February 23, 2017
10 Athletes to Watch in 2017
By Tommy Marquez
Who to keep an eye on this Games season.
Who to keep an eye on this Games season.

Javier Vazquez

Courtesy of Jordan Samuel Photography

For Javier Vazquez, CrossFit was a way to get back in shape for his original sport, baseball. Vazquez, a 14-year veteran of Major League Baseball, last pitched professionally in 2011 but started using CrossFit in an attempt to make a comeback for the World Baseball Classic.

Ultimately, he chose to focus on his family instead of pursuing baseball, but CrossFit stuck.

Fast-forward to 2017 and the former MLB All-Star is competing in the Open in the Masters Men 40-44 Division.

He previously did the Open in 2014 and 2016 out of CrossFit Ponce in his hometown of Ponce, Puerto Rico. Now he trains at CrossFit New England, a gym that has produced multiple Games champions and nearly a dozen more Games qualifiers.

Vazquez is still very much involved in professional baseball.

In 2014, he was hired as a special assistant to the Executive Director of the Major League Baseball Player’s Association, Tony Clark. As part of the assignment, Vazquez got to work with and mentor players from Latin America.

The CrossFit Games may not be in the cards for Vazquez this year, but the Masters Qualifier is within reach. Even if his season ends with the Open, the fact that Vazquez, who amassed 2,536 strikeouts and earned a postseason win with the New York Yankees, will be throwing down alongside thousands of other masters this year is another one of the many things that make the Open unique.

Ricky Garard  

There’s a storm brewing down in Australia this year, and it goes by the name of Ricky Garard.

In his first year competing at the Pacific Regional, Garard finished sixth, just one spot away from qualifying for the 2016 Reebok CrossFit Games. Heading into the final event, Garard sat in a qualifying spot, and it took an epic comeback performance from Khan Porter to knock him out of the top five.

Garard’s brother Ben finished 15th at the 2015 Reebok CrossFit Games, represented the Pacific Team at the 2015 Invitational, and has since transitioned to helping Ricky follow in his footsteps.

Ricky has kept himself busy in the offseason, winning local competitions and setting multiple Guinness World Records (max toes-to-bars in 1 minute, max unbroken tandem push-ups with Ben.) He also competed in one of the largest offseason competitions, where he finished ahead of Jonne Koski, Travis Mayer, Bjorgvin Karl Gudmundsson, Alex Vigneault and Lukas Esslinger.

The former player for the Canberra Raiders professional rugby league football club in Australia now has his sights set on picking up where his brother left off at the CrossFit Games. Another year of training mixed with his experience at last year’s Pacific Regional and Ben’s guidance give me an inkling that Ricky could be a force to be reckoned with in the Men’s Division in Australia in 2017.

Alanna Fisk

Each year, there are a handful of dark horses on the individual side that pop up and make a splash. This year, one of my picks is Alanna Fisk. Competing in the South East, Fisk physically embodies the phrase “big things come in small packages.”

At 4-foot-11 and 135 lb., Fisk (previously Colon) might be one of the smallest athletes on the competition floor, but that hasn’t stopped her from improving in her two years at the Atlantic Regional.

In 2015, she finished 19th behind a trio of top-10 finishes in Events 1, 6 and 7. Last year, she improved to 13th and got her first event win. Even more impressive: She won Event 3, a couplet of 104 wall-ball shots and 52 pull-ups. A workout with 100+ wall-ball shots is usually not considered a wheelhouse workout for someone under 5 feet tall.

This year, I had the opportunity to watch Fisk compete alongside a bevy of Games athletes at a major offseason competition. Fisk managed to edge out Dani Horan for the third and final podium spot, notching four top-five finishes over the course of the weekend.

The Atlantic Regional saw a good amount of volatility last year—three of the five Games-qualifying spots were occupied by women who didn’t qualify in 2015. This is a stat that Fisk hopes holds true in 2017.

If she’s to qualify, she’ll have to improve on her weaknesses considerably. Each of the last two years, she’s had a finish outside of the top 30. It’s a tall order, but Fisk seems up to the task.

Kristi Eramo

Doesn’t it seem strange that the eighth-fittest woman on the planet would be included in a list like this? Yet every time her name comes up in a discussion about the 2016 Leaderboard, the common response is, “who?”

Even some of my colleagues, *cough* Pat Sherwood and Rory McKernan *cough,* looked at me in disbelief when I mentioned that Eramo was the highest-placing rookie in the Women’s Division at the Games.

