The Professor's Graduation

May 31, 2016

Brittney Saline

I came to realize that I needed to resort back to the reasons that I enjoy training.

At the West Regional, Brent Fikowski took almost 4 seconds to walk the 10 feet between his barbell and the finish mat after Event 6’s last 225-lb. overhead squat. He could’ve taken 17 seconds longer and still won the event; his leisurely finish at 10:06.74 also swiped the event record from Noah Ohlsen, who finished almost 4 seconds slower.

Fikowski let the weight bounce once on the floor, looking left and right before stepping to the mat, pounding his chest twice above his heart. He walked with the assurance of an athlete who knew he couldn’t be caught—and he wouldn’t be. The 25-year-old accountant won the West Regional by a margin of 70 points, taking two event wins, five top-three finishes and never placing outside the top seven.

“It was a surreal ride; a perfect mix of complete relaxation and total focus,” he wrote on social media Monday night.

Though he’ll be a rookie in Carson, his Games qualification was years in the making. After starting CrossFit in 2012, he took sixth in his first regional appearance in 2013 at the Australia Regional. He hovered near qualification for the next two years, taking third in Canada West in 2014 and seventh in the West in 2015, coming within 1 and 2 points of qualification each year, respectively.

“I try not to look back on it with too much anger or resentment or regret,” he said. “It's not healthy, and that sort of mindset would impact the rest of my life, and I think it would maybe impact my performance as well.”

A former collegiate volleyball player—he played on the indoor leagues at Lethbridge College in Alberta, Canada, and at Griffith University in Brisbane, Queensland—Fikowski joined CrossFit Broad Beach in Southport in the spring of 2012 to improve his game on the court. Though he had never had any weightlifting or gymnastics experience, Fikowski said that with “my aerobic capacity and my explosiveness from volleyball ... and with the acquisition of skills and my hard work ethic, everything just kind of fell into place so that I (became) a pretty good CrossFitter pretty quick.”

One year later, he took sixth in his debut regional appearance, and after graduating from Griffith University in 2013, saw CrossFit as an opportunity to continue doing what he loved best: competing. 

“I needed to fill that void, and with volleyball that wasn’t a possibility,” he said.

Despite his impressive debut performance in 2013, it wasn’t until after moving to Canada, joining Kelowna CrossFit and competing in the 2014 Canada West Regional that he thought he might be Games material. Four top-three finishes that year helped him earn third overall, just 1 point out of qualification. If it hadn’t been for a 16th-place finish in Event 4—which featured strict handstand push-ups, a regional first—Fikowski might have made it. Still, he hadn’t gone into the regional that year “with fire in my eyes, thinking ‘I’m gonna make it to the Games,’” he said.

It was a different story in 2015.

“I was definitely going into that weekend thinking to myself, ‘This is your opportunity to qualify for the CrossFit Games,’” he recounted. “I think partially to my detriment, that was my mentality.”

Though he’d spent the season hammering strict handstand push-ups, when they turned up in Event 6 in 2015, they weren’t just strict, they were at a deficit. Unprepared for this unexpected challenge, his 20th-place finish was more than he could recover from, missing qualification by just 2 points.

This time, Fikowski took it hard.

“I put a lot of pressure on myself,” he said. “And then when it didn’t all come together I felt just defeated, and I was wondering, ‘Why did I put myself through all that pain and that internal struggle to not succeed in what I was trying to do?’”

For a couple months, he debated quitting. Perhaps he’d be better as a competitive rower, he thought, or maybe he should return to volleyball. Desperate to get his head back in the game, he reached out to his high-school volleyball coach, Ard Biesheuvel, who used to give the team mental training sessions.

“I decided that I needed to return to the mindset that had made me successful in the past,” Fikowski said.

Fikowski told Biesheuvel that he wanted to learn how to go into a competition setting without any doubt or thoughts of failure.

“I felt I needed to go into these competitions with just the complete belief that I would only have success,” Fikowski said. “That was hard for me, because I'm pretty thorough, and logically I know that there’s a chance (of failure), so to try to convince myself otherwise was getting quite hard.”

