April 11, 2012
Reflections on the Open
By Cathy Larripa

"I've had 58 years to gain wisdom and perspective - virtues I attribute not to remarkable intellect, but rather to to the simple fact that I've been lucky enough to witness more than 21,000 sunrises."

I am not a gifted athlete. Although not entirely to blame for this situation, I should point out that girls’ sports in my athletically formative years were uncommon, unfunded and generally considered unladylike. Title IX, signed into law by President Nixon in 1972, took effect two weeks after my high school graduation. It took three more years before Title IX was translated into specific regulations requiring schools to take steps to increase student participation in programs where bias occurred, but it wasn’t until I finished college and was the mother of two that things finally began to change for women in sports.

The result? I’m not exceptionally fast, and am not fond of lifting heavy objects over my head. Until two years ago, I considered it a chore to “clean” and would never have asked, “What’s your snatch?” in public. Though unrelated to my lack of early athletic opportunities or women’s inequality issues, I’m only 5-feet tall and weigh 97 pounds. However, I’ve had 58 years to gain wisdom and perspective – virtues I attribute not to remarkable intellect, but rather to the simple fact that I’ve been lucky enough to witness more than 21,000 sunrises. If you stick around long enough, you’re bound to learn a thing or two. What follows are some lessons learned from this year’s CrossFit Games Open.

It’s just a game. This concept is a bit baffling to those who take themselves too seriously. “Game” has several definitions, and two are relevant to the Open. As a noun, the word designates a competition with rules and opponents, while as an adjective it denotes one possesses an unyielding spirit. In other words, a game is something you choose to “play,” or a way you choose to “be.”  In the case of the Open, being game is a significant asset if you’re going to play the game. This applies to life as well; since you’re already playing that game, you may as well be up for whatever crosses your path.

If you’re in, drop the complaints and excuses. Games come with rules; they are clearly stated and apply equally within clearly defined gender and age groups. In fact, as game rules go, they don’t get any more clear than those outlined for each of the five workouts of the Open. If there was any lingering confusion after reading the directions and watching the video that introduced each of the workouts, then there’s just no hope for you. If you’ve developed the magic algorithm for perfect scoring, by all means share it, preferably in a constructive way with the CrossFit folks who actually set up the scoring. Whining and negativity about the workouts, scoring, body size, etc., is not helpful … not to the whiner, and certainly not to those of us who have to listen to you or rummage through your comments in search of constructive ones.

And, if you’re going to play with a group known for naming its workouts after fallen heroes, at least show a little dignity. After all, it’s highly unlikely that Lt. Michael Murphy, Lt. Michael McGreevy, SSgt Travis Griffin or any of the other men and women who have inspired hero workouts, would have ever whined about what you’ve chosen to do for recreation.

You can do more than you think you can. Imagine my surprise when the second workout was nothing but snatches. Masters women began the workout with 30 reps at 35 pounds, progressed to 30 at 55 pounds and 75 pound, then followed up with as many as possible at 90 pounds in whatever time was left of the original 10 minutes.

Remember when I said I don’t like lifting heavy objects overhead? In addition to the fear of dropping something on my noggin, my small hands are much happier wrapped around a 35 pound women’s bar, but, even then, a hook grip just about kills me. I have no desire to condition my hands to the degree required to make the grip comfortable, and fear nothing short of thumb transplants will ever make a difference. Besides, I usually forget to unhook at the top because I’m so concentrated on not clocking my chin (done that), grazing the tip of my nose (done that, as well) or dropping the bar (yep). Up until Week 2 of this event, 35 pounds had been the most I’d snatched. When the countdown timer for the workout started, I took my good old time doing the first 30 reps, since that was where I’d figured it would end for me. However, with plenty of time left on the clock, what could I do but load the bar with a couple 10-pound plates and give 55 pounds a try? It wasn’t pretty. In fact, it was downright ugly and there were plenty of failed attempts, but damn if that bar didn’t move from the floor to full lockout four more times! 

