The 2015 Reebok CrossFit Games: A New Era
Darwin argued that evolution proceeds by small successive changes rather than large leaps.
Gradualism held true even for the man-made sport of the CrossFit Games. That is, until 2015. After years of minor, almost imperceptible changes to the sport, Director of the Games Dave Castro announced sweeping changes that would re-shape the regional format.
Forty eight athletes would no longer advance from the 17 Open regions to 17 regional competitions. The number of regionals would be cut to eight, and the number of regional qualifiers would plummet to 10 (for Latin America, Asia, and Africa), 20 (for regions in the United States and Canada), and 30 (for Europe and Australia).
To make it to regionals now, athletes needed to put in a Herculean effort in the Open. And to make it to the Games, athletes needed to be truly ready for the world stage. With multiple regions competing together at regionals, the advantage of coming from a less competitive region was stamped out. Only the world’s fittest would make it to Carson, California.
In addition to the regional changes, Castro added a Teenage Division for athletes 14 - 17 years old and a scaled option for the Open.
With the addition of the scaled option, Castro was able to make the Rx’d workouts even tougher. 2015 saw the addition of a new movement, handstand push-ups (15.4), as well as the shift to have muscle-ups at the start of the workout (in 15.3) rather than the end ( as seen in 14.4, 13.3, and 12.4). Many athletes would spend the 14 minutes of 15.3 fighting for their first muscle-up, with more than 3,000 athletes succeeding.
At the end of the Open, silver medalist Mat Fraser would come out ahead of recently retired four-time CrossFit Games champion Rich Froning Jr., and Ben Smith would finish third. On the women’s side, two-time CrossFit Games champion Annie Thorisdottir won. Kara Webb, who led part of the 2014 Games before being sidelined by a pinched nerve, took second, and newcomer Sara Sigmundsdottir followed in third.
At the new combined regionals, elite athletes from multiple regions competed for even fewer qualifying spots than in past years which led to multiple upsets. Multi-year top Games competitor, Josh Bridges, would miss qualification by one spot at the California Regional, and the perennial queen of Europe, Annie Thorisdottir, would be dethroned by her fellow countrywoman Sara Sigmundsdottir. Many veteran Games athletes would end the weekend outside of the cut.
Individual division retirees, Jason Khalipa of NorCal CrossFit and Rich Froning of CrossFit Mayhem Freedom, brought new energy to the team competition and helped successfully qualify their teams for the CrossFit Games.
For the fifth consecutive year, the Games started in the water. But this time, the athletes were given paddleboards. The Pier Paddle asked athletes to swim 500 meters around the Hermosa Beach Pier, then paddle two miles on the hard-to-balance prone-paddleboards, and then swim around the pier again before crossing the finish line.
Athletes from outside the United States proved more adept in the water. Finland’s Jonne Koski was the first across the line in 42:16, followed by Australia’s Khan Porter two minutes later. The fastest women would finish a minute after Porter, with Australia’s Kara Webb earning the W in 45:30 and Canada’s Michele Letendre following in 45:54.
Later that day, the athletes came to the StubHub Center to take on a 2010 throwback event: the Sandbag Move. Athletes had to move hundreds of pounds of sandbags from the top of the stairs on the north side of the Tennis Stadium to the top of the stairs on the south end, crossing through the center of the stadium using Rogue’s heavy duty wheelbarrows.
Shorter women tended to get stuck on the south wall, unable to sling the heavy sandbags over its high face without getting creative first. Some built platforms out of sandbags, which helped them get the heaviest red bag over the top. Even still, many approached the 15-minute time cap, and six reached it.
Olympian Anna Tunnicliffe blazed through the event, finishing it in 8:30, which was 30 seconds faster than the next fastest competitor, Emily Abbott (9:03). Lukas Hogberg handily won the event (10:07) with a close race between Mat Fraser (10:38) and two of the Games’ tallest athletes, Elijah Muhammad (10:47) and Chad Mackay (10:55).
Like in past years, the first day of competition pushed many international athletes to the top of the leaderboard, but with three days remaining there was plenty of chance for movement in the overall standings.
