Tia-Clair Toomey's Second Chance

March 27, 2016

Brittney Saline

As a child, Toomey dreamed of qualifying for the Olympics.

Tia-Clair Toomey never expected to podium at the 2015 Reebok CrossFit Games. Hell, she never expected to be there in 2015 in the first place.

“Next year was my goal,” the 22-year-old said.

But after taking third at the 2015 Pacific Regional—her second regional appearance—she reached her goal a year early, and by the start of the final Games event, Pedal to the Metal, just 21 points separated Toomey, in fourth, from fellow Aussie Kara Webb, in third. Even then, her sights weren’t set on a medal.

“All my focus was simply just to stay at that position,” she said. “I honestly never went into the Games thinking I was going to win.”

Imagine her surprise a few moments later in the tunnel when a Reebok staffer gave her the good news: she had risen to the second podium spot.

“I can't believe I was able to pull out second,” she said. “I'm still struck by it.”

Less than five months later, after Toomey helped the Pacific Team to a third-place finish at the 2015 CrossFit Invitational in Madrid, she lifted her way into the top qualifying spot for the 2016 Australian Olympic Team, snatching 83 kilos (182.9 lb.) and clean and jerking 111 kilos  (244.7 lb.) with a 58-kg bodyweight (127.8 lb.) at the Australian Open in December. This July, she hopes to compete at both the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro and the 2016 Reebok CrossFit Games.

“I always wanted to go to the Olympics; it would be such an honor,” she said. “And to make the CrossFit Games (also) would be unreal...I would do anything to just be there for both of them.”

Chasing Greatness

Toomey grew up on the Maroochy River in Queensland, along Australia’s Sunshine Coast. The eldest of three sisters, when she wasn’t playing netball, swimming in the river or riding motorbikes, young Toomey sat alongside her father on his tractor as he plowed their sugarcane fields.

At age seven, her Olympic dream was born. Gaping at the television as she watched Australian track and field athlete Cathy Freeman win gold in the 400-m sprint at the 2000 Olympics in Sydney, she wanted what Freeman had.

“Just seeing her emotions on her face when she won ... you knew she really achieved something great,” Toomey said.

After placing third in her first regional track meet at 11, she began to dream of achieving greatness herself. “I had that sense of belief that I could achieve something,” she said. 

Everyday before and after school, Toomey trained with her father, Brendan Toomey. In the mornings, she swam two to three kilometers. 

“Dad would sit there at the end of the lane telling me to go faster,” Toomey recalled, laughing.

In the afternoons, Brendan brought Toomey to the gym to work on explosiveness and accessory skills, sprinkling box jumps and burpees among push-ups, sit-ups, curls and presses. After moving to Weipa when Toomey was 12, they did time trials at the local football field, measuring 100-, 200-, 400- and 800-m marks by hand. By the time she left for boarding school for her last two years of high school, she had three nationals appearances under her belt, and would qualify and compete again in grades 11 and 12.

Running kept Toomey sane in boarding school. More than 700 miles from her family and friends, whenever she became homesick, she took to the track, always with a singular purpose in mind: to make it to the Olympics one day.

But the dream died after graduation. While a student, the costs of competing and training had been offset by her school; after graduation she would have to pay full price. Hanging up her Olympic ambition, she enrolled in the nursing program at the Queensland University of Technology in 2011, where her running shoes lay forgotten in her closet.

“I just couldn't financially support myself with track and field, and I think I came to the sense that ‘Well, I'm too far gone now,’” she recalled. “‘By the time I get fit again and have the money to support myself, I'll be too old.’”

Not even casual running seemed worth it anymore.

“Simply just running to exercise to keep fit and stuff, that wasn't really something that I've ever done before,” she said. “Everything kind of always had a purpose; I've always been competing, training for something, so it was so different when I didn't have that, and so it wasn't very enjoyable.”

Homesickness took its toll again, and without training to take her mind off her loneliness, Toomey became depressed.

“I would literally not even leave the house,” she said. “I got very unmotivated to do anything; I would just literally stay in bed or watch a movie. I didn’t really know what to do with myself and I had no motivation to study, either.”  

She withdrew after six months, moving six hours north from Brisbane to Gladstone, where her boyfriend, Shane Orr, had recently moved for work. The move concerned her parents at first.

“They wanted me to continue with my education so that I could have a career ... they didn’t want me to always be busting my nuts to find a job or find money, and essentially I moved to Gladstone and was going to be going nowhere,” Toomey said. “But at that time, anything was better than what I was doing.”

