top-tier regional competitor. She came within four spots of qualifying for the Games at the 2014 North East Regional as a rookie, and then managed to qualify for the more competitive combined 2015 East Regional and take 12th place.
Since then, Percevecz has had strong showings at major offseason fitness competitions, finishing in 5th, 6th, and 3rd in competitions stacked with Games athletes. In total, she beat 24 Games athletes across three weekends, including reigning Fittest Woman on Earth Katrin Davidsdottir.
“I’ve been focusing on having a ton of fun when I compete,” Percevecz said about her competition mindset since regionals, “and it’s been working!”
Percevecz took fourth in the North East in the 2015 Open. Even with Davidsdottir entering the region, don’t be surprised if it’s Percevecz’s name at the top of the North East Leaderboard when the Open is over.
For many familiar with the Masters Competition, it seems like a no-brainer that Shawn Ramirez would be on this list. The man known as “The Ram” has charged his way onto the top of the Masters 40-44 podium for the last two years.
What makes him so impressive is the extent of his dominance throughout the Games season. Ramirez has won every stage of the CrossFit Games season for the last two consecutive years, the Open, Masters Qualifier, and Games, making him six for six in CrossFit competition.
That’s the kind of record associated with the “Fittest Man in History” Rich Froning. If Ramirez can do it again in 2016, his three-year sweep of every Games stage will put him in line with Froning’s three years of perfect dominance, from 2012 - 2014.
With a third Games win, Ramirez will also match the Masters men win record set by 60+ athlete Scott Olson.
He has also earned the distinction of being the first Masters athlete to perform in a Live Open Announcement. On Thursday, March 10, Ramirez will face 17-year-old teenage champion Nicholas Paladino at the Live Announcement of Open Workout 16.3, presented by Rx Smart Gear, in Jacksonville, Florida. Watch it on the Games site at 5 p.m. PT.
2016 looks to be a breakout year for 15-year-old Madison Walker.
The former gymnast who now trains at UTE CrossFit in Salt Lake City came 16 positions away from qualifying for the Games in 2015, with a 36th-place worldwide finish in the 2015 Open. A year older and a lot stronger, having added a total of 30 lb. to her snatch (110 lb.) and clean and jerk (150 lb.), Walker could be a contender this season. She set that 110 lb. snatch PR immediately after re-testing 15.4.
It helps to have multi-year Games competitor Mandi Janowitz in her corner. Janowitz has been her coach and guide for nearly two years.
“She comes in everyday with this determined attitude and attacks workouts with all her heart,” said Janowitz. “No one matches this girl’s grit and fire!”
UTE CrossFit has produced Individual Games competitors, Affiliate Cup-winning teams, and may soon add Teenage Games competitor to that list. Walker could very well be the next generation of Games athlete to come from UTE.
Kyle Kasperbauer isn’t a household name, but you should get to know him.
He took third at the 2012 Reebok CrossFit Games behind Rich Froning and Matt Chan, and helped CrossFit Omaha finish third in the Affiliate Cup in 2010. He has qualified for the Games six times, four times as an Individual and twice as part of CrossFit Omaha. He has won the North Central Regional three times (‘12, ‘13, ‘14), and set top-three finishes on the longest Games event on record, Pendleton 2, as well as one of the shortest and most iconic, Fran.
Kasperbauer took 2015 off to have surgery to repair two tears in his shoulder (supraspinatus RTC tendon tear and a superior labral tear), and a bone spur (subacromial decompression) that stemmed from his college football career and plagued him throughout his years as a CrossFit athlete.
Over the last year, Kasperbauer opened his own affiliate, CrossFit Kinesis, in Gretna, Nebraska, and has regularly posted his progress on his Instagram, @kylekasperbauer. Having built his incredible Games resume in spite of those injuries leads me to believe that he’s a threat to return to Carson now that he’s on the mend.
Kristine Andali was the highest performing athlete at the 2014 regionals who wasn’t invited to compete at the 2014 Games.
