Last Thursday, after Open Workout 17.5 was announced, Dave DeGroot had one thought: “Oh boy.”
The couplet of thrusters and double-unders called for 350 reps on the rope, more than the 47-year-old had ever done in a single workout.
Had it been a normal challenge programmed at his gym, CrossFit 808 in Honolulu, Hawaii, he would have scaled.
“But nope, it’s the Open,” he thought to himself. “I have a goal: Rx everything.”
A day later, DeGroot finished the final double-under of 17.5 at 37:26, last in his heat. Though disappointed at first, he looked at the big picture once he caught his breath.
“A couple years ago, I couldn't do double-unders, and 95-lb. thrusters would leave me gasping,” he said. “It’s good to keep that perspective.”
For DeGroot, a CrossFit Games Open competitor since 2012, that perspective spans six years and 30 Open workouts. Each year of tests, he said, has provided an opportunity to grow.
“The Open is a fun annual challenge—it's a way to benchmark myself against my age-group peers across the CrossFit community,” he said. “It's fun to be able to do that and see how I'm doing better.”
Setting the Bar
DeGroot started CrossFit in November 2011 to get a “jump start” on a New Year’s resolution. An exercise physiologist and an active-duty officer in the U.S. Army, he was still “getting a little soft” and Army physical training was “boring.”
Despite his background, “There (were) lots of things I couldn't do,” he said. He couldn’t do a strict pull-up and had never done an Olympic lift.
“There was scaling of everything.”
But that didn’t stop him from registering for the 2012 Reebok CrossFit Games Open just a few months after starting CrossFit. At the time, he was training at CrossFit Synergistics in Ashland, Massachusetts, where he said the Open “was part of the community and the culture. That's just what you did.”
Toes-to-bars came up in Week 3. With gymnastics as his main weakness, DeGroot assumed he’d do his 15 box jumps, 12 push presses and then stare at the bar. Instead, he got his first toes-to-bar.
“It was one at a time, (and) there was no stringing them together, but I could do them,” he said.
Two weeks later, he performed his first chest-to-bar pull-up in 12.5, a 7-minute ascending AMRAP of thrusters and chest-to-bars. But PRs in all five Open workouts are rare, and his first moment of humility came in 12.4, a 12-minute AMRAP of 150 wall-ball shots, 90 double-unders and 30 muscle-ups.
DeGroot had never done a double-under, but he was confident he’d get the chance to try.
“I'm 6-foot-2—bring on the wall balls,” he said, describing his reaction to the workout. “I can stay flat footed and hit that 10-foot target all day long.”
But at 12 minutes his rope was untouched: He was 6 wall-ball shots shy of 150 when the clock ran out.
“Oh, wow. I have a little ways to go,” he thought.
One year later, he got a second chance: Open Workout 13.3 was a repeat of 12.3. This time he smashed the wall-ball shots in 4:40, leaving more than half the time to struggle with the rope. He managed 11 double-unders before the time cap.
It was a nice victory, considering the first workout that year had been another ego buster. A 17-minute AMRAP of burpees and snatches—the burpee count fell while the barbell’s weight rose—13.1 challenged his mobility and overhead position, two things he struggled with considerably.
“I remember looking at (the workout) and I said, ‘Oh, my score is gonna be 100,’ because that 101st rep was a 135-lb. snatch, and that was not gonna happen,” he said. “So coming out of that one, that was a goal: snatch 135 someday.”
DeGroot was right: his 13.1 score was 100 even. But a few weeks ago, in Open Workout 17.3, he snatched the 135-lb. barbell five times—under fatigue.
“I didn't get through all the reps at 135, but I got a lot of reps without a problem,” he said. “It's not an easy weight for me—it's like 80 percent of my max—but I can reliably pick up a bar and snatch 135, whereas in 2013, it was, ‘Well, I'm gonna spend 4 minutes looking at that bar and hoping I can get it.’”
The next week, DeGroot had a chance to test his improvement since 2016. Open Workout 17.4 was a repeat of 16.4, a grueling 13-minute AMRAP of 55 deadlifts, 55 wall-ball shots, 55 calories on the rower and 55 handstand push-ups. In 2016, he finished the row with 63 seconds remaining to attempt a handstand push-up.