I had a similar experience with 9-foot wall balls, as my practice target had always been 8 feet (and I frequently missed it). The take home lesson? Laugh and then keep going. If there’s any time left on that clock, get one more rep! If there’s still more time, go for another. Laugh between reps (but never, ever, ever during reps if they involve heavy objects overhead). It will all end soon enough. In the Open, as in life, the clock always runs down.

Real life isn’t scaled to make things equally accessible to all. Actually, a couple of exceptions come to mind – gender, weight and age categories apply in certain athletic events and tax rates are differentially applied depending on income level. However, when I walk into Safeway, I am going to pay the same for a loaf of bread as the recently unemployed father of four ahead of me in line or the 82-year-old woman in line behind me. When I get stopped for speeding, my excuse won’t get any more or less consideration than yours … after all, they’re just excuses, or shameless attempts at “scaling.” 

The disservice of frequent, and sometimes unnecessary, scaling hit me square in the face during the Open.  When training, I rarely use prescribed weights, as they are often a significant percent of my bodyweight. I take advantage of shorter boxes for box jumps, as even a 20-inch box hits me two inches above the knees. After this experience, however, I am going to think seriously before embracing a scaled version of any exercise. If a series of thoughtful progressions will help me learn a skill, I’ll be all over it, but only with the goal of being able to eventually do what everyone in my cohort (all of them … picture laughing grandmas in all sizes and shapes with wildly differing levels of experience), is expected to do.

Be fearless. What’s to be afraid of? Some of us fear injury. Serious injuries can be avoided with a combination of good alignment and form, and a bit of common sense. However, for the inevitable bumps, bruises or delayed onset muscle soreness … get some ice, rest, fish oil and “Vitamin I” … you’ll get over it in a couple of days. 

Maybe your biggest fear is failure.  Newsflash … failure’s inevitable and necessary for growth. In fact, if you don’t fail once in a while, I’m going to go out on a limb and suggest you’re not trying hard enough. Certainly you didn’t fall out of your mother’s womb doing kipping pull-ups, pistols or toes-to-bars. You are where you are in your athletic development, so deal with it. Acknowledge where you are now and, when you’re ready, try to do a little more.

Take responsibility. We all choose our experiences, and the ways we interpret those experiences reflect our thinking. As you approach a challenge, are you a “glass half full” or “glass half empty” type? In the midst of unbelievable discomfort and failed attempts, are you able to stay fully present? When a colleague is flagging, are you present for them, never underestimating the psychophysical impact of verbal encouragement and physical proximity during a test of strength or endurance? What did you learn from the experience? Can you reflect objectively on your performance and let it inform decisions as you move forward in your training?     

Show up and run your own race. You can’t do anything about other participants. There will always be gifted, hard-working athletes posting amazing performances in the Open. Let yourself be humbled. Then let these athletes inspire you to get out there and do your best.

Express gratitude. Humans don’t fare well in isolation. We require experienced teachers and coaches to guide us in skill acquisition.  We benefit from belonging to families and communities made of people sharing similar values and committed to supporting each other. Participation in the Open doesn’t guarantee it, but it’s likely that you, like me, didn’t get here by yourself. Instead, you got to this point with the support of dedicated coaches, family and friends who share a commitment to fitness. Don’t forget to thank them! I am deeply grateful to my family and the wonderful trainers and members of CrossFit Eureka for giving this grandma the confidence to give this year’s Open a shot.

Something was set in motion 40 years ago and, despite its flaws, seems to be working. Involvement in sports, especially team sports, provides opportunities for participants to develop confidence and interpersonal skills that can set them up for success later in life. 

It’s been 40 years since Katherine Switzer became the first woman to officially run the Boston Marathon. I vividly remember watching the televised tennis match as Billie Jean King trounced Bobby Riggs in 1973 in the “Battle of the Sexes.” I am thrilled to be living in a time and place where not only the Kristan Clevers, Julie Fouchers and Annie Thorisdottirs of the world don’t give a second thought to putting it all on the line, but when women who’ve never run a race, hit a ball or climbed a tree, and even grandmas, don’t have to think too long or hard before joining the fun.