Biesheuvel responded with an excerpt from "Chop Wood Carry Water," by Joshua Medcalf.

“The ultimate illusion of the human experience is control,” it read. “When you surrender the outcome you are freed up to be at your best, to be in the moment, and to trust your training ... it is the guy who has surrendered the outcome who has the greatest chance of success.”

For Fikowski, the notion was freeing.

“I was trying to ask (Biesheuvel) how do I do that, how do I convince myself, and then he basically said you don't have to,” he said. “It was a relief. It was a lot more comforting (knowing) that I don't have to worry about that anymore, I just have to do my thing and take it one day at a time.”

That meant learning to love training for training’s sake—not just for getting to the Games—again.

“I came to realize that I needed to resort back to the reasons that I enjoy training,” he said. “Self-improvement and enjoying the process and worrying less about the final results and the podium and more about being satisfied with the daily work I’m putting in.”

That didn’t mean he didn’t work hard. Between 2015 and this year’s season, he focused on building pressing strength, his most lethal nemesis. Three to four sessions per week were devoted to sets of strict handstand push-ups and strict press.

“It was just relentless,” he said.

The effort paid off this year with a third-place finish in Event 2, Regional Nate. Fikowski finished the 10 rounds of 4 strict muscle-ups, 7 strict handstand push-ups and 12 kettlebell snatches at 70 lb. in 18:51.71, dividing the handstand push-ups into 2 and 3 sets. The performance followed a second-place Event 1 finish, putting Fikowski in first overall after Day 1.

But he wasn’t only physically stronger than he was in 2015; this year, his mental game was on point. He chose to focus on his own performance instead of playing mental gymnastics with points.

“I had this feeling that I wasn't going to need to look at the leaderboard for the rest of the weekend,” he said. “After (Day 1), I just sort of assumed I was still in first ... and the only thing that probably would stop that would be my own performance. No one else was gonna be dictating that, it was just gonna be if I performed or not, and I thought the best way for me to perform was just to worry about performing.”

His assumption was correct: after taking the overall lead on Day 1, his name never fell from the top spot. His first event win came in Event 4, 4 rounds of 28 pistols and 15 power cleans at 115 lb. He spent the event slowly catching up to leader Cody Anderson, choosing a steady pace that preserved enough energy for him to pull ahead in the final few reps when Anderson dropped the bar.

But it was in Event 6 that the professor—a nickname bestowed on him by workout partners back at CrossFit Broad Beach for his methodical, calculated ways—gave the real master class in pacing.

On the bike and the row, he stuck religiously to the pace he’d set in practice: about 450 watts on the Assault Bike and 1:46 per 500 m on the erg. Though he was not the first to finish any of the first four legs of the chipper, he stepped quietly into the lead during the burpees, each time stepping back with his left leg, standing up with his right and going straight into the jump while athletes around him fatigued, requiring extra steps before clearing the box. By the time he reached the barbell for the final 5 overhead squats, he was alone.

“There’s sort of a pace I can maintain for what feels like an eternity, and that was all I really needed to know for that event,” he said.

He power-cleaned the bar with a wide grip, launching straight into a shallow split jerk before squatting 5 tidy reps, cooly walking to the mat as he’d done for the past three years of regional chipper victories.

“I guess old habits die hard,” he said, laughing.

With a 75-point lead over Ben Stoneberg in second, Event 7 was almost a formality, and he remained in the top spot after taking sixth in the final event, at long last earning a spot at the Games.

“It was a bit of a relief to resolve the sort of looming, ‘will he ever qualify’ question,” he said.

And though when he gets there he’ll be a rookie again, in true professor fashion, he’s already started doing his homework, speaking with Games athletes about how the show is run in Carson.

“I don’t want to go there and feel like the new guy who doesn’t know his way around and needs that second year to get his bearings straight,” he said. “I plan to feel like a veteran.”