In the 2016 Open, Eramo finished first in the Central East and 21st worldwide. From there, she flew under the radar at Regionals. A second-place finish in Event 7 moved her up into the fifth and final qualifying spot. She was inside the top five just one time prior to the finish.

At the Games, Eramo notched six top-10 finishes, and four top-five finishes. She showcased capacity in events like the Trail Run (third), Ocean Swim (second) and Climbing Snail (fourth).

The former triathlete and rock climber will see an instant boost in exposure in 2017. She’s matched up with fellow american Kari Pearce in the 17.2 Live Open Announcement at Rogue Fitness HQ in Columbus, Ohio.

Megan Trupp

Megan Trupp is one of only three girls to have qualified both years for the teenage competition in both categories.

In 2015, she finished second in the Teenage Girls 14-15 Division behind champion Sydney Sullivan. In 2016, Trupp aged up into the 16-17-year-old division but still managed to qualify. At the Games, she bested Sullivan and finished just 12 points shy of the podium in fourth place.

The 2017 season has brought a great opportunity for Trupp to finally get the gold medal at the Games. All three podium finishers from the Teenage Girls 16-17 Division in 2016 have now aged up into the individual competition, which leaves Trupp as the highest-finishing athlete returning to the division this year.

Trupp has stayed busy in the offseason, competing in weightlifting where she clean-and-jerked 95 kg/209 lb. as a 63-kg lifter. She also won the Canadian Indoor Rowing Championship in her category for the third consecutive year. This year, she won in the Junior A Lightweight category, rowing 2 km in 7:39.5, nearly 9 seconds faster than her closest competitor.

In her two years at the Games, Trupp has had only one finish outside the top five across 14 different events. She’ll get a good push for the top spot from fellow two-time Games competitor Filippa Ferm, but the third installment of her friendly battle with Sullivan could have to wait. Sullivan is awaiting a liver transplant, which makes competing less than a priority. Trupp certainly has what it takes to stand on top of the podium in 2017.
 

Angelo DiCicco

Angelo DiCicco will win the Teenage Boys 16-17 Division at the 2017 Reebok CrossFit Games.

Not only will he win at the Games, but he’ll win the Open as well as the inaugural Teenage Online Qualifier for his division. In doing so, he’ll become the latest CrossFit Mayhem product to win multiple CrossFit Games titles.

Maybe proclaiming him the winner before the season starts is a little premature, but there isn’t a more clear-cut favorite in any teenage division. The reasons why are fairly staggering when considered in totality.

In 2015, DiCicco went wire to wire, winning both the Open and the Games in the first year of the Teenage Boys 14-15 Division. In 2016, he aged up into the 16-17 Division and finished third at the Games behind Nicholas Paladino and George Sterner.

A third-place finish a year after winning may not initially seem like he’s a lock for this year’s title, but it is when you consider that he was the only teenage athlete across all four divisions to podium while being in the younger half of his division.

Every other podium athlete will either be aging out of the teenage competition, or aging up into a new division and will be at an age disadvantage. He’s the best returning athlete, and there’s no one left who has beaten him.

Now add in the fact that he’s from the gym with arguably the best championship pedigree and one of the deepest pools of fitness in the world, and it’s almost a no-brainer that he’ll be the frontrunner from the start.

Jamie Greene

It’s taken almost a year, but Jamie Greene will finally be giving the people what they want: a dedicated run at the individual competition. Her meteoric rise to winning the 2016 Open brought lofty expectations and questions from fans hoping to see her on the Meridian Regional floor alongside Sam Briggs, Annie Thorisdottir and Sara Sigmundsdottir.

Those hopes were cut short when Greene, a relatively unknown athlete before the Open, opted to go team with her affiliate CrossFit YAS. It was a reasonable move given her competition history.

In 2014, she finished 28th in the Australia Regional before relocating to Abu Dhabi, UAE, and competing for CrossFit YAS’ team, which finished second at the 2015 Meridian Regional.

Unfortunately for Greene, members of the team were found to be ineligible and they were disqualified from competition.

Coming into the 2016 season, Greene was certainly not on the radar for the top spot in the Open.

Success came swiftly as an individual in the Open, but she had some unfinished business in the Affiliate Cup. She opted to go team with CrossFit YAS, and once again finished second in the Meridian Regional. This time, the team would get to make the trip to the Games. YAS finished third at the Games, becoming the first competitor—individual or team—to podium from the Africa region.