Though he didn’t expect to get any more reps on the workout this year—DeGroot can do handstand push-ups while fresh but has yet to get one in a workout—his goal for 17.4 was to have more time on the clock when he got to the fourth movement.
When he got to the wall this time, he had a minute and 14 seconds left—a 43-second improvement from 2016.
“On paper, my score is the same,” he said. “My split time (was) faster though, and I was really happy with that.”
Raising the Bar
Repeat workouts aren’t the only way to measure improvement from Open to Open, however. Ever since the scaled division was introduced in 2015, it’s been DeGroot’s goal to complete the entire Open as prescribed.
“I thought to myself when they announced it—even before we saw the first workout—that it's gonna take on a new level of meaning to be able to Rx every workout, that the bar is gonna get raised, maybe subtly or slightly, but it's gonna mean something that an athlete's gonna be able to Rx all of the Open workouts,” he recalled.
In 2015, he finished three of the five workouts as prescribed, but was forced to scale 15.3 and 15.4, each of which began with an advanced gymnastics movement (muscle-ups and handstand push-ups, respectively). When that year came to a close, his goal for 2016 was clear.
“I want to be able to Rx all the workouts for the Open,” he thought to himself.
Since then, he’s done exactly that, completing all 2016 and 2017 Open workouts as prescribed, despite the appearance of movements he doesn’t quite have under his belt. Take 16.3, for example: a 7-minute AMRAP of 10 power snatches at 75 lb. and three bar muscle-ups. Rather than performing the scaled version, which took the barbell down to 45 lb. and subbed jumping chest-to-bar pull-ups for the muscle-ups, he thought, “Well, I’m gonna do the 10 snatches and then I’m gonna work on bar muscle-ups.”
The Big Picture
The Open is more than stats and figures. It’s a reflection of the values and attitudes CrossFit instills every day; for instance, “the mentality of being able to persevere when a workout’s gone to hell,” DeGroot said.
That mentality has served DeGroot well in his annual Army physical testing, particularly in the 2-mile run—for which he has no love.
“It's easier for me to get into that slightly uncomfortable zone and push my 2-mile run time because I'm used to that from CrossFit,” he said.
This year, DeGroot’s ability to get comfortable being uncomfortable was put to the test once again in the 2017 Open finale: 10 rounds for time of 9 95-lb. thrusters and 35 double-unders.
Though he can now do double-unders, he lacks consistency. Sometimes he can knock out a set of 40 unbroken; sometimes it’s more like 10. He’s also not a fan of thrusters.
“That's one that if it was just programmed as a (daily) workout, I'm scaling it,” he said. He might attempt doubles for a minute before switching to singles or take the rep count down.
“Well, that option isn’t there (in the Open),” he said. “You just gotta suck it up.”
The workout started out well. The barbell was no problem, and in the first several rounds, DeGroot managed the doubles in chunks of 15-20. But around Round 7, “the wheels came off,” he said.
It seemed like his body couldn’t keep pace with his mind, and he tripped and tripped and tripped. Sets of 15-20 double-unders were reduced to 3 or 4. At one point, he had to walk away for half a minute to collect his temper.
“I was getting frustrated and mad at myself, and you’re not gonna get double-unders when you’re mad at yourself,” he said.
He returned to his rope, concentrating on his breath. Though he’d been on pace to finish in 30 minutes at the start of the workout, it took him 16 minutes to complete the final 3 rounds and stop the clock at 37:26.
At first, he was disappointed. It’s easy to look at a finish time so close to the 40-minute cap and feel like a failure. But then he took a look back at the five years and 29 Open workouts that came before this one.
“Even as I was disheartened by the wheels falling off, I did finish it under the cap,” he said. “And that in itself—that I was able to get that many double-unders—even though I was dead last in my heat (and had) one of the slowest times in the gym, for me, it's still a personal victory.”
His grin was almost audible.
“I got 350 double-unders.”