A Basic Stint

The quiet life suited Toomey—for awhile. She got a job as a dental assistant. She took her dog for jogs and cooked dinner.

“It was a very basic life,” she said. “Nothing too intense—very different to what it is now.”

But she couldn’t keep her inner athlete at bay. With the benefit of a steady income, Toomey began training at a local athletic club, competing in races on the weekends. Soon, she was training for the senior state championships in track and field, the first step toward qualification for the Olympic team.

“I found that passion again,” she said. “I thought, ‘Well, I’m not really doing anything with my life so why not try and see how far I can get with training for the Olympics?'”

To make it, she knew she needed to step up her training. Orr, who was playing for Gladstone Union Rugby at the time, had begun training with the team at CrossFit Gladstone for extra conditioning toward the end of 2012 and suggested Toomey give it a shot. She was reluctant to try it, and flat-out refused to return after the coach wouldn’t let her do a handstand push-up workout as prescribed in her first class.

“I really wanted to give it a go, as ambitious as I am,” she said.

It wasn’t until she ran into the affiliate owner at a coffee shop two months later that she decided to return.

“He made me feel really guilty for not coming back, so I thought just to shut him up and get rid of that awkwardness I said I would come back,” she recounted. “I signed up for one month, and I was adamant that I was not going to sign up again after that month.”

It just so happened that the 2013 Reebok CrossFit Games Open was about to begin.

“They kept bugging me about registering for this competition that I had no idea about,” Toomey said. “I was like, ‘I don’t know what the hell they're talking about and they're asking me to give $20,’ which is not very much but I didn't even know what I was registering for. So finally just to shut them up I registered, and that's basically when I got the first taste of the competition and that's when I started getting hooked.”

Resurrecting a Dream

Toomey finished her first Open in 403rd place in Australia after little more than a month of CrossFit—and with no prior experience in Olympic weightlifting or gymnastics. The most she’d ever deadlifted before CrossFit was about 130 lb.

“And I thought I was killing it then,” she said.

It would be easy to pin her rapid progress on genetics. But according to her boyfriend, Orr, who has watched her train from day one, it all came down to effort.

“The main thing that separates Tia (from) most people is her desire to improve, and her competitive nature,” Orr said. “After our first session together, which was Cindy, Tia stayed back after class trying to learn how to do butterfly pull-ups. She will always be the most determined person in the room if she puts her mind to it.”

Rife with new and diverse challenges, CrossFit seemed more interesting to Toomey than track. She quit her job in the dentist’s office and took a more lucrative shift position as a lab technician for a mining company so that she could continue to afford CrossFit.

“(CrossFit) was something new that I wasn’t very good at, and it was something that I wanted to try and get better at,” she said. “Whereas track, I did it for a few years, so it was something that I was a little bit bored of.”

But CrossFit wasn’t the only new thing to pique Toomey’s interest. After clean and jerking 187 lb. with a bodyweight of 121 lb. at a September 2013 throwdown, she attracted the attention of Miles Wydall, a coach at Cougars Weightlifting Club in Brisbane.

“She had the correct build and after about six months (of) training was already doing 65-85 (kilos) as a 60-kilo lifter with no real specialist coaching or programming,” Wydall said. “And she looked like a badass.”

Wydall offered to coach Toomey in weightlifting free of charge if she would compete for him and for Queensland.

“I was gobsmacked,” Toomey said.

Though she thought Wydall was crazy, she agreed.

“Miles really believed in me,” she said. “I was so fresh to the sport but he could see so much potential if I put the hard work into it. Because he believed in me, I believed in myself.”

Wydall’s first task was to correct Toomey’s barbell technique, which by her own diagnostic was “terrible.”

“She swung off the bar a lot and hopped back or forward in the snatch and clean,” Wydall said. “She also did not keep the bar close.”

After a year of training with Wydall in person every few months and sending him videos for critique—Brisbane is a six-hour drive from Toomey’s home in Gladstone—Toomey snatched and clean and jerked 71 and 91 kilos (156.5 lb. and 200.6 lb.) respectively at the 2014 Pacific Cup International Tournament in Le Mont-Dore, New Caledonia, good enough for gold. But a new dream had already begun to bud months before, just weeks after starting her training with Wydall.

