Sometimes the best perspective comes from a stint in the stands.
Sheila Barden and Jennifer Smith will return to the Games after a year—two, for Smith—of being on the outside looking in. Both athletes missed qualification in 2015 by just one spot, while Smith missed by two in 2014. And for both women, it was a mindset metamorphosis that brought them back to the top.
. . .
Before last year’s final regional event—15 muscle-ups and a 5-rep ascending clean ladder (135, 145, 155, 165, 175 lb.)—Barden sat in fifth, 5 points ahead of Stacie Tovar.
But Barden’s precarious hold on the final qualifying spot slipped on the final two barbells. A no rep on the 165-lb clean created an opening for Tovar to take the lead, and by the time Barden got the 175-lb. final bar up—after more than a minute of struggling—her ticket to Carson was long gone.
When the names of the Games qualifiers were called out, Barden buried her face in her hands. She’d worked so hard, sacrificed so much—what had it all been for?
For a while, she was stuck in a fog of melancholy.
“There was definitely two to three weeks where you didn’t want to be around me,” she said.
But she knew that mindset wasn’t going to get her to the Games, so she reevaluated her approach.
“I changed my mental game,” the 28-year-old said.
Leading up to the 2015 Regional, Barden had been tough on herself. She trained seven days a week, eating mainly chicken and sweet potatoes. There was no time for friends; she had to make it to the Games. It was a different story in 2016.
“I ate sugar at least once a week, and when it was someone’s birthday, I had cake,” she said.
Most importantly, she learned to let go.
“And when I had a bad training day, I walked out of the gym,” she continued. “I didn't force myself to be surrounded by (CrossFit) at all times. I found balance.”
Allowing herself to enjoy life a little more resulted in less anxiety and more confidence as the regional approached, and three weeks before “3, 2, 1 … go,” she was ready.
“I finally said out loud, ‘I will win the 2016 CrossFit Games Central Regional,’” she wrote on social media.
It wasn’t arrogance, it was confidence—the kind that comes from knowing the work’s been done and all that’s left is to have fun, as evidenced by her constant smile throughout the weekend.
After taking 10th on Event 1—the snatch ladder—and tying Nicole Holcomb for first on Regional Nate (Event 2), Barden finished Friday in second overall. Though she began Saturday with what would be her worst finish of the weekend, taking 17th in Event 3’s couplet of wall-ball shots and pull-ups, she proved that the new Barden couldn’t be broken by one less-than-stellar performance.
“It didn't go exactly as planned, but nothing ever does,” she said afterward.
The 5-foot, 0-inch athlete didn’t do well on an event packed with wall-ball shots (Event 3), but after a minute’s rest she demolished the short-person friendly pistols and lightweight power cleans of Event 4, claiming the win in her mismatched shoes.
“(The mismatched shoes are) a daily reminder that this is not a job, this is fun,” she said after her victory. “And the moment that it becomes a job for me, I quit.”
By the time she reached the final event, she was in third overall, with a 30-point lead over sixth. This time, she wasn’t focused on surviving the bubble, she was aiming to get to the top of the podium, and fortunately for her, the final event’s combination of legless rope climbs and Fran-weight thrusters was her “jam.” Pumping her legs as she climbed the rope with all arms and no kip, she made each ascent in little more than 5 seconds. Finishing in 3:53.28, she took third in the event and moved up to first overall.
“It's incredible the things you can achieve when you stop wishing and dreaming, and start believing,” she posted the following night.
. . .
Smith didn’t expect to make it to the 2013 Games, and when she found herself in Carson three years ago, her only goal was to have fun.
When she missed qualification the next year by a margin of only 5 points, she didn’t take it too hard. She had only a year of individual experience under her belt, and made the best of her situation by helping her gym’s team, CrossFit Maximus, train for the Games. That year she joined Dave Castro’s demo team, and enjoyed glimpsing the inner workings and backstage efforts at the StubHub Center.
But when she failed to qualify for the 2015 Games, she was disheartened.
“The second year it was pretty tough not making it,” the 29-year-old said. “It stung to be on the demo team the second year in a row, but … it made me that much more hungry.”
To help stay focused, Smith trained with fellow Reebok CrossFit One coaches Austin Malleolo and Kelley Jackson last summer. But it wasn’t just the physical training that kept Smith from slipping into a funk.
“I've made it an extra effort to be overly positive, and self-talk was huge this year for me,” Smith said at the Central Regional last weekend.
It wasn’t that she was overly negative before, she said. She had simply never given her mental state much thought.
“If I would get down on myself I would just finish the workout, probably at half effort, and I would just think it was fine,” she said.
Leading up to the 2016 season, Smith immersed herself in motivational books and podcasts, listening to one each morning before training.
“They get me super amped up,” she said. “It helps when you're in the gym. Mid-workout when you're absolutely dying, rather than saying and thinking to yourself, ‘I can’t do this’ or ‘I want to quit,’ thinking to yourself how fortunate you are to have this opportunity. You want this, make it worth it.”
When she arrived at the Greater Columbus Convention Center last weekend, she felt more confident than ever.
“It’s unreal how much just self-talk and being positive can motivate you and transfer over into your workouts,” she said. “This year I really believed deep down that I could make it.”
Surprising herself with fourth- and sixth-place finishes in the first two events, Smith cruised into fourth overall at the end of Friday.
“I've always been bad at strict muscle-ups,” she said after Regional Nate (Event 2). “They’ve always been a weakness of mine, and so I really surprised myself out there.”
Saturday saw her best finish of the weekend, where a year’s worth of effort—in 2015, she was the last in her heat off the GHD sit-ups in last year’s chipper—paid off with a second-place finish in Event 5, a triplet of a 400-m run, 40 GHD sit-ups and 7 deadlifts at 275 lb. She went to bed in second overall Saturday night, but after taking 18th in Event 6 the next morning, she fell to sixth with just one event remaining, 1 point away from Nicole Chovan in fifth.
Still, she wasn’t discouraged. After tweaking her elbow in Event 1’s final snatch, “I was really nervous that I wouldn't even be able to hold the overhead squat (weight) over my head for (Event 6),” she said. “So I was just thrilled to be 1 point out of the top 5 after the chipper.”
Before the final event, Smith wrote her plan on her arm.
“I absolutely knew what I needed to do,” she said. “I knew who was ahead of me, I knew who was behind me, and I knew the point separation. So I kind of knew where I needed to finish in that workout.”
Namely, she needed to beat Chovan.
When the pair reached the ropes, Smith scaled the rope easily with short, rapid pulls as her legs pedaled the air. But Chovan needed large, swinging kips to work her way up, and by the time Chovan had finished her third ascent, Smith was already back for her set of two.
Though four other women finished the event before Smith hit the mat at 4:30.54, her fifth-place finish to Chovan’s 17th was good enough for fourth overall.
This summer, she’s looking forward to wearing a jersey with her own name on it.
“(Qualifying) meant so much more knowing how hard it is to get back,” she said. “It was just all that much more special.”