January 6, 2012
The Most Clutch Athlete in CrossFit
By CrossFit

You may not have noticed, but Graham Holmberg finished 4th at the 2011 CrossFit Games. It was the best finish ever by a returning male CrossFit Games champion. In a rapidly evolving sport where it's very hard to stay on top, that's a remarkable accomplishment. Still, Graham said he feels "unsatisfied" with that performance and has revised his training plan to better prepare for 2012.

Heading into the 2011 Games, Graham was in a strange position. Despite winning the 2010 Games, he felt like an underdog in the eyes of the community. Instead of him, Rich Froning Jr. was the overwhelming favorite to win in 2011. Rich led Graham until the final event in 2010, when Rich was unable to climb the 20-foot rope, and Graham swooped in to take the victory. 

The 2011 Reebok CrossFit Open didn't help Graham’s expectations. He finished 326th worldwide on Workout 11.1, completing nearly 100 fewer repetitions than Rich. Though he improved in the other five Open workouts, Graham finished 37th worldwide.  

During the first couple of events in 2011, Graham did not perform like a returning champion, either. He took 28th on the Beach Event, a surprising performance in a long event from the man who won 2010's longest event, “Pyramid Double Helen.” 

The difference, Graham says, was the 200-meter ocean swim that kicked off the event. It was a very small portion, time-wise, of the event, but had an outsized effect on the results. Swimming itself wasn't a new element for Graham. He added it to his training a few months before the Games. 

He'd practiced "long swims, sprints, underwater, even mixed in some kettlebell swings, cleans, and muscle-ups with swim workouts." The rough open water of the Pacific Ocean, however, was much more taxing than the pool work he’d grown accustomed to. Dealing with the waves was much more fatiguing than pool swimming, and it "made the rest of the workout miserable." 

After a 19th-place performance on Event 2, Graham seemed to pull himself together. From that point on, he finished 13th or better on every event for the rest of the competition. His second-half performance was dramatically better than his first half; he averaged a 15.4 placing across the first five events and a much improved placing of 5.5 for the final five events.

Graham's most dramatic 2011 performance came in the final consecutive three events. Entering Event 8, Graham was ranked 10th. 

Event 8 was a three-minute AMRAP. The athletes had one minute to rest, then immediately entered Event 9, a six-minute AMRAP. After a two-minute rest, they then completed a chipper beginning with the same movements they'd been through twice already in the previous two events.

In contrast to athletes such as Pat Barber and Ben Smith, Graham attacked Events 8 and 9 with full intensity. While others seemed concerned with saving their energy for the final event, Graham took full advantage of the allotted rest times in between events, since "knowing that I am given time to rest and recover helps me go that much harder." 

He won Event 8 by eight reps, a very wide margin in a three-minute workout. In Event 9, he won his heat, but ended up tying with Josh Bridges for 2nd. The question remained, however, if his early efforts would cause him to implode on the final event. His stamina and endurance proved up to the test, as he tied for 4th on Event 10. He finished Event 10 less than a minute behind the winner Pat Barber, who had saved all of his energy for that particular event.

In the end, Graham's strategy paid off. He finished the Games in 4th place, 6 places above where he entered Event 8. He'd reached just 20 points away from a podium finish. 

For those who know him, Graham's last minute comeback didn't come as a surprise. Clutch performances have become a pattern for him. At the2009 Midwest Regional, he jumped from 11th to 4th in the final event and earned his first trip to the Games. At the 2010 Central East Regional, Graham jumped ahead on the final day to squeeze into the final Games-qualifying spot. A few months later, he pulled ahead of Rich Froning Jr. in the final event and won the 2010 Games. 

There were some drawbacks, of course, to relying on last-minute comebacks. Had he performed better in the earlier events, his clutch performance in Events 8 through 10 would have catapulted him onto the podium.

On the flight back home from the 2011 Games, Graham was deeply fatigued, not only from the Games, but also from the long period of preparation that preceded it. According to Graham, "the preparation that goes into training all year and then three long days of little rest, hard workouts, and a constant changing schedule, gets rough on you." His shoulders and knees were sore from the exertion. Mentally, too, he was "worn down and fatigued." 

As he reflected on his 2011 Games performance, Graham felt several conflicting emotions. On the one hand, he was "very happy" with achieving 4th place. It certainly confirmed his spot as one of the most consistent top performers in the sport. Nonetheless, he was not satisfied with his performance. He had gone to Carson, Calif., with his "mind focused on winning the Games." While 4th was a respectable finish, it fell short of his expectations. 

A lifelong athlete, Graham is accustomed to dealing with disappointment. His post-2011 reaction felt similar to the way he felt on the way back from Aromas in 2009, when he took 19th at his first Games. Rather than letting his disappointment in his 2011 performance upset him, he decided to "try and use this to help me prepare for the next year."

Graham's training for 2012 will be a "little more open minded" than his 2011 training. Last year, he got "a little too fancy" by sticking to a strict training schedule each month. His friend and business partner, Brandon Couden, says last year they tried focusing more on "long runs/rows, stretching, and heavy lifting" for much of the year, and then added more traditional CrossFit training as the Games grew closer. 

This theory didn't pan out as well as Graham had hoped. According to Brandon, "it seemed to take away from his intensity a bit, and he was doing all of his workouts on his own." This year, Graham is working out more often in group classes at CrossFit Gahanna and doing more "basic CrossFit workouts." 

He's known for taking a longer off-season than most CrossFitters, but Graham explains that it's not as simple as it sounds. First of all, some post-Games off time "is good for the mind and body.” It's also not possible for him to "keep that same Games high intensity year-round."

Furthermore, for all this talk of an "off-season," it doesn't mean Graham is slacking off or not training. Like any serious athlete, he trains hard year-round, but focuses on health and recovery more during his time away from competition. He prefers to ramp-up his training in time for the Games, when it counts.

Now that he's proven that 2010 wasn't a fluke, another achievement awaits Graham. Will he become the first two-time CrossFit Games champion?