1. Kara Webb (188 pts)
2. Anna Tunnicliffe (180 pts)
3. Sara Sigmundsdottir (152 pts)
7. Tia-Clair Toomey (128 pts)
15. Katrin Davidsdottir (96 pts)
1T. Jonne Koski (168 pts)
1T. Chad Mackay (168 pts)
3. Mat Fraser (150 pts)
6. Bjorgvin Guomundsson (122 pts)
18. Ben Smith (84 pts)
The athletes were given Thursday to recover, only to arrive on Friday in the blazing heat of the noon-time Los Angeles sun to take on the 1-mile run, 100 pull-ups, 200 push-ups, 300 air squats, and 1-mile run of Murph.
With body armor strapped to their chests and the sun beating down, many athletes overheated. Long after European freaks of nature Bjorgvin Guomundsson and Sam Briggs ran in triumphantly to seal the win, many others struggled to finish the event. Some would need medical care, including Kara Webb and Annie Thorisdottir.
After that thorough beatdown, athletes were asked to quickly recover and take on the Snatch Speed Ladder, which was a variation of the Clean Speed Ladder that had appeared in the Games the year prior. For each round of the event, the athletes would face a ladder of five progressively heavier barbells. At the call of go, the athletes would race through the bars with only the fastest athletes earning an invite to the next round.
Brooke Ence would snatch her way to her first win of the weekend, beating Katrin Davidsdottir, while on the men’s side Jon Pera would win with Ben Smith in second and Mat Fraser in third.
For the first time, Castro put an event up for a vote on Twitter. Responding with a hashtag, fans voted between Long DT and Heavy DT for Friday’s closing event. Fans chose heavy. The classic CrossFit workout of 12 deadlifts, 9 hang power cleans, and 6 push jerks for 5 rounds, would jump in weight from 155 lb. to 205 lb. for men, and from 105 lb. to 145 lb. for women.
Foreshadowing the future rivalries in the overall competition, Sigmundsdottir and Davidsdottir went 1, 2, on Heavy DT as did Smith and Fraser. Incredibly, even after all of the work that had preceded the event Smith was able to push sub-8 (7:55) while Sigmundsdottir came in before 8:30 (8:25).
Fraser and Sigmundsdottir, the athletes who entered Friday in third, would end the day in the lead. Smith and Davidsdottir each made enormous leaps on Friday from the high teens to second overall. Kara Webb and Jonne Koski dropped from the lead to third.
1. Sara Sigmundsdottir (380 pts, up from third)
2T. Katrin Davidsdottir (340 pts, up from 15th)
2T. Kara Webb (340 pts, down from first)
13. Tia-Clair Toomey (248 pts, down from seventh)
1. Mat Fraser (426 pts, up from third)
2. Ben Smith (338 pts, up from 18th)
3. Jonne Koski (316 pts, down from first)
4. Bjorgvin Guomundsson (304 pts, up from sixth)
Saturday morning was all about speed. In Sprint Course 1, athletes would race through the pylons that made their debut in the ZigZag Sprint at the 2013 Games, and then over four hurdles. For Sprint Course 2, they would race back starting first with the hurdles.
As expected, former collegiate 400-meter runner Dan Bailey excelled, winning both events and even catching his sunglasses as they fell midway through. Collegiate soccer player Lindy Barber and Norwegian decathlete Kristin Holte traded wins. Quietly, Australia’s rookie, Tia-Clair Toomey, sealed fourth and third, pushing her up the overall standings from 13th to fifth overall.
Fraser maintained the white jersey throughout the Sprint Course events but with 24th and 37th place event finishes he was bleeding points as Smith gained on him with solid 11th and sixth place finishes. Fraser’s 88 point lead before the Sprint Course would shrink to 40.
Similarly, the woman in the white jersey wasn’t the one to watch on the Sprint Course. That is, if you wanted to watch the fastest athlete. The leader, Sigmundsdottir, dropped to 37th and 38th in the sprint events, and watched as her lead over Davidsdottir went from 40 to a mere 7 points.
Later that day, another piece of equipment from the 2013 Games returned. The Pig. Designed to be flipped like a tire, the Pig is a rectangular hunk of metal that can be loaded to almost any weight. In 2013, the guts of the Pig were exposed. This time, all 560-lb. for men and 395-lb. for women were enclosed within a fire-engine red casing.
