When you play in a NFL game, you don’t have 2,000 wide receivers in the audience watching.
Armchair quarterbacks abound, of course, but fewer than half of all professional football fans have ever worn the helmet. More than a quarter of them have never even touched a football.
CrossFit is different.
Virtually every palm in the room knows what knurling feels like, and can tell the difference between a 25mm and 28.5mm shaft by grip.
At the 13.5 announcement, the room was perhaps the largest gathering of handstand-capable athletes, ever. As the crowd throbbed along to the heavy bass, they cheered for the handstand virtuosi who competed onstage for custom Reebok shoes. All eyes forward, all arms knowing what cramping triceps feel like.
To one side is a professional athlete. His name is Emmanuel Arceneaux, and he’s a wide receiver for the New York Jets. Anywhere else, including the street outside, he’d be mobbed by fans passing off encouragement, seeking to receive an autograph or the blessing of a pro. Here, though, he stands alone. There are few wide receivers in the crowd.
When Camille Leblanc-Bazinet is introduced, the room explodes. Smoke billows. "Pour Some Sugar On Me," by Def Leppard, blasts like it hasn't since the mid-80s. Her path to the stage is cleared by beefy CrossFitters in soon-to-be-collectors item "CrossFit Security" shirts. Fans reach through their mass, clapping her shoulder and giving her the low five. Floodlights swing around like wrecking balls, blinding and thrilling.
“It was like being a freaking rock star,” she posted later, “while competing with some of the best in the world … thanks you so much to HQ for giving us the opportunity to live this!"
She shimmies out of her T-shirt. A NorCal athlete in a wheelchair rises to his feet and stands up — stands up — as the fans lose their collective shit.
Sam Briggs' entry is no less thrilling, but the home team has yet to take the floor, and when Jason Khalipa arrives, the roars tell the story. He's scored a touchdown just by taking the field. He's a hero in Northern California — an underdog story from "way back" in the compressed timeline of CrossFit culture. He's wearing a CrossFit Mayhem shirt — Rich Froning's gym — but thousands of NorCal CrossFit rally towels turn the room blue. It’s the last night of the tour, and Khalipa is ready to put on a show.
Rap music — salvation in the lyrics, punishment in the promise — blasts as Froning makes his entrance. The league-leading superstar is swarmed. He's wearing the jersey of the home team, though briefly, and he throws his NorCal CrossFit T-shirt to a mob of screaming fans.
It's game time.
Everyone in that room has set up under the clock. Everyone has done a thruster. Everyone has ripped on pull-ups.
No one, before CrossFit, would gather to watch exercise. No one would “make a day of it," taking the long drive or flight from as far away as Denmark. No one would scream for custom shoes. No one would be lobbing hail-mary predictions in the crowd: "There's no equipment. It's going to be burpees." "There's no equipment. It's a run up and down the stairs." “There's no equipment. It's a static hold." "… uh, plank?"
The CrossFitters in the room hold their breath while Dave Castro finally shares his secret. And then, the boys from Rogue arrive, and the fans all make the same joke: "Set up the rig, for time!"
They complete their task in less than three minutes, first revealing gaps in the padded stage flooring, then trucking in monstrous steel rigs, and torque-wrenching with the precision of a Formula One pit crew. Three minutes. We cheer for them. We've built rigs, too.
There will be no coin toss, no possibility of a subjective outcome. Squat down, stand up, press. Fifteen times, and shift to a pull-up bar. Fifteen more, and around again, and again. Froning steals glances skyward at the corner-mounted clock, but doesn't stop. Nor do the fans.
All have been there. All know the feeling of expectations shattered, of the impossibility of the 81st rep … and then, the 82nd, and the outside chance of reaching 180 and the promised land beyond.
All alone in the second time bonus, Froning drops to a knee. He stops. The crowd reaches its crescendo. Dave Castro whispers in his ear, “You can keep going. You have to." And he rises again.
He thrusts. Pulls up. Drops. At once inhuman and all-too-human, a dichotomy of the superfit. Watching Froning, a fan thinks, "I could do that," and then realizes, "Hell no, I couldn’t."
No one cheers at Weight Watchers. There's polite clapping, as you would for a Queen or a golfer, maybe. There's no fog machine in tennis. And tonight, no one lines up to get an autograph from a NFL wide receiver.