Last year, the South Regional brought a host of new names and faces into the CrossFit Games fray. In total, 11 of the 15 qualifying spots from the Regional went to teams or athletes who did not qualify in 2016, and all but one of them were Games rookies (Candice Wagner).
The largest Regional numbers-wise, the South has been a revolving door for Games-qualifying athletes during the last two years of the new Regional format.
Week 1 of Regionals is always special. With the rest of the regions watching, the first batch of athletes tackle the test and set the standard going forward. Here are five major storylines that I’ll be watching as the drama in the South unfolds.
The team from Wasatch CrossFit may be unfamiliar, but make no mistake, it is the team to beat in the South. The Brutes are the No. 1 seed out of the South West and have three qualities that speak to its potential as a podium team at the Games: leadership, experience and strong female athletes.
They have a clear leader in former individual Games competitor and two-time Affiliate Cup champion with UTE CrossFit, Adrian Conway. Conway has a rare mixture of success as an individual and a team member at the highest level. A team that wants to win needs a leader who knows how to win. Conway’s two Affiliate Cup titles should do.
Wasatch also has one of the best female trios in the team competition, with Mandi Janowitz, Tiffany Hendrickson and Michaela North. Janowitz has been to the Games as an individual (2014). She also competed at the Games on the UTE “B team” in 2013 and on UTE's third-place team in 2015. Hendrickson is a two-time individual Games athlete and was the 2013 Regional champion in the South West. North finished sixth as an individual at the South Regional last year, just one spot away from qualifying.
This team has not, however, competed as a unit in live competition, so the Regional will serve as a great test for the little things that help make a team great—like communication and strategy.
LATIN AMERICA’S CHAMPION
A question that I frequently get asked is, “When will Latin America get an individual or team back to the Games?” My answer is always the same: 2018, or the fourth year of the new Regional format. My reasoning centers on the slow affiliate growth and prevalence of CrossFit training during some of the early formative years of the CrossFit Games.
Brazil, the largest country in terms of affiliate numbers in Latin America, only had one affiliate in 2009. By the end of 2011, when the Games were on ESPN, that number had only grown to six. The number has since ballooned to 735 at the end of 2016 and is indicative of rapid growth across the region.
The question remains: With more affiliates and resources, when will Latin America have someone break through, and who will it be? The emergence of some talented athletes and teams in the Open provides a few leads.
The most prominent is Brenda Castro. The fittest woman in Mexico earned the attention and support of many in the 17.4 announcement show en route to finishing 26th worldwide in the Open. Marcelo Bruno finished 13th worldwide in the Open for the men, but remains a bit of an enigma due to relatively scant competition history. Then there’s BIGG Friends; the last Latin American team to qualify in 2014 once again won the Open in Latin America, but more impressively, was fourth among teams. Five of its six athletes received individual Regional invites, and the sixth was one spot away.
WHO WILL CHALLENGE CAMILLE?
There is arguably no better female athlete at Regionals than Camille Leblanc-Bazinet. Since 2011, CLB has won five Regional titles, has 23 event wins, and has won at least two events each year. Even more impressive: She only has two event finishes outside of the top 10, and before 2016, she had never finished an event lower than fifth!
This year, she will once again be the woman to beat at the South Regional, but who will step up to challenge her for the top spot? The inclusion of the new elements and exclusion of the barbell in this year’s programming could open the door for a couple challengers.
Margaux Alvarez returns to the South this year and warrants consideration on experience alone. The four-time Games competitor has also done better at the Games in recent years than CLB and should welcome the Games-level elements included in this year's programming.
The past year also has been a year of tremendous growth for Alexis Johnson. After qualifying for her first CrossFit Games, she closed out the competition in Carson with her first event win in Redemption. With that have come training opportunities and sponsorships to help in her development. The former gymnast and current student will look to take the next step, from Games rookie to perennial qualifier, and can make a strong statement by giving CLB a run for her money at Regionals.
SEAN SWEENEY vs. TRAVIS WILLIAMS
The recent retirement of two-time reigning South Regional champion Roy Gamboa means a new king will be crowned in the South in Week 1. I’m stoked to watch Sean Sweeney and Travis Williams duke it out for the top spot.
While there’s no guarantee that either of them will end up on top, their contrasting personalities should make for some fun exchanges and exciting finishes. They remind me of the song by Donnie and Marie Osmond, "I’m a little bit country, I’m a little bit rock and roll.” Instead of glittered performers singing and dancing in spandex, it’ll be sweaty dudes, exercising and grunting in, well, spandex. Eh, close enough.
Last year, Sweeney emerged as a smiling, sometimes goofy cowboy who wore his cowboy hat on the competition floor at the Games to channel is inner rodeo rider. It in turn created a fun, don’t-take-yourself-too-seriously vibe that fans enjoyed watching.
Williams, with his spiked hair and earrings, carries more of a heavy metal attitude. The result is a feeling that Williams always sits on the precipice of either an event record or a Chernobyl-esque meltdown.
I particularly like Events 3 and 4 on Day 2 for these athletes. Event 3’s down-and-back layout should be fun to watch, and in Event 4, I’m looking forward to watching them manhandle the kettlebells. The race in the South was tight last year; second through seventh was separated by just 28 points. If a similar story plays out again this year, it’ll only add to what should be a memorable matchup of two very different characters.
The race for a qualifying spot last year was close. Just outside one of those closely contested top spots was then 19-year-old Tommy Vinas.
Vinas finished the 2016 South Regional in ninth place overall, which was a six-spot improvement from finishing 15th in 2015 at age 18. A top-15 and top-10 finish at Regionals before the age of 20 is nothing to shake a stick at.
Despite some increase in attention toward the younger athletes and up-and-comers in the sport, Vinas has largely flown under the radar. His performances as a teenager the last two years certainly warrants more recognition for him as a potential qualifier this year and as one of the possible future stars out of the South West.
Even if he misses out on a trip to the Games in 2017, time is on his side. Another year of experience for an athlete who still can’t legally buy a beer will only serve as another stepping stone toward his CrossFit Games goal. Remember the name: Tommy Vinas.