Almost a year has passed since Open Workout 17.2, but Theresa Grandel still clearly remembers the moment she unexpectedly found herself on top of the bar.
“I was so happy. Just so happy. It was super amazing, and I had this big smile on my face because I didn’t think I’d be able to do it,” Grandel said of performing her first bar muscle-up. She accomplished the feat at the age of 41 during the 2017 Reebok CrossFit Games Open.
Going into the workout, which started with 2 rounds of 50 ft. of weighted walking lunges, 16 toes-to-bars and 8 power cleans, her goal was simply to finish the two opening rounds as quickly as she could. Grandel didn’t think a bar muscle-up was within her grasp, she admitted.
“After the lunges and toes-to-bars and cleans, I took a nice long break to mentally prepare. The coaches were all there watching, and I decided to just go for it. On my first try, I got up there. It wasn’t pretty, but I got up there, so I didn’t care how nice it looked,” she remembered.
“It was one of the happiest feelings in my life.”
Every year, the Open is full of moments in which ordinary people find themselves achieving things they thought were impossible. Such moments are hard to create on a regular training day, Grandel explained.
“It’s the competition that did it. When the adrenaline was pumping, it initiated something inside of me,” she said.
The same thing happened to Jen Copus last year. The 48-year-old, who trains at CrossFit Bloomsburg in Pennsylvania, snatched 95 lb. for the first time during Open Workout 17.3. She had no idea she was capable of hitting that lift, and a year later Copus said she still gets excited when she thinks about that moment.
“The spirit of the Open is amazing, and it helps you do things you never thought you could do,” she said. “Every year, I’m always able to do so much more than I think I can.”
Colin Farrell, a coach at Potomac CrossFit in Arlington, Virginia, said watching people exceed their expectations is one of the most rewarding parts of the Open.
“Athletes are forced to go a little harder or attempt things they never would. Sometimes newer athletes are intimidated to give (the workout) a go. … But during the Open, they make the jump and are often really surprised how strong, fast and capable they are,” Farrell said.
People rise up, he explained, no matter what level they’re at or how old they are.
“We encourage our veteran athletes as well as our new guys (to participate) because the Open is—especially since the introduction of the scaled division—an incredibly egalitarian event,” he said.
“We see people set new PRs during the Open and then proceed to hit (lifts) for multiple reps. I specifically remember, during 16.2, multiple athletes PR-ing their squat clean, then knocking out 10 to 12 reps of it. First muscle-ups, stringing double-unders together—it happens every year, and it will happen this year. I can’t wait.”
Even if you’re not a competitive person by nature, the Open will help you go beyond perceived limits, said Joe Vaughn, owner of CrossFit Mousetrap in Orlando, Florida.
“The body is often much stronger than the mind will allow, so having a group of friends cheer and motivate you through a grueling workout somehow unlocks some hidden capacity,” he said.
Copus said confronting her fears and overcoming a challenge makes the Open particularly rewarding.
“I want to throw up before every Open workout. I really do. It’s scary, and you absolutely do have to find the courage to dig deep. But it’s the best feeling in the world to be courageous and know you’re pushing through. I always know I’m going to be so proud of myself at the end. That’s an indescribable feeling,” she said.
This year of competition will be Copus’ fifth. A veteran now, she admitted she was apprehensive during her first Open experience.
“I remember walking into the gym and my husband and I had only been doing CrossFit for a few months, and we felt like everyone was younger than us and there was no way we could handle it. But we scaled it and got through it,” she said.
Getting through that first year helped Copus unleash something she had forgotten about, she explained.
“Inside of me, in my mind and my body, I found a competitor. And that competitiveness and getting to be part of something that was bigger than just my gym, it really inspired me.”
Although the worldwide Leaderboard is a reminder that you’re competing against thousands of others around the world, the Open really is a personal journey—a reflection of the work you have put in all year.
So whether you’re a 20-something elite athlete who is striving to qualify for Regionals, a 48-year-old veteran like Copus, a 35-year-old rookie like Donnie Ellis or a finally eligible 14-year-old like Thea Boucher, valuable lessons abound during the five-week event.
The first step is figuring out what you want to get out of the Open, Copus said. She admitted she’s still setting her intention for this year.
“I finally have my pull-ups now. It took me four years to get a pull-up, but they’re coming, so I have to decide this year if I want to see how well I can do in the scaled division in my age group or go Rx and challenge myself more,” Copus said. “Whatever I decide, my goal is just to do the best I possibly can. It’s going to hurt, but the sense of accomplishment I know I’ll feel at the end is far greater than the pain I’ll be in during the workout.”
Ellis just started CrossFit in August 2017. Since then, he has lost close to 60 lb. through diet and exercise, and he signed up for the Open for the first time. Considering the life changes Ellis has experienced in the last six months, he’s excited just to be competing, he explained.
“I never would have thought I’d be able to compete when I started in August,” said Ellis, who will compete in the scaled division. “I don’t really have any performance expectations. It’s all just a learning experience for me.”
He added: “I spent so many years doing nothing for fitness that this is just about proving to myself that I’m capable of doing it.”
Boucher, too, is just thrilled that she’s finally able to compete. Though she started CrossFit at 11, she is just this year old enough to register for the Open. Her goal is simple: to gain competition experience for the future.
“I want to compete at the CrossFit Games at some point in my life, so being able to see where I’m at in the Open now will help give me an idea of where I stand compared to other girls my age,” she said.
She continued: “I just want to give it everything I’ve got. And then hopefully next year when I have more experience, I’ll place well. But this year the goal is to do as many workouts as prescribed as I can.”
Beyond individual competition goals is the atmosphere that’s created when a host of people get together to work out and overcome obstacles. Most gyms make a big deal of the five-week competition, using it to drive community spirit and showcase the accomplishments of their members. Friday Night Lights events are common, as are in-house competitions that focus on fun and participation.
And after all the reps are logged, something about the Open’s post-workout euphoria makes people more social. If you visit any CrossFit affiliate or garage gym during an Open workout, you’ll see smiles wider than normal as people stick around to judge, cheer on other athletes and socialize with friends.
The camaraderie that forms during the Open is Matt Munson’s favorite part of the annual competition.
“I always look forward to the Open, not only because of all workouts, standings, (and) competi-tors, but every year we all meet on Thursdays for the WOD to be announced, potluck-style. This year, it will be held at my in-laws, who are also coaches at the box. I can’t wait to hang out with everyone and strengthen our community,” said Munson, owner of CrossFit Bloomsburg.
Vaughn has a similar perspective.
“The Open is my favorite time of the year. While I love it when members crush the workout or PR, my favorite (part of) the Open is the social dynamics that take place. The newest and slowest people often get cheered for louder and more than our most fit. A wide range of levels come together to accomplish the same goal,” he said.
“Bonds are created (during) every Open WOD, and I absolutely love watching it take place.”
Is the Open for you?
Only if you enjoy exceeding expectations, being encouraged and supported by friends, having fun, and reaching new levels of fitness and health.
So, if you’re reading this, the Open is definitely for you.