"I have that fight and have worked so hard to get where I am right now."
Natalie Newhart will never forget The Cinco 1.
She can still hear the fans cheering and pulling for her to get through the last event of her debut at the 2013 Reebok CrossFit Games. She can still see the women she competed with all weekend completing rep after rep and moving further ahead while she was stuck on the very first rep—a 265-lb. deadlift.
“When The Cinco was announced I was like, ‘Oh shoot, 265 lb. is my 1-rep max,’” Newhart said. “I remember I couldn’t pull it during the warm-up. I was just hoping to use that energy from the crowd to get it off the ground.”
But the barbell didn’t budge.
“I knew after the first attempt all I could do is sit there and try. I kept telling myself, ‘I can still do this, just keep trying.’ The more I tried, the harder mentally it (got) to stand out there,” she said. “It felt like the longest 7 minutes of my life.”
The 29-year-old from Silverthorne, Colorado, was disappointed with her 30th-place finish at the Games that year and returning home wasn’t easy. She had just gone through a divorce—most people know her as Natalie McLain—and she had to find a new box after leaving an affiliate that she opened.
After months of heavy deadlifting with a new coach, another obstacle was thrown at her just weeks before the Open in 2014.
“I was working on a heavy 2-rep deadlift when I felt something pop in my back,” she said. “It was just extreme pain—some of the worst pain I have ever been in.”
She ruptured two discs in her spine and needed to take time off to recover. She worked on core-strengthening exercises with a physical therapist and could only focus on upper-body strength work that wouldn’t require her to lean over.
She attempted some of the Open workouts, but completely avoided the heavy deadlifts in 14.3.
“It’s extremely depressing,” she said. “Unless you’ve been injured, it’s hard for anyone to know what it’s like.”
She continued training and doing what she could while allowing her back to heal.
She watched all of the regionals and the Games from her home that year, and knew in her heart she would be back.
“I think you really appreciate your health when you don’t have it,” she said. “When you are able to start moving around, you are pretty hungry.”
Newhart stepped onto the CrossFit scene in 2009, trying it out recreationally. She decided to take it serious a few years later, quit her full-time job in environmental science, opened a box in Vail, Colorado, and began competing.
When she’s not in the box, her adventurous spirit and zest doesn’t waver. For fun, Newhart climbs mountains and enjoys snowboarding. She said when her CrossFit days are over, she plans to focus on motocross. She even sold her dirt bike to help fund her fitness career.
The 5-foot-1, 120-lb. athlete is known for her speed when it comes to pull-ups and body-weight movements. She can jam through 100 unbroken pull-ups and has been dubbed the “burpee queen.” On the flipside, strength has been a struggle.
After a disappointing performance at the 2012 South West Regional—she was unable to finish Event 3’s 70-lb. one-armed dumbbell snatches—she worked tirelessly to get stronger and eventually qualified for the Games in 2013.
Her highest finish at the Games was second in 2007—a 1,000-meter row followed by 5 rounds of 25 pull-ups and 7 85-lb. push jerks. Newhart edged out Fittest on Earth Camille Leblanc-Bazinet’s time by 8.4 seconds.
Since May 2014, Newhart has been in the gym seven days a week and does two-a-day sessions. She performs workouts with low intensity and lighter weights on her rest days. Though no longer an affiliate owner, she coaches at CrossFit Low Oxygen in Frisco, Colorado, and trains at BackCountry CrossFit in Highlands Ranch, Colorado.
Between training sessions, she cleans vacation rentals near the ski resorts to offset her living expenses.
It’s not a dream job, she said, but the sacrifice is worth it if she can train full time and focus on getting stronger.
And it’s working. She deadlifts 300 lb. without issue now.
“I’m fighting to get stronger,” she said. “I struggle a lot because I don’t see gains that quick. I feel like a lot of people would have quit already if they were in my shoes.”
But Newhart pushes through the days she feels like giving up. She listens to her strength coaches, Shane and Laura Phelps-Sweatt of CrossFit Conjugate, and she has learned to be patient.
“I have that fight and have worked so hard to get where I am right now,” she said.
Whenever she’s not hitting a PR or seeing improvements, she takes a step back and refocuses.
“I dig deep and fight through it,” she said. “At the end of the day, I just continue to believe that I can do it. I feel like if I keep going and keep working harder, eventually I will get there.”
That’s exactly what she had to do after Open Workout 15.2 when her first-place score submission of 441 reps was rejected. The depth of some of her squats did not meet the standard. But even after a 15 percent penalty, Newhart’s score of 375 was still the fourth best score in the world.
“I’m upset, but this doesn’t stop me from fighting,” she said of the penalty. “My goal has always been to get back to the Games and I’m going to do everything I can to get there.”
Newhart kept her focus after 15.2 and locked in 536 reps on 15.3, the top score in the South West Region and the fourth best score worldwide. She finished the Open in 13th place in the South West and is ready to leave all her hard work on the floor this weekend at the South Regional.
“I am not 13th-place quality but I will prove that,” she said. “I’m ready to crush it.”
Many people ask Newhart why she sacrifices so much and trains so hard. She said her response is always the same.
“There’s just something special about being at regionals and the Games,” she said.
She added: “The greatest moment is when you are lying there after giving it your all. I know all the struggles I had to go through to get there and it becomes very emotional and personal. The harder the battle, the sweeter the victory.”