In 2017, time seemed to stop as the world waited to see who would win the CrossFit Games: Kara Saunders or Tia-Clair Toomey.
Three years and four titles later, it now seems impossible for Toomey to lose. She won the 2020 Reebok CrossFit Games with nine first-place finishes out of 12 events in Stage 2, etching her place in history among legendary multiyear champions Mat Fraser and Rich Froning.
How does she do it?
Her answer is simple: Shane Orr, her husband and coach.
“He is my secret weapon,” she said.
Toomey’s four titles plus Fraser’s latest two — Orr began coaching Fraser in 2018 — make Orr the most decorated coach in CrossFit Games history.
It’s quite a feat for someone who never set out to become a career coach in the first place.
The Accidental Coach
Orr grew up in a small mining town in Weipa, Queensland. The town’s 4,000-some people lived quiet, unassuming lives, and Orr’s path seemed set from the start.
“Where I grew up, the mentality is you finish school, you go in the mine, and you make a living there,” Orr recalled.
After high school, he began an apprenticeship as a mechanical fitter, the first step in what he assumed would be a lifelong career making mining machinery. But in his spare time, he nurtured his side passion: fitness.
“I’ve always appreciated athletic ability,” said Orr, who worked at a gym when he wasn’t at his apprenticeship. “I was always fascinated by NBA players and how durable they are for their heights. Or the NFL — how explosive and agile they are.”
In fact, it was through athletics that Toomey and Orr first met.
It was the mid-2000s. Orr had just finished high school; Toomey was in her final year. Both were competing in a local triathlon.
Orr, who was competing in the team division, was waiting to be tagged into the bicycling leg of the race. As he waited, he saw Toomey, who was competing as an individual, emerge from the pool.
“She beat absolutely all the men — as she does — and beat everyone out of the pool first,” he said. “That’s when I first laid eyes on her.”
Before too long, the pair were dating, and Orr had become Toomey’s unofficial coach.
“The only way we could really hang out was if I held a stopwatch when she did track and field,” Orr said.
An athlete in his own right, Orr was playing for Gladstone Union Rugby at the time. The team had begun using CrossFit for training, and he suggested Toomey give it a shot.
“She absolutely hated it,” Orr recalled, laughing.
Despite her initial distaste, Toomey saw CrossFit as the perfect way to get fit for the Olympics, her lifelong dream (a dream she achieved in 2016 when she competed as a weightlifter in the Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro).
And as Toomey progressed as an athlete, so did Orr as a coach.
He also studied conventional sports.
“I would just find myself reading on the internet and (going down) rabbit holes of what strength-and-conditioning coaches do for the NFL, what they do for rugby union, and apply them in ways,” he said.
Miles Wydall, an Olympic weightlifting coach in Brisbane, also took Orr under his wing after discovering Toomey at a throwdown in 2013, helping Orr train Toomey for her eventual Olympic debut.
“That guidance and that belief … allowed us to then succeed to the next level,” Orr said.
In those early days, both Orr and Toomey worked full-time jobs in addition to their training. It was shift work — Orr for the mines and Toomey as a lab technician — and they worked opposite shifts. It meant a lot of late nights and early mornings for both athlete and coach.
Orr spent countless hours reviewing Toomey’s seasons, writing programming to fix what went wrong and make what went right even better.
“If she’s giving me 100 percent, there is no reason why I can’t give her 100 percent,” he said. “It’s a commitment on both ends.”
Every year brought more success and opportunity. Toomey bought CrossFit Gladstone, and Orr quit the mine.
Still, Orr had nary a thought toward his own career.
“I don't know if it's cheesy, but I just want to help fulfill her dreams,” he said. “I want to help Tia grow to be the athlete she wants to be and the person that she wants to be, and in any way I can help in that, that was my priority.”
It was a gorgeous, sunny day, just after the 2016 Pacific Regional.
Toomey had already made the Games, but only days remained until her last chance to qualify for the 2016 Summer Olympics. To ease the stress, Orr suggested a boat ride in Sydney Harbour.
“It was super romantic — and we don’t do that,” Toomey said, recalling her suspicion.
That night, she walked into a hotel room filled with candles and trays of appetizers.
“We're just sitting there, and then all of a sudden he pops down on one knee and asked me to marry him,” Toomey said. “We'd been together for, you know, nine years. In my mind, we didn't need to get married. (But) when he asked me, it was really like a huge wave of emotions that were completely unexpected, because it really solidified that he had chosen me out of everyone in this world to spend the rest of our lives together.”
A year later, they married.
A lot has changed since then.
They sold the gym. Toomey has become a four-time CrossFit Games champion and an Olympian. They moved from Australia to Cookeville, Tennessee, where they train with Fraser.
Orr’s aspirations have changed, too.
“If you had asked me this maybe 24 months ago, my objective was as soon as Tia retires is the day I retire,” he said.
But now, he sees potential for something more.
“I feel that we're in a position now that we can help elevate other people as well and give them opportunities and fast-track their performance or growth from the learnings that we've (had),” he said. “We know what it takes to work full-time jobs and then train, just like all the athletes do right now, and we want to help progress them as well.”
After the 2020 Games in October, Orr and Toomey hit the road, traveling the U.S. in an RV — and eating a lot of food.
“We love getting fat,” Orr joked. “Just eating food and seeing as much as we can.”
And while they may just be the most eminent power couple in the world of fitness, they haven’t forgotten where they came from — and still can’t quite believe their luck.
“I pinch myself regularly and go, ‘Look where we are,’” Orr said. “We moved across the other side of the world, I get to travel with my wife. … I married the person that I want to spend literally the rest of my life with, and I have the ability to be with that person. We've been able to travel the world and chase this wild dream of being a full-time world champion.”
But the accolades — and Orr’s burgeoning reputation as an elite coach — don’t matter that much, Orr said.
“Above all else, the goal is just to do it together and to be happy with what we've done.”
Cover photo credit: David Soo