“It was my first time actually going to Miles’s gym and I got to experience watching one of his athletes train,” Toomey said, describing watching Damon Kelly, ninth- and 16th-place finisher at the 2008 and 2012 Olympics in Beijing and London, respectively. “I was in awe of just watching him and how fast he was with just moving the barbell, and how composed he was.”

“As soon as I left that gym that day, I was like, ‘Wow, Shane, I thought I'd try for (the Olympics in) sprints, but I really want to give the weightlifting a go,” she continued.

But first, Toomey wanted to make it to the 2014 Reebok CrossFit Games Australia Regional.  

Regional Roller Coaster

Orr and Wydall shared the role of coach for Toomey’s 2014 season—programmer Drew Griffith of CoachRx would join the team in 2015. Orr had embraced the role ever since Toomey first impressed him with her athletic prowess years ago, when the pair met at a triathlon as teenagers.

“I first noticed her when she got out of the water, making her way to the bike leg of the race,” Orr said. “As I recall, it was somewhat like a scene from Baywatch, slow motion.”

Toomey was ahead of Orr, but he knew they would pass each other as she turned around at the halfway mark.

“I saw her approaching ... so I picked up speed to somehow impress her,” Orr said. “As we crossed each other she (said), ‘You’re doing well, keep it up.’” They’ve been dating ever since.

Leading into the 2014 season, Orr and Wydall collaborated to create Toomey’s program, with more than half of her daily two hours of training focused on weightlifting.

“Weightlifting is actually a weakness of mine,” she said. “My best snatch is only average compared to say, for example, Kara Webb or Annie Thorisdottir, purely because of my weight.”

Despite her dedication, she was surprised when she qualified for the regional in 2014, having set 2015 as a more realistic target.

“I didn’t think I really could make it to regionals until I was actually at regionals,” she said.

Though she was elated to compete, she said her 2014 regional experience was disappointing. She felt like an outsider among better athletes, and when she hit the floor, she abandoned her own plans and tried to match the pace of her competitors. In Event 5, the first regional event to feature legless rope climbs, she couldn’t keep up, ultimately finishing 18th.

“I played someone else's game a bit ... and so when I burned out and couldn’t finish it, it really hit me hard that I've got so far to go,” she said. “I did not enjoy my time whatsoever there and it kind of made me question whether or not I wanted to continue CrossFit.”

Though she continued to train after the regional was over, her heart wasn’t in it. Instead, she found purpose in helping others get fit as the new owner of CrossFit Gladstone, which she purchased that December after ditching the mining gig.

“I am very passionate about encouraging others, and I like making people strive to get to where they want to be,” she said. “I enjoy helping people be better than yesterday.”

It wasn’t until Open Workout 15.3 that Toomey felt her old ferocity again. Her 13th-place finish worldwide in the triplet of muscle-ups, wall-ball shots and double-unders was her best Open finish to date.

“I just pushed myself past that hurting point where not a lot of people are willing to go, and when I finished, it gave me that satisfaction that I felt at the very start,” she said. “Every day since, I’ve been training for a purpose, rather than coming in and just training for the sake of it.”

That purpose was to qualify for the CrossFit Games; it just so happened that she did it a year before she planned.

“To be able to go and compete against that caliber of athletes was like nothing I've ever experienced before,” she said. “To this day I'm still so honored to have been able to participate and be a part of that.”

An Upset in Silver

With her goal of simply qualifying for the Games already accomplished, when Toomey hit the floor in Carson, California she had one motive: have fun. Well, that, and “don’t come in last,” she said.

After the first five events, she went to bed Friday night in a respectable 13th place, well away from last. As she lay in her hotel room, she looked forward to the events ahead. In Sprint Courses 1 and 2, athletes would test their speed and agility in a sprint down the field, around obstacles and over hurdles and back. The event was a track athlete’s dream.

“I was like, ‘OK cool, now I've got the sprints coming up so I can get a good start to the day,’ and I felt real confident. I was really happy,” she said.

An hour before Sprint Course 1 was due to start, Toomey took the hurdles for a test run. Just a few hurdles in, she knocked one over, crashing to the ground while a searing pain tore through her right foot.

“I thought, ‘Oh shit, I’ve just broken my foot,’” she recalled. “I felt like if I was to have taken my shoe off, like literally my foot would just flop in half.”

She visited a chiropractor on site, who wrapped her foot heavily with tape. Toomey resolved to compete, though her confidence was shot.