Athletes had to flip that incredibly heavy Pig 100 feet before climbing a high-hung rope without the use of their legs four times, and then kick up into a handstand and walk 100 feet for the Soccer Chipper.
The Pig’s weight was obvious, challenging the world’s fittest for each and every flip. Smith would win this event (+100 pts), while Fraser dropped to 32nd (+16); in one event, Smith closed a 40-point gap and had enough points to spare that he now led Fraser by 44 points. Longtime strongwoman Elisabeth Akinwale won the event, while Sigmundsdottir took fourth and Davidsdottir 15th. In one event, Sigmundsdottir regained her 40-point lead over Davidsdottir. Even more concerning for Davidsdottir, she was also losing ground to third-ranked Kara Webb. After the Soccer Chipper, only 8 points separated second from third overall.
Next up was the clean and jerk, in which rookie competitors Brooke Ence and Aaron Hanna topped the charts with 242- and 350-lb. lifts. Smith and Fraser, both strong lifters, stayed close together on this event with Smith lifting 347 for second and Fraser 342 for fourth. Similarly, Sigmundsdottir took sixth (230 lb.) to Davidsdottir’s 10th (217 lb.). Webb’s 225-lb. ninth-ranked lift further shrank the gap between herself and Davidsdottir to 4 points.
To close out the day, the athletes took on the quick Triangle Couplet of thrusters and bar muscle-ups, which brought 2014 and 2013 women’s champions Camille Leblanc-Bazinet and Sam Briggs to the top of the field for the event and gave an important win to Mat Fraser.
The Triangle Couplet allowed Fraser to close in on Smith by 24 points, such that only 30 points separated them heading into the final day of competition. Cole Sager had a great Saturday, jumping from 11th to third overall.
The day’s final event was good and bad for Davidsdottir. She gained on the leader by 24 points, taking eighth to Sigmundsdottir’s 18th, but lost her position as the second-ranked athlete to Webb who had been extremely close to her in the point totals and had an exceptional showing with a fourth-place finish on the couplet. Like Sager, Toomey had a great day and moved up from 13th to third.
1. Sara Sigmundsdottir (589 pts, maintained white jersey throughout Saturday)
2. Kara Webb (569 pts, maintained second)
3. Katrin Davidsdottir (556 pts, down from second)
4. Tia-Clair Toomey (514 pts, up from 13th)
1. Ben Smith (675 pts, up from second)
2. Mat Fraser (645 pts, down from first)
3. Cole Sager (574 pts, up from 11th)
4. Bjorgvin Guomundsson (534 pts, maintained fourth)
Sunday began with the surprising and unfortunate news that Annie Thorisdottir had withdrawn, citing lingering effects from Murph. The two-time champion and two-time second place finisher would not be returning to her usual place atop the podium in 2015.
Three events remained before the Fittest on Earth would be named: Midline Madness, Pedal to the Metal 1, and Pedal to the Metal 2. Though, the athletes didn’t know what the last two events would be when the day began.
Midline Madness was 6 rounds of a 400-meter run and 50-foot yoke carry (380 / 300 lb.). The two European women known for their running, Sam Briggs and Kristin Holte, smashed the event going sub-14 (13:26, 13:53).
On the men’s side, the turnout was far less predictable. An athlete who has long claimed to hate running, former Olympic lifter Mat Fraser, took second to Jacob Heppner. Smith took seventh, and saw his lead lessen to 8 points.
The women’s top three overall, Sigmundsdottir-Webb-Davidsdottir, went ninth-fifth-19th, which rearranged the standings such that Davidsdottir was back in second and now with a manageable 17-point gap between herself and Sigmundsdottir.
