By Tommy Marquez
The 15 women Tommy Marquez believes are worth tracking in 2015.
It’s an exciting time for CrossFit athletes and fans of the Sport of Fitness. This weekend, athletes the world over will put themselves to the test in the first workout of the 2015 Reebok CrossFit Games Open.
For many of us, the Open is the beginning and end of our season as competitors, providing five weeks of anticipation, excitement and hard-earned accomplishments. Yet we all can have at least a six-month run as fans of the sport, following top athletes as they put in other-worldly performances on their way to the regionals and the Games.
While you wait for Dave Castro to announce Open Workout 15.1, read about the 15 women (and 15 men) who I believe are worth tracking this season. They range from household names to relatively unknown athletes in the sport.
My top five picks for the 2015 Reebok CrossFit Games.
The two-time fittest woman on Earth returned to competition in a big way in 2014.
She “quietly” won the Europe Regional, largely overshadowed by the drama of Sam Briggs’ shortcoming on the handstand walk.
At the Games, it took her a few events to shake off the cobwebs—she averaged 17th place on the first four events—but as the competition progressed we witnessed her metamorphosis from an athlete still unsure about the status of a rehabbed back injury, into the gladiator who can tear apart the women’s field with a smile. In the remaining nine events of the 2014 Games, she averaged sixth place. Two event wins and a second-place finish on Sunday certainly helped. In the end, she stood on the second-tallest box on the podium next to Camille Leblanc-Bazinet and Julie Foucher.
As we saw in 2011 and 2012, when Thorisdottir is at 100 percent she can be impossible to beat. With another year of recovery and training behind her, Thorisdottir is a true contender for the top of the podium in 2015.
(South West Region)
2014 was all about Camille Leblanc-Bazinet.
Leblanc-Bazinet finished at or near the top throughout the entire season, from February to late July. In the 2014 Open, she came in second place worldwide behind reigning champion Sam Briggs. She went on to win the Canada East Regional, as usual, but with such exceptional event performances that she earned first in the cross-regional comparison. In Carson, California, she slowly but steadily worked her way to the top.
The five-time CrossFit Games competitor drew the attention of fans when she first appeared at the Games in 2010 and finished ninth overall. Over the next two years, she earned progressively better Games finishes (eighth in 2011 and sixth in 2012) before she uncharacteristically plummeted to 16th in 2013. Her jump from 16th in 2013 to first in 2014 was the single biggest year-to-year improvement of any women’s podium finisher since the Games left Aromas.
Last year we saw that Leblanc-Bazinet had put in the work to craft herself into a different beast. She held her own on events that tested endurance, like The Beach (6th), and displayed an air of confidence and composure in the face of adversity.
This year, we will see the champ compete out of a new Region, the South West, with her new neighbor and fellow Games athlete Matt Chan in her corner. (Read more in "Camille's Move.")
(Central East Region)
Julie Foucher’s 2014 Games performance reminded us of what we missed out on in 2013: her beautiful movement, and incredible consistency.
Although she was aiming for the top of the podium, Foucher landed in third overall. In her four years at the Games ('10, '11, '12 and '14), Foucher has always finished within the top five overall (fifth, fifth, second and third)—a feat no other female athlete on this list can claim.
Foucher was noticeably stronger in 2014. She hang squat snatched 170 lb. at the Central East Regional, earning second place on the event, and then managed to overhead squat 231 lb. on the Wednesday night event of the CrossFit Games, earning eighth on the event and beating women known for their strength like Alessandra Pichelli (217 lb.), Annie Thorisdottir (222 lb.) and Lauren Brooks (215 lb.).
Kara Webb wore the white leader’s jersey for more than half of the 2014 Games and appeared to be on track for a spot on the podium until an injury forced her to withdraw on Sunday afternoon.
The Australian competitor notched six top-five finishes in the first nine events of the Games, including a surprising third-place finish on The Beach behind lanky former water-sport competitors Anna Tunnicliffe and Chyna Cho.
Things started to unravel during Push Pull Saturday night, and after the Midline March on Sunday afternoon she withdrew. She had nerve-related pain and numbness in her arm, which made work like grabbing a rope impossible and suggested that she may have a severe injury like a slipped disc. Unwilling to risk the 24-year-old's long-term health, her coach made the call and told her to withdraw.
She would later discover the symptoms stemmed from an issue with her jaw alignment. (Learn more about it in the November interview "Invitational Update: Australia" starting at 7:09.) Her road to 2015 began with considerable dental work.
To give you a sense of how close Webb was to a top spot at the Games, listen to this: Webb could have simply walked onto the competition floor for the final two events and finished dead last on both (30th), and still earned seventh overall. Not one to play that game, she took the WD and dropped to 31st.
By the November CrossFit Invitational, Webb was ready to compete again. She snatched 195 lb. and smoked her portion of the Fran-like thruster/pull-up relay in 2:12. Her split put her three seconds behind the fastest woman, Leblanc-Bazinet.
The anticipation of seeing Webb back at full strength this season makes me feel like I’m a kid again watching "Voltron" re-runs and waiting for the pilots to stop messing around and form the damn super robot. I know that once it happens, some tails will be kicked and it’ll be awesome.
(South East Region)
After years of narrow misses, Emily Bridgers hit a home run in 2014.
She qualified for the Games after three years stuck at the regional level, and she did it decisively, beating the two-time South East Regional winner Talayna Fortunato by taking first or second on six of the seven regional events.
