Unexpected Heights

January 21, 2015

Brittany Ghiroli

“I never thought in a million years I’d do anything like CrossFit or get where I’m at, and most of all, win,” said Karen Wattier, the 60+ CrossFit Games champion. 

"I never thought in a million years I'd do anything like CrossFit or get where I'm at, and most of all, win."

When it’s pull-up day, nearly all of the members at CrossFit Omaha are chasing Karen Wattier.

Wattier, who can do 10 strict pull-ups with ease and crank out kipping sets in the high 20s, isn’t a particularly imposing character at 5-foot-5 and 127 pounds. She had no athletic background, save for a few years of recreational softball, before she walked in the door at CrossFit Omaha in October of 2009. Just a strong grip from years of work on a Nebraska farm and a consistent will that saw her conquer muscle-ups four months ago.

Wattier is also 61 years old. And workout buddies can take heart in chasing her: it’s what the entire CrossFit Games masters field did this past summer, with Wattier winning the final event to take first in the women’s 60+ division.

“The people that have trained with Karen, there’s a deep admiration and sense of pride amongst them,” said CrossFit Omaha’s director of programming and CEO Joe Westerlin. “It turns some people away too because people really have a lot of pride. I think there’s some people who when they realize they are less fit than a 61-year-old woman they can’t handle that and they are turned away from it … Definitely there’s (also) a large core of people who see it and embrace it and kick themselves and say, ‘I lost to this woman who has six grand kids.’

Wattier’s story started during her annual check-up in 2009, when her doctor wanted to put her on medication for high cholesterol and hypertension. Her diet of eating whatever she wanted and doing a little walking wasn’t enough to combat the decline in her health. Her daughter, Vanessa, and son, Neil, were both working out at CrossFit Omaha and urged her to come along and see Westerlin, a childhood friend of Vanessa’s husband, Chris.

“I couldn't do anything when I first got up there,” Wattier said. “I couldn't do a pull-up. My kids were pushing me up over the bar trying to get me over there. They were laughing the whole time.”

The atmosphere, minus her children’s amusement, was far more encouraging than Wattier could have imagined. Everyone was so nice and helpful. That’s what kept Wattier —one of the box’s oldest members— coming back the first few months.

The first thing Westerlin did was address Wattier’s diet. Alarmed by how easily medication was deemed the answer, Westerlin urged Wattier to try changing her lifestyle. And she did, going to the nutrition classes offered by the box and overhauling her meals, an adjustment made easier when her husband Irvin, joined the box a year later.  

Wattier’s cholesterol was hovering around 300 when she joined CrossFit Omaha. The following year, it had dropped to 220. It was 200 the check-up after that, the need for medication replaced by a better balance of foods and the Workout of the Day.  

“I remember (nutrition) as being the first piece,” Westerlin said. “When I watched her work out for the first time, she was athletic, there was a lot of things she couldn't do in terms of strength and mobility, but she was athletic. As soon as she started showing up (she started improving) … The people that have had the most success--there’s really no secret to it--they show up to the gym all the time and are consistent day in and day out.”

Wattier and her husband rarely miss a workout, training 5-6 days a week. But after failing to qualify for the Games in 2012 and 2013, Wattier —who placed fourth in 2011— started to question if she was doing enough compared to the rest of the field, many who were advocating two-a-days.

“We felt very strongly she didn't need a lot of volume,” said trainer Addi Kahrs. “At (Wattier’s) age it takes a little more to recover, extra training will be expensive on the body. So we decided that mobility and technique work was all she needed.”

It worked, as Wattier’s Open scores were good enough to advance her to Carson. Once there, it was her consistency that set her apart. Only once did Wattier finish outside of the top 10 in any CrossFit Games event, the max distance overhead lunge. She won the final event by nearly 10 seconds, finishing the 100-meter run, seven chest-to-bar pull-ups and five snatches in 1:30.

“I never thought in a million years I’d do anything like CrossFit or get where I’m at, and most of all, win,” said Wattier, who will look to defend her title next year.

And continue inspiring others.

“We have several women in age groups below her and they watch her continue to get stronger and improve and they are like, ‘OK, I can stop whining about being in my 50s,” Kahs said. “I think (Wattier’s presence) more validates, ‘It’s OK for me to keep doing this. This is good for me’. She gets frustrated like anyone else, but she doesn’t let it weigh her down.”

Because it’s not the barbell or pull-up bar that drives Wattier every day.

“I’ve changed my lifestyle for the better,” she said. “I exercise all the time. It’s almost like a job; you got to make time for it to be healthy. I show up to all the workouts whether I like them or don’t. I made CrossFit part of my life and that’s what I'm going to keep doing.”