Clarke Holland thought 2021 would be a very relaxed Open. He’s turning 70 this year and knew there was no way he could compete against the 60-year-olds. Then the CrossFit Games announced the new 65+ age group and his perspective shifted.
Maybe he could qualify for the Games for a seventh time. But it would mean a lot of hard work.
“I can’t imagine stopping CrossFit as long as my body allows me to continue,” Holland said. Over the last few years he’s found it hard to accept that there are certain movements and weights he finds difficult that he used to handle easily.
“Every competitor must deal with that reality,” Holland said, “but the 65+ addition gives me at least another year of being competitive with my group.”
As they move up through the age divisions, most CrossFit athletes have the same thought: At what age will I have to stop? Is there an expiration date on wall balls and deadlifts?
The addition of the new 65+ division in the CrossFit Games Open may put some of those fears to rest. More than 900 men and just over 750 women registered for the Open in the 65+ category, some new to CrossFit and some CrossFit Games competitors who have been doing CrossFit for years.
The Games Hopefuls
Holland has been doing CrossFit for more than 10 years at Tamalpais CrossFit in San Rafael, California. He started at age 58 because he wanted to improve his half-marathon time.
Holland has competed in the masters division of the CrossFit Games six years in a row, from 2012 to 2017, and he’s hoping to make a return to Madison this year. Although he says he notices a big drop in performance from age 65 to 70, he landed in the top 10 in his age group on the overall Open leaderboard.
While Holland sometimes struggles to compete against the 65-year-olds in his age bracket, when he looks at men his age who don’t do CrossFit, the difference is remarkable.
“I look nothing like people my age,” Holland said. His doctor tells him not to bother with medicines typical for men in their 60s and 70s, like statins. He works out for an hour or sometimes an hour and a half five days a week and makes sure to avoid habitually testing his 1-rep maxes or going too heavy.
This doesn’t mean he avoids weightlifting — he’s competed at three Masters World Championships in the 73-kilogram weight class. His best finish was a third place in Barcelona in 2018, and in May he’ll compete in the world championships, which are being held live via Zoom.
He said he loves the new age group, although he does wish it had been added to the field around five years ago, when he was 65.
“Maybe there will be a 70+ age group soon,” he said.
Like Holland, Mary Schwing, 69, is a Games veteran — she competed eight years in a row, from 2012 to 2018. Schwing took first place in 2012 in the 60+ age group at the Games.
Schwing said she was thrilled when the 65+ division was announced.
“I’m very happy and quite excited for it,” Schwing said, “I think it's been a long time in coming. At this point I’m 69, I'm on the other edge of the age group, but I still give it everything I have. I'm very hopeful of returning for one more time to the Games.”
At the end of the Open, Schwing found herself in fifth place overall. She placed fourth in her age group in 21.2 and beat her 2017 time by seven seconds. Those who despair that aging leads to an inevitable decline in fitness can look at these results with hope. In the last four years Schwing not only got older, she got fitter.
Schwing started CrossFit in 2011, when she was 59, at CrossFit 808 in Honolulu, Hawaii.
“For me, CrossFit is my go-to,” Schwing said. “It's fun. And I do it with the family. I do it with my friends, and our box is just family. Everybody takes care of everybody else.”
Schwing played sports in college — she was on the tennis team, ran cross country, and was a diver — but she says the real foundation of her strength and endurance is growing up on a farm in Illinois where she carried buckets of slop and fed hogs and cattle.
Now, when Schwing isn’t working full-time as a marriage and family therapist, she’s at CrossFit 808 or in the ocean, surfing.
“I've been training for probably a solid 10 years in CrossFit, and when I train I go in and give it everything I have,” Schwing said. “I always look at my weaknesses and think, well, they shouldn't be there.”
Over the years Schwing has learned to scale some things, like box jumps.
“I've become more attuned to listening to my body,” Schwing says, “like if my shoulders are super sore from doing handstand push-ups, I go surf and I'm so much better.”
Fitness Over 70
Sandy Stevens, 71, has been doing CrossFit since 2014. Although she’s been active her whole life, CrossFit took her to a new level of fitness. She’s always surprised when she’s able to do something she thought was impossible.
“You think, there’s no way I can do that, but then you do and it’s very exciting,” Stevens said.
Unlike Holland and Schwing, Stevens has no plans to compete at the Games. This year marked her second time doing the Open — she was encouraged to sign up by the owner of her gym, Scott Wesley.
Stevens surprised herself in the first workout. She knew she could do one or two wall walks, but she’d never done them in a workout. She ended up doing 26 wall walks in 21.1.
One of the best things about CrossFit for Stevens is being able to do things most people her age can’t. Stevens teaches the Silver Sneakers class at the gym, and the ladies who come haven’t spent much time in the gym. A lot of them just walk on the treadmill, but Stevens said after doing CrossFit she would be bored by that.
“I think I can do a lot of things people my age can’t do,” Stevens said. “I can do one chin-up, and my goal is two or three chin-ups. I’d also like to do double-unders,” she said.
Stevens said she loves the new 65+ division in the Open.
“I think it’s a great thing, not just for me, but for other people who might be more encouraged to be a little more competitive. It can be disheartening to be 71 if you are competing with people 10 years younger than you are. When it’s narrowed down you feel like you’re not wasting your time,” she said.
Like Stevens, Ed Warren, 73, doesn’t have plans to compete at the Games, but he loves the new 65+ division. Warren started CrossFit 10 years ago, when his son, Joey Warren, a 2012 individual Games competitor, encouraged him to give it a try. He works out at CrossFit Cadence in Los Gatos, California, about four to five times a week for 45 minutes to an hour.
Warren was always athletic, playing basketball and running, but he never really lifted weights until he started CrossFit. He loves the camaraderie at his gym, and he enjoys competing against people of all ages.
“It's fun,” Warren said. “It's been a great thing for me. It's a way of life.”
When everything shut down because of COVID-19, Warren’s gym closed temporarily and he was furloughed from work. He ran every day and did push-ups and sit-ups, but he said when they called him back to work two and a half months later, he’d lost a lot of his muscle tone.
“My skin was like hanging off my body, and I came to work and they said I looked like death warmed over because I wasn't really doing any weights,” Warren said. When he finally returned to the gym he regained his strength and felt like himself again.
Warren is a buyer for cars, and although he’s the oldest one at his workplace, he said he’s in the best shape, by far, of all his coworkers.
“They can't believe I’m that old. Anyway, I’m only that old in age. I don't feel that old,” he said.
Warren said he appreciates the new division, because once he hit 70 it was hard to compete against men 10 years his junior.
“At 65 it drops off a lot,” Warren said, “but I'm just happy if I can do all the movements. And so far, I've been able to do every movement for all the years. And that's all I care about (in the Open).”
But more than the Open, Warren cares about continuing to work out with people 40 and 50 years younger than him.
“I don't work out with anybody my age because there's nobody my age that works out,” Warren said, “but I want to do CrossFit as long as I can, and when the younger people see me, I’m their incentive.”