April 22, 2014
Rising to the Challenge
By Christina Roth

“CrossFit is unlike any other sport ... It’s all within your head or how you push yourself.”

Landscape photo courtesy of Wendy White
Photo courtesy of Josh Mirone

In 2013, Michelle Crawford accepted her third straight invitation to compete at the Mid Atlantic Regional.

Unlike the previous year when she finished in fourth place, just missing a trip to the Games, she stood on the podium in third place at the end of the weekend and earned a chance to compete in Carson, Calif.

“My goal was to just make it (to the Games). I didn’t have any illusions that I was going to make it on the podium,” Crawford said. “But when I got there, I was completely involved in the competition. You cannot turn something like that off. I did well on the stuff I do well on and I fully intended to win the ZigZag Sprint. I would have been disappointed if I didn’t win. It was an amazing feeling to know that I won an event at the CrossFit Games.”

Crawford finished in 33rd place overall and returned to Charlotte, N.C., satisfied with reaching her ultimate goal of competing with the Fittest on Earth.

New Affiliate

When competition season ended, Crawford began a new journey as an affiliate owner and opened Rising CrossFit Ballantyne in October of 2013.

“As soon as I got home from the Games, it was all systems go,” she said. “I was in the midst of everything that needed to be done to get the box ready. We were preparing the building, developing the coaching staff and excited to get members in the door.”

David Borrelli, head coach at Rising CrossFit Ballantyne, was eager to join Crawford in her new endeavor. He competed at the Mid Atlantic Regional for the past two years as an individual and spent a significant amount of training time with Crawford during those seasons.

“I have always had a huge desire to go and become the head coach at a brand new box,” he admitted. “It’s great to be able to help start something from the ground up and really be able to see it grow and expand.”

Many of the steady members of CrossFit Ballantyne YMCA transitioned when Crawford opened her new affiliate. As the membership increased, so did the realization that this competition season might be different from years past.

Training Atmosphere

Although Crawford is known for her individual status in most CrossFit competitions and a self-described solo competitor at heart, a team atmosphere was growing at her affiliate.

“Pretty soon after Rising opened, we had a good group of about 10 to 15 competitive athletes transition from other boxes. They were excited to have a competitive training atmosphere,” she said. “The programming wasn’t anything that a regional-level athlete wouldn’t do, but the opportunity to do it with all those people and the total intensity was amazing. We were almost recreating a regional-level atmosphere every day in the gym.”

Now six months later, Crawford is thankful the competitive edge grew stronger with each and every workout. She has used her experience from regionals and her trip to the CrossFit Games, as a gauge for this season’s programming. On several occasions, Crawford even had her members at a local aquatics center doing swimming workouts on Sunday afternoons.

“From Day 1, I knew that we weren’t training for the Open, we were training for regionals,” she said. “I programmed pretty heavy, programmed to people’s weaknesses and included higher-level gymnastics skills. We have been preparing since the beginning.”

Borrelli agreed it was important to train and prepare for the end in mind because each CrossFit workout is unique.

“CrossFit is unlike any other sport,” he said. “In other sports your goal is to physically stop your opponent or create an obstacle for that opponent or to keep them from doing something. But with CrossFit, there is no stopping the other opponent. It’s all within your head or how you push yourself.”

Going Team

Preparing a team for competition requires coordination and complete commitment from everyone.

“Having a team is all about timing,” Crawford said. “You have to have a group of six people who are healthy and ready to go, who aren’t trying to get pregnant and not moving. People have a life and a lot of stuff going on in their lives. For many athletes this is their hobby.”

The sense of camaraderie helped secure Crawford’s decision to go team this year.

“For everyone to be in a season of their life, where they can be serious about this for a few months and really commit, is important and truly incredible at the same time,” she said. “I am just thankful for the chance to be one-sixth of that experience.”

Borrelli said unlike the past two years, this wasn’t the year for him to go individual.

“I guess it’s just this season of life,” he said. “Helping to open the new gym, getting married, and just different things that require a lot of responsibility in my life. I kind of had to say, ‘Where are my priorities leading me?’ I think the team opportunity just felt right for me this year.”

Crawford, as well as many of her teammates, declined their offers for individual competition in lieu of putting their team efforts to the test at the end of May. Despite her fifth-place finish in the region for the Open, Crawford will be leading Rising Orange to regional competition this year.

“With the sheer number of people doing CrossFit these days, we knew it was important to do our best on the Open workouts,” she said. “I mean, I think it’s safe to say that everybody is working really hard and training really hard. The level of competition gets higher and higher every year and this year was no exception.”

Rising Orange currently sits in first place on the team Leaderboard for the Mid Atlantic Region. Their collective scores gave the team a seventh-place finish in 14.1 and 14.2, second place in 14.3, and third place in 14.4 and 14.5.

As individual athletes continued to accept or decline their offers, the competition crew at Rising CrossFit Ballantyne began to realize their second team, Rising Blue, was close to qualifying, as well. Although Rising Blue was beyond the original cutoff, Crawford and Borrelli stayed hopeful things would change once the individual Leaderboard settled.

“This is huge. To be able to potentially send two teams is an amazing fulfillment of our initial goal,” Borrelli said. “I remember talking to Michelle about her dream to send two teams to regionals one day. I don’t think it’s really sunk in for me yet. What’s interesting is that we’ll be competing with each other, but also against each other.”

Rising Blue has officially qualified and secured a spot at the Mid Atlantic Regional, bringing Crawford’s dream full circle. The members of Rising Blue are currently ranked in 26th place.

Crawford and her fellow training partners said they were ecstatic when they heard their second team qualified for the regional competition.

“We are very fired up. We are psyched—very psyched. We have been stalking the Leaderboard like nobody’s business,” she said. “So we will have two teams going to regionals this year. It’s unbelievable.”

Competition Goals

Now that the verdict is in, Borrelli said the small things will make a big difference during the time leading up to regionals.

“It’s crucial to stay healthy as a team, to make sure everyone is hitting on all cylinders,” Borrelli said.

Crawford agreed certain techniques could truly make the difference between first and second place in an event.

“We have to make sure that all skill levels are all the way up. Making sure we are solid on chest-to-bar pull-ups, muscle-ups and handstand push-ups,” she said. “And even tiny things, like making sure when we practice that people start on the mat and when we finish … to stand on the mat again. Little things like that can actually make a difference at regionals. We really want to try and replicate Games-like conditions as much as possible.”

As she approaches the one-year anniversary of securing her position to compete at the CrossFit Games, a lot has changed for Crawford. She values each and every moment and takes nothing for granted.

“This past year has been awesome and having my box for the past six months has been incredible,” Crawford said. “I love all of our members. This community will always be my No. 1 priority. It’s been amazing to see several casual competitors transform into regional-level athletes and I cannot wait to see what’s around the corner.”

Borrelli is also eager for what could happen in the near future.

“We are a goal-oriented group of athletes, and as a whole, we are sending two teams to regionals,” he said. “We are going to continue to compete to the best of our ability, but I think it’s safe to say that Carson, Calif., is on everybody’s mind, as well. That’s something we are shooting for in the end.”