Entering Pedal to the Medal 1
1. Sara Sigmundsdottir (653 pts, maintained first)
2. Katrin Davidsdottir (636 pts, up from third)
3. Kara Webb (611 pts, down from second)
4. Tia-Clair Toomey (590 pts, maintained fourth)
1. Ben Smith (747 pts, maintained first)
2. Mat Fraser (739 pts, maintained second)
3. Cole Sager (618 pts, maintained third)
4. Bjorgvin Guomundsson (614 pts, maintained fourth)
A cloaked structure loomed at the north end of the Tennis Stadium, waiting to be revealed. Castro brought the athletes out to watch as Rogue uncovered the plexiglass peg board.
For Pedal to the Metal 1, athletes would need to figure out how to ascend the peg board three times before they could move on to row (24-calories), bike (16-calories), and then dumbbell squat snatch (100 / 70 lb., 8 reps).
The peg board came as a shock to many athletes who had never tried to ascend one before, though this piece of equipment didn’t come out of left field. Greg Glassman, the Founder and CEO of CrossFit, wrote about pegboards in 2002 in the Garage Gym article published in the CrossFit Journal.
“The Climbing Rope may or may not be an option in your gym, but there are several other climbing options that are possible in any space. Climbing Holds, Campus Boards, and Peg Boards are wickedly effective, functional, and fun,” Glassman wrote. “We’ve limited experience with this stuff, but it is our next frontier.”
That new frontier claimed athletes like the Sierra Nevada claimed members of the Donner Party; not everyone made it. Twelve men and 25 women failed to successfully ascend the pegboard once, including Davidsdottir and Sigmundsdottir, whose 17-point gap would remain intact heading into the final event given they both tied for 13th.
Margaux Alvarez came the closest to finishing the event with 8 reps remaining at the time cap. Six men made it through, including the two men vying for the title. Reaching the finish mat 31 seconds ahead, Fraser took second (94 points) to Smith’s fourth (84 points). That 10 points was all Fraser needed to close the 8-point gap, and give him the lead entering the last event. With only 2 points separating them, the winner would be decided by the final.
Entering Pedal to the Medal 2
1. Sara Sigmundsdottir (707 pts, maintained first)
2. Katrin Davidsdottir (690 pts, maintained second)
3. Kara Webb (687 pts, maintained third)
4. Tia-Clair Toomey (666 pts, maintained fourth)
1. Mat Fraser (833 pts, up from second)
2. Ben Smith (831 pts, down from first)
3. Bjorgvin Karl Guomundsson (686 pts, up from fourth)
For Pedal to the Metal 2, the athletes faced 12 parallette handstand push-ups, a 24-calorie row, 16-calorie bike, and 8 kettlebell deadlifts with 2 massive kettlebells weighing 203 lb. each for the men and 124 lb. each for the women.
Fraser and Sigmundsdottir entered the final event wearing the white leader’s jersey. Seven minutes worth of work or less separated them from the title Fittest on Earth and $275,000. All they needed to do was keep Smith and Davidsdottir behind them.
From the very start, that goal slipped from their fingers as their challengers overcame them in the chipper. Davidsdottir blazed through the event to seal her first event win of the weekend in 4:42. With 100 points added to her total, Davidsdottir now needed Sigmundsdottir to finish in fifth or lower. Sigmundsdottir would reach the time cap with 9 reps to go, and drop to 22nd in the event.
Pedal to the Metal 2 had dealt a massive blow to the rookie who had led the competition since Friday night. Sigmundsdottir had not just lost the title with her 22nd place finish, she had lost the silver medal as well. Prior to the event she had a 41 point gap over fourth-ranked Toomey, however, Toomey’s fourth place finish on PTTM 2 gave her a 48 point edge over Sigmundsdottir. Toomey would leap to silver, while Sigmundsdottir dropped to bronze.
In the short event, Smith would build a minute and a half lead over Fraser. Smith was the fourth across the line in 5:01. With Fraser so far back, it was immediately clear that Smith had done it. In his seventh year at the CrossFit Games, Ben Smith had earned the title Fittest on Earth.
2015 Games Podium
1. Katrin Davidsdottir (790 pts, up from second)
2. Tia-Clair Toomey (750 pts, up from fourth)
3. Sara Sigmundsdottir (743 pts, down from first)
1. Ben Smith (915 pts, up from second)
2. Mat Fraser (879 pts, down from first)
3. Bjorgvin Karl Guomundsson (766 pts, maintained third)
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