“This is about crushing the people next to you, and this is about trying to win the fucking CrossFit Games,” Dave Castro, Director of the CrossFit Games, said at the dinner that kicked off the 2016 Individual competition. “If you’re not coming for that reason, you should just quit now.”
Tia-Clair Toomey, who took second in 2015, listened quietly.
“Personally, I never wanted to come to the CrossFit Games to win it. I just wanted to be there, you know?” she said during a Skype call two weeks before the 2017 Pacific Regional.
By the time the week was over and she’d taken second again—losing the title Fittest Woman on Earth to defending champion Katrin Davidsdottir by just 11 points—she’d come around to Castro’s way of thinking. As she drove down the StubHub Center’s palm-lined boulevard for the last time on Sunday night, she turned to Shane Orr, her fiancé and coach.
“What do I need to work on?” she asked him. “Because I want to win the CrossFit Games next year.”
Toomey is in that interesting place between rookie and veteran. She’s only been to the Games twice, but can you call someone with two silver medals a greenhorn?
She earned the first in her debut Games appearance in 2015, a happy surprise that came little more than two years after she started CrossFit as a complement to her track training—she hoped to race the 800 meters in the Olympics one day. A year after joining CrossFit Gladstone in Queensland, Australia, which she now owns, she lived her dream but swapped sports. Vowing to qualify for both the CrossFit Games and the Olympics, she did the latter as a weightlifter.
By the time she returned to Carson in late July 2016, she was headed for the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, as Australia’s top-ranked female weightlifter and lone representative at the games. (She would go on to take 14th in the 58-kg division at the Olympics with an 82-kg snatch and 107-kg clean and jerk).
While Castro admonished the athletes to try to win the Games or go home, Toomey thought she’d settle for just having a good time.
“Last year I went into the CrossFit Games just expecting—not expecting anything, really,” she said. “I kind of just went in there trying not to put as much pressure on myself but just (trying) to do my very best.”
Meager expectations aside, Toomey ended the first day of competition—Wednesday—in third. An event win in Thursday’s Ocean Swim bumped her to first. Except for one quick dip to second overall after Murph and despite a 22nd-place in Double DT, she continued to hold the top spot through Friday.
A notion crept in: “If you just keep doing this, you could probably win it,” she said she thought to herself.
Maybe the idea added subconscious pressure, maybe not. But as the days and events wore on and fatigue set in, Toomey found herself thinking about her competitors’ strategies instead of her own. She dipped to fourth after taking 13th in Climbing Snail.
“It's a workout that I should have done pretty well at, but I got caught up in someone else's race, if that makes sense,” she said. “I don't really know whose race, but I did get caught up in someone else's race.”
She rallied again. Third- and second-place finishes in Saturday’s next two events put her in the lead on the final day. But even with just a day remaining in the CrossFit Games, she still doubted she’d hold on to first.
“Not for long after those handstand walks,” she said to CrossFit Media.
Though Toomey’s prediction was accurate—her 17th-place finish in Handstand Walk nudged her down to second, behind Davidsdottir, who won the event—she said she was being realistic, not negative, about her inverted prowess.
“I’ve definitely improved from where I was, but it will never be as good as Katrin’s,” she said. “I was just having a bit of a joke around because there's so much tension and it's really full-on on the last day ... . I was so happy with my handstand-walk result.”
The Aussie and the Icelander continued to swap the lead for the next two events, and in the end, it all came down to the finale: Redemption, a reunion with the pegboard that frustrated so many athletes in the 2015 Games.
But as Toomey said, “It wasn’t about pegboards at all.” It was all about points. Before the event, she trailed Davidsdottir by 23 points. Though the title was within her grasp, Toomey still made no claims to it.
“If I don't come first, I'm definitely gonna come second, and that's still pretty awesome,” she thought to herself.
It wasn’t until the work was done that she realized she wanted to win.
The Moment of Truth
After the horn sounded at the end of Redemption and the 10th edition of the CrossFit Games, Toomey sat down on the red crash pad at the foot of the pegboard wall to await the results.
“It was that moment there that I was like, ‘If I don't get this—’” she paused. “It wasn't for nothing, but all that hard work we put in throughout the whole year, we should be rewarded (with) first because I've held the first spot for so long.”
She glanced at Orr, in the stands. He’d done the math already and held up two fingers. She stood and gave Davidsdottir a hug—but she wasn’t ready to let go yet.
“I was like, ‘Maybe he's wrong, or maybe he's saying that Katrin came second,’” Toomey said.
Though just a few days prior she felt no pressure to win, suddenly, all she could think of were the reasons she wanted victory. She remembered quitting a well-paying job to go all in on CrossFit and how Orr took 13-hour shifts at the local gas plant to pick up the slack.
“I want to make sure that all the sacrifices that Shane and I have made in our life—I want to make sure that it wasn't for nothing,” she said.
She thought of the legacy she wants to build.
“When I have children, I want to be able to tell them I may not have gone off and got a career being a doctor or something fancy like that, but I pursued my sporting dream of going to the Olympics and doing CrossFit, and I was the best at it,” she said. “I want to be able to say that whatever you set your mind to you can do if you really put in the hard work and try your very best. I want to be able to say that I was successful in what I've done so that later in life I have stories to tell, and, I guess, people to inspire.”
The sound of Castro’s voice booming across the tennis stadium snapped Toomey from her reverie.
“Ladies and gentlemen, your 2016 Reebok CrossFit Games is: Once again—” Castro began.
At “once again,” Toomey shut her eyes.
“I felt like it got ripped away from me,” she said. “And so it was that moment there that I was like, ‘Well, you know, now I want to win the CrossFit Games.’”
Training to Win It
It’s not just Toomey’s goal that’s changed but her confidence. She recalled trying to convince herself she belonged among the elite women at her side before the final event, describing them as “machines” that she wasn’t sure she could challenge.
“But then at the end you’re like, ‘Far out—that’s how close I was to coming first,’” she said. “Shit—it was just 11 points.”
Toomey has spent the months since then making room in her life for her new mentality. Though she still runs a CrossFit affiliate, she’s handed most of her classes to Orr—who quit his job to take over more of the day-to-day functions of the gym—and dialed in her nutrition. But mostly, the change has been between her ears.
“This time last year I didn't even know if I was gonna make it back to the CrossFit Games, whereas this year ... Regionals is just a stepping stone to my big event,” she said. “I want to go in there and I want to win (the Pacific Regional), and I want to go and stamp my mark and make sure that people know that I'm coming for the Games.
“I'm not training to be a part of the Games, I'm training to win it.”