Greene is now turning her focus to the individual side. She recently did an interview with our very own Sean Woodland to discuss the upcoming season (Include link).

I’m excited to see how she backs up her 2016 Open victory in 2017, and handles the brighter lights of the individual competition. She’s the only Open winner so far to have not qualified for the Games as an individual.

Samuel Kwant

Samuel Kwant isn’t an athlete who demands the spotlight, but I think that plays in his favor.

Kwant flew under the radar for the most part in 2016, en route to a 16th-place finish in his rookie year at the Games at age 20. He also won Double DT that year under the lights of the Stubhub Center. Not many people can say they’ve won an individual CrossFit Games event before they were old enough to drink.

Despite his age, Kwant is an experienced CrossFit competitor, working his way up the Regional leaderboard over the past few years. In 2014, a then 18-year-old Kwant finished 30th at the North West Regional.

In 2015, under the new format, he improved to 19th overall at the West Regional. Last year, his fourth-place finish at the West Regional was largely overshadowed by Brent Fikowski’s dominance and Cole Sager’s comeback.

I had the opportunity to watch Kwant compete during the offseason and was floored by how calm he looked while on the competition floor. His approach was methodical, and when the dust settled, he was standing at the podium ahead of nearly a dozen fellow Games athletes.

Kwant is now a part of a growing contingent of athletes–the Lauren Fishers, Jonne Koskis, and Maddy Myers of the world–who have made their way to the highest stage of the sport at a young age. Although he may not get the fanfare that some of the others get (he has 3,400 Instagram followers while Fisher has 721,000), he certainly is an athlete to be taken seriously as a contender for the top 10.

Neal Maddox

The announcement of the new Masters 35-39 Division for the 2017 season got a lot of people excited and talking about the prospect of some aging CrossFit legends returning to the sport.

Names such as Chris Spealler, Matt Chan, and Mikko Salo were thrown around as potential contenders for the new division. As much as I am excited at the idea of seeing them at the Games again, my money is on (a healthy) Neal Maddox as the favorite to win this division.

Maddox has built himself a Hall of Fame-quality resume in the sport. He’s qualified for the Games as an individual six times, finishing as high as ninth in 2013. He’s finished second or better five times at Regionals, winning 10 events along the way. In the Open, he’s finished inside the top 10 for four of the five years he’s competed, and he’s never finished lower than 18th.

What’s more impressive is that Maddox, now 39, was accomplishing this between the ages of 32-38. His best finish at the Games in 2013 came when he was 35 and still old enough for the new masters category. Maddox, along with Annie Sakamoto, is the oldest to crack the top 10 at the Games in the individual competition.

The last two years have not been kind to Maddox, however. In 2015, he withdrew from the Games due to injury and did not compete in 2016 after deciding to hang up his cleats for the individual competition.

2017 is a new year, with a new masters category, and a new lease on competition for Maddox. He’s 100 percent healthy, which means we should be hearing his name quite a bit in the coming months.

Julie Abildgaard

The departure of Sara Sigmundsdottir leaves an opening in the Meridian Regional for a new woman to earn a spot at the CrossFit Games. One woman I think has what it takes to step up and claim a spot is Julie “Jules” Abildgaard.

Abildgaard, a doctor currently writing her thesis, finished 15th worldwide in the 2016 Open, just one spot behind eventual Games champion Katrin Davidsdottir. She added another feather to her cap in the Open when she won Open Workout 16.4.

At Regionals and the Games, Abildgaard was a member of Team CrossFit Copenhagen1. In Carson, the team would finish in a respectable 12th place overall and just miss making the team finale by 30 points.

It’s fairly common to see extremely talented individuals use the team competition as a way to get some experience at the Games and give themselves more time to develop. Athletes such as Patrick Vellner and Alessandra Pichelli are great examples.

I think Abildgaard is on a similar track after getting her feet wet in 2016. Her performances in a few offseason competitions the past two years offer some encouraging insight into her capabilities as an individual athlete. She has beaten well-known athletes Kari Pearce, Pichelli, Jen Smith, Thuridur Helgadottir, Brooke Ence, Jamie Greene, Stacie Tovar, Kristin Holte, and Lauren Fisher in competitions that spanned 15 scored events each.

Come Regionals, Abildgaard will be on the hunt for the top five in the Meridian.