"The women of the region have had a strong hold on the title of Fittest on Earth for the past three years ... The men of the region are looking to close the gap with athletes from the United States."
Athletes all over Europe are anxious to start their journeys through the CrossFit Games season, hoping it ends with them earning one of the coveted spots to the 2014 Reebok CrossFit Games.
The women of the region have had a strong hold on the title of Fittest on Earth for the past three years.
In 2013, England’s Samantha Briggs earned Europe a spot atop the podium, and two-time Games champ Annie Thorisdottir won the title back-to-back in 2011 and 2012. Both women will return this season.
The men of the region are looking to close the gap with athletes from the United States.
All eyes will be on 2009 CrossFit Games champion Mikko Salo, who finished second at last year’s Europe Regional but did not continue on to the Games due to injury.
Europe’s Frederik Aegidius was the top male finisher at last year’s Games, coming in 15th, while Hungarian Lacee Kovacs won the Europe Regional in 2013 and finished 25th at the Games.
Recognizing the growing intensity of the CrossFit Games, Briggs aims to become as efficient as possible in every discipline.
“I'm working hard on everything to ensure I’m as ready as possible for whatever they throw at us,” she said. “My training has structured lifting and gymnastic sessions, then the unknown and unknowable aspect is my (metabolic conditioning), which I don’t normally find out until the morning I’m doing them. I’m still hitting (personal bests) on my lifts. They just come a lot slower and smaller now.”
Briggs’ coach, Karl Steadman, said Briggs is stronger than ever. Her most recent PRs include a 375-lb. deadlift, 132-lb. shoulder press and a 260-lb. back squat.
“With the experience of last year’s success, Sam’s understanding of the game has improved once again. She is all set to repeat her victory,” he said.
But Thorisdottir won’t make it easy for Briggs.
“My goal is to make it to the podium, but at the moment I am grateful to work at full intensity again,” Thorisdottir said.
Following a devastating back injury, Thorisdottir has been following a recovery program worked out by her coach, Jami Tikkanen, which includes core exercises, a lot of mobility and an electric stimulator for her lower back, glutes and legs.
“I learned that I’m not unbreakable,” she said of the injury. “I learned that I need to think more about movement, and think more about good form and good technique.”
At the moment, she is “working her way up in the weights” and happy with the results so far.
“I actually PR’d my snatch (77.5 kg/171 lb.) and my squat clean (95 kg/209 lb.) … I PR’d my push jerk and my split jerk, my shoulder press,” Thorisdottir said. “I’m going to work my way up slowly, and do more repetitions to make sure that I’m moving the way that I want to be moving.”
And she’s looking forward to competing against Briggs.
“I’m actually really excited to compete against her again … I haven’t competed against her for two years now ... so it’s about time we compete again,“ Thorisdottir said. “She’s extremely good, and she’s especially good in things that I’m not as good in, so it’s gonna be a pretty good competition between us.”
There are other athletes from the region hungry to move into the elite ranks, including a few more Icelanders.
Katrin Tanja Davidsdottir is no stranger to the Games, having finished 24th in 2013 and 30th in 2012.
“The competition gets even fiercer every year, so there is no room for any holes,” she said.
In the last year, she has found motivation in her training partners.
“It makes the training much more fun and gives you the extra push every day,” Davidsdottir said.
Thuridur Erla Helgadottir, also of Iceland, finished 35th at the Games in 2012 and fifth at the Europe Regional in 2013.
This year, she hopes to qualify for the Games again.
“Since last regionals, I introduced some changes. I started to follow the Training Plan,” Helgadottir said referring to a program created by Thorisdottir’s coach, Tikkanen. “Also, I am eating much more than before and I put extra focus in every training session.”
With a population of a little more than 300,000, Iceland has produced many great athletes.
“We benefit from super-clean Icelandic water and air, but also many Icelandic female athletes have a strong background in gymnastics,” Helgadottir said.
Swedish athlete Caroline Fryklund belongs to the small group of European women who have competed in more than one CrossFit Games, finishing 25th in 2012 and 17th in 2013.
She said she doesn’t set expectations in competition, and has been fortunate enough to improve her technique and strength during recovery from a knee injury.
A few other women prove you don’t have to have Games experience to be contenders in Europe.
Kristin Holte, of Norway, has won titles at two major European competitions and finished seventh at last year’s Europe Regional. Nicola Simpson, from the United Kingdom, is not only the training partner of Briggs, but ranked fourth at the regional last year. And Belgian Carmen Bosmans was also on the podium at recent competitions in Sweden and Belgium.
Oxana Slivenko of Russia is one to watch this year. She earned the silver medal in weightlifting at the 2008 Olympics with a total of 255 kg (562 lb.) Slivenko suffered an injury that prevented her from participating in the 2012 Olympics.
Although she has not retired from weightlifting, Slivenko said she enjoys “conditioning her body for the broad demands of CrossFit.”
Last year, Kovacs went to the CrossFit Games as arguably Europe’s strongest athlete, only to see Aegidius outperform him.
While Aegidius appears almost fully recovered from a mild shoulder injury, Kovacs keeps collecting as many prizes as there are European throwdowns.
Kovacs said he learned lessons from his difficulties at last year’s CrossFit Games, which taught him the importance of mental focus during competition.
“My body was right there but my mind was someplace else,” Kovacs said of 2013.
The field is beefed up as 2009 CrossFit Games champion Mikko Salo is ready to make a comeback. Salo finished in second place at the Europe Regional last year but withdrew from competition due to an abdominal tear. If Salo can reach the same strength that led to the podium at the 2009 CrossFit Games, he will be among the contenders to watch this season.
Two former CrossFit Games athletes are back in the competition, as well.
Belgian Richard Vanmeerbeek competed in the 2010 CrossFit Games. Since, he has dealt with a series of injuries. During last year’s Europe Regional, he suffered from a hip injury that prevented him from training for three months.
“I thought of taking a year off competition but if I feel OK, why not compete during my road to full recovery,” Vanmeerbeek said.
Icelander Numi Katrinarson finished 24th at the 2012 Reebok CrossFit Games and competed at last year’s Games as a member of the CrossFit Nordic team that finished ninth.
Like Helgadottir, Katrinarson has been following the Training Plan since last September.
“At the moment, I am training nine or 10 times a week,” he said. “I feel like I am in really good shape, but I am aware that there are many strong guys hungry for kicking my ass.”
Rounding out the talent pool for this Open season are Norwegian Christer Idland, a mainstay in the top-10 at the Europe Regional; Icelanders Jakob Magnusson and Bjornvin Karl Gudmunsson; Lukas Hogberg, from Sweden; and Steven Fawcett of England.
A loss among Europe’s elite is that of three-time Games competitor Mikko Aronpää. He is moving to the UAE in February to dedicate himself to what he loves most: coaching CrossFit.
Additional reporting by Ian Wittenber