That year, she finished third at the 2014 Canada East Regional, which sent only two athletes to the Games. With the eventual champion, Camille Leblanc-Bazinet, and the future fourth-place Games finisher, Michele Letendre, taking the two qualifying positions, Andali missed out.
Then 2015 was cut short for Andali by a ruptured Achilles suffered in April while preparing for regionals.
She returned to a full training regimen six months post-surgery, and has since set personal records on her clean and jerk, 240 lb., and Fran, 1:56.
The Canadian athlete with the Xena-like long black hair has relocated to Southern California for a “change of atmosphere” and to be closer to her coach, Dusty Hyland. If her Open goes well, expect to see her in the mix with the state’s best women at the California Regional.
As a rookie, Garret Fisher took fifth at the 2013 Reebok CrossFit Games, which catapulted him into overnight celebrity.
The young athlete and coach used that success to get a job as rapper Rick Ross’s trainer, which pulled him from his tight-knit NorCal crew and relocated him to a whole new scene in Miami, Florida. For the next two years, Fisher was unable to capture the magic of 2013, failing to qualify for the Games in 2014 and 2015.
That may change this year, though, since he has moved back to the Bay Area of California and reunited with the other top athletes at NorCal CrossFit. He has had a promising offseason, finishing on the podium at three major fitness competitions, beating 27 Games athletes and finishing 19 of the 20 workouts in the top 10. His only blemish? An 11th place event finish.
This is precisely the type of consistency needed to make it back to the Games, and potentially return to the top five as well.
JEANNE MITCHELL SMITH
I’m going to follow the mother-daughter duo, Jeanne Mitchell Smith and Katie Mitchell. The two were featured on the CrossFit Games Facebook page in late January, with Jeanne thanking her daughter for getting her into CrossFit.
Inspired by her daughter’s love of fitness, Jeanne decided to join Katie at CrossFit Waco four years ago. Since then, Jeanne has lost over 100 pounds and has become an Open competitor too, performing the scaled versions of the workouts for women over 60 years old.
“I know CrossFit changed my life and love seeing (others’) lives changing as well,” Jeanne wrote.
The original post of her story (found here) has spurred numerous additional testimonials in the comments section from the broad range of athletes who take part in the Open. It’s a great reminder that for many, the Open is much more than a fitness competition. Success can be measured in metrics far more important than the rank next to your name.
Four-time CrossFit Games qualifier Albert Dominic-Larouche was on a steady climb to the top 10 before he was derailed by injuries.
2011 - 33rd
2012 - 25th
2013 - 12th + Team World win at CrossFit Invitational
2014 - Injured
2015 - Did not compete
Last season, he put his CrossFit training on hold to focus on his work as a Montreal police officer and injury rehabilitation. This year, it’s the opposite; he has given himself an eight-month sabbatical from his day job to focus exclusively on making it to the Games.
This gets me excited for two reasons:
1. If he was able to qualify for the Games four times while balancing his training with a demanding job, what will he be able to do when CrossFit competition is his full-time focus?
2. No matter what, this means Montreal will have the human equivalent of Robocop on their streets once his sabbatical is up.
2013 Games competitor Jenn Smith has come painstakingly close to making it back to Carson, California, for the last two seasons.
As in two spots shy in 2014 (fifth, Central East Regional), and one spot shy in 2015 (sixth, East Regional). The margins were so small in both instances that slightly better performances could have made the difference; we’re talking another 30 feet on the max distance handstand walk in 2014, or 15 fewer seconds on Randy in 2015.
Her performances this offseason have made it clear that she intends to return to the Games. She finished in fourth at a stacked offseason competition, one rank ahead of Katrin Davidsdottir. She even power cleaned and jerked 235 lb., suggesting she’s in top form.
There's still time to join in the 2016 Open! Registration doesn't close for the entirety of the Open, so you're welcome to join in anytime before March 28.
If you want to be a part of all five workouts, sign up and submit a score for Open Workout 16.1 before 5 p.m. PT on Monday, February 29.