“I honestly thought that I had just completely fucked my chances,” she said. “Running side-to-side and jumping over the hurdles, you needed to be really confident with doing it ... I still put in my 110 percent effort, but the confidence in my mind just wasn’t there.”

Despite the pain that ripped through her foot every few steps, her times of 00.20:13 and 00.20.06 were good enough for fourth and third place in the two events.

Afterward, an X-ray confirmed no tears or broken bones.

“That’s all I needed to hear in order to keep going,” she said.

Toomey’s performance launched her from 13th to fifth overall. When she began the weekend’s finale in fourth, fans said she could podium.

“I honestly thought that these people were just trying to have me on and they were just playing my mind a little bit,” Toomey said.

After the clock stopped, she slumped toward the tunnel, convinced she’d lost her hold on fourth at the very last minute. When she learned she’d be taking home a silver medal that night, she could hardly contain herself.

“All I wanted to do was just run up to (Orr),” she said. “I just wanted to see his face and see how proud he was ... the reason people cry and have so much emotion (is) because you actually realize that all that hard work is well worth it, the sweat and tears and just fucking all the miserable times you go to the gym, it’s well worth it, and—oh, I really hope that I can get back there this year.”  

Heavy Weight and Jet Lag

Returning to the Games isn’t Toomey’s only goal for 2016. In May, one week after the Pacific Regional, she will lift in the Oceania Weightlifting Championship in Fiji, the final qualifier for the Australian Olympic Weightlifting team for the Summer Olympics in Rio. Assuming Toomey makes it to the Pacific Regional again this year, she’s not worried about being too fatigued to lift well. After all, she earned her qualifying position just two days after flying from the CrossFit Invitational in Madrid back to Brisbane for the Australian Open.

She had been sitting second to Commonwealth Games lifter Erika Ropati-Frost, but while waiting for take-off on the flight home from Madrid, she opened an email from Wydall. There would be one more meet at Cougars on December 13.

“You’re coming back on the 11th; do you want to lift?” the email read.

“Why not?” Toomey wrote back.

The warm-up didn’t bode well. Jet-lagged from the 20-hour flight and fatigued from the Invitational, she failed to snatch 75 kilos (165.3 lb.). She tried and failed twice more. “And I can snatch that on a bad day,” she said. 

She turned to Orr and Wydall.

“Oh my God, I’m so sorry guys,” she told them. “I’m embarrassing you here.”

Orr would have none of that.

“You can do this,” he told her.

“That’s the good thing about Shane,” Toomey said. “If I need a good yelling at, he knows when the time is right. If I don’t need yelling at, sometimes all you need to do is have a bit of sympathy, and he was a bit soft with me at that time.”

When she took the platform, adrenaline kicked in. After opening at a successful 76 kilos (167.5 lb.), she went on to hit 80 kilos (176.4 lb.) and finally 83 kilos (182.9 lb.) for a competition PR. She followed that up with a 111-kilo (244.7-lb.) clean and jerk for a meet win, a 7-kilo total PR and records in the total and clean and jerk that still stand today.  

“That was really awesome,” Toomey said. “It wasn't ever as good as coming second (at the Games), that's for sure, but it was definitely sweet.”

Going Full-On

2016 is a big year Toomey. If she qualifies for the Pacific Regional—and she’s poised to do just that—she will train for the regional and the Olympic qualifier in Fiji simultaneously. In the best of worlds, she’ll become the first Games athlete to compete in the Olympics and the Games in the same year, let alone the same month. 

“It's a bit full-on, I guess, but well, why not, you know?” she said.

Still, she believes the two sports complement each other, and has the experience to prove it. Just a week before the Games last summer, Toomey earned silver at the Pacific Games in Port Moresby, Papua New Guinea with a total of 174 kilos (383.6 lb.).

“You've got to be fit in anything you do, and I think that to be able to get underneath (the barbell) and lift that weight, you need some sort of fitness, so CrossFit will definitely help with that,” she explained. “And then with CrossFit, to be able to lift as heavy as you can in the Olympic lifts—you have to, otherwise weightlifting will be a weakness and will be a hole in your armour.”

And though she suspects something will have to give one day, for now, she’s going for it all. “I’ll regret it if don’t,” she said. “I would do anything to just be there for both of them (and) realistically, this is my only year that I will probably ever have a chance to do it, because I can’t see myself training for both sports for another four long years.”

She paused, remembering her childhood Olympic dreams.

“I guess I’m reliving that through CrossFit and weightlifting now,” she said. “It’s like it’s been my second chance.”