Finally in Carson, California, she didn’t waste time getting accustomed to the big lights and cheering crowds. She performed like a veteran competitor, averaging 15th place on the events and earning as high as second place on the Midline March on Sunday.
Finishing in sixth overall, she was the highest-ranked rookie at the 2014 Games and the third-best American that year (behind Foucher, third, and Valerie Voboril, fifth). This earned her a spot on the USA Team at the CrossFit Invitational, where she would compete with all-star athletes from Europe, Australia, and Canada.
The 5-foot-1 former gymnast excels in the Open. She has finished in the top 10 worldwide for the last three years and will probably do that or better in 2015. Watch her compete against Michele Letendre at the Live Announcement of 15.2 in Austin, Texas, and keep track of her standings over the next few weeks. There’s a good chance she’ll be challenging Sam Briggs and Camille Leblanc-Bazinet for the top spot at the end of the Open.
These women are back after a year off, and they're going to make their mark on '15.
Natalie Newhart (McClain)
(South West Region)
Newhart, new name.
Natalie Newhart (formerly McClain) will return to competition after taking 2014 off to recover from a back injury. We’ve seen Newhart make major gains in a single year, and it’s likely she’ll come back strong in 2015.
In 2012, Newhart was disqualified from the South West Regional after she was unable to meet the minimum work requirements for the 70-lb. dumbbell snatch and sprint event (Event 3).
When she returned in 2013, Newhart won Jackie (Event 1) at the start of the South West Regional weekend and went on to finish in the top 10 on every single workout. She showed an improved level of strength by taking ninth in the overhead squat ladder (Event 2) and 10th in the 205-lb. deadlift and 24-inch box jump couplet (Event 5).
At her first appearance at the CrossFit Games, she made it all the way into the final event. Although the 15 265-lb. deadlifts in The Cinco 1 proved impossible for the small athlete, she showed us she has what it takes to be among the best women at the Games.
If she comes back stronger this year, she’ll have a good run. Newhart certainly shines when gymnastics are involved, having never finished outside the top three at regionals or the Games on events with pull-ups or handstand push-ups. She may not draw the attention some of the other names on this list do, but she will definitely be a factor in the South West.
(South East Region)
There has been no bigger shock in CrossFit Games history than when the reigning fittest woman Earth failed to make it past regionals.
She had just won the Open by a record 127 points and seemed unstoppable when she nearly beat four other former CrossFit Games champions, including Rich Froning, at the live announcement of 14.5.
But the programming exposed a real hole in her fitness: handstand walking (Event 2). Her 65-ft. walk was a PR, but only good enough for 26th place in Europe where there are many former high-level gymnasts.
When she finished fourth in the regional—one spot and 6 points away from qualification—she was forced to take a step back and refocus her training. In addition to working on gymnastics with coach Sean Lind, she has put on 10 lb. of muscle, set PRs on nearly all her lifts and maintained her almost superhuman engine.
I had the honor of being one of the sacrificial lambs who got to go head-to-head with Briggs on Grace. While men like me cycled through, taking one workout apiece, Briggs completed Isabel, Fran, Grace, Diane and, at her request, 30 bar muscle-ups for time, on five-minute intervals, which was all captured in the video "4 on 1."
Now living in Miami, Florida, the British athlete will compete in the South East Region with new competitors and a new support team. Multi-year Games athlete and physical therapist Talayna Fortunato is sitting out in 2015 due to injury, but intends to help keep Briggs in top working order. There’s a good chance we could see a repeat of 2013 with Briggs on a warpath to win the Games.
Last year’s regionals weren’t easy on the top two women from the 2013 Games. A week after gold medalist Briggs failed to qualify out of the Europe Regional, silver medalist Lindsey Valenzuela came up short in Southern California.
Valenzuela was on the outside looking in after the SoCal Regional despite not having a single event finish outside the top 10. Unlike Briggs however, Valenzuela didn’t have one particularly bad event. A series of minor setbacks piled up over the weekend and eventually cost her a spot at the Games. A missed 185-lb. hang squat snatch in Event 1, a failed muscle-up in Nasty Girls V2 and a no-repped legless rope climb in Event 5, all helped contribute to a 9-point deficit that separated her from the final Games-qualifying athlete, rising star Lauren Fisher.
Known as an emotional competitor, it’s likely her failure to qualify in 2014 didn’t go down easy. She has vowed to be back in 2015 better than ever, and I believe it. Her climb from 34th place as a rookie in 2011 to second in 2013 should be an indication that she’s more than capable of bouncing back in a big way.
(North West Region)
2013 was a breakout year for Rory Zambard as she took 14th at the Games and notched three top-five event finishes. The celebrated rookie would not return the following July, however, for medical reasons.
Not long after she earned a spot to the 2014 Games, Zambard withdrew due to complications from a back injury she sustained before the North West Regional.
An MRI investigating the cause of the back injury revealed a benign tumor larger than a softball in her pelvis. She had surgery to remove the tumor, and soon after started her recovery.
Now more than six months post-op, the 23-year-old is settled back into training with buddy Cole Sager, regularly posting her progress on her Instagram account (@rzambard), like a 205-lb. triple squat clean from blocks.
Zambard won the 2014 Open in the North West and will likely be a leading woman at the new West Regional. Keep track of her as she gets back into the groove over the next few months.
Deborah Cordner Carson
(North Central Region)
Deborah Cordner Carson will return to competition after giving birth to her daughter, Sydney, in September of 2014.
Carson is known for overcoming obstacles far bigger than recovering from giving birth.
Wearing her compression tights on her left leg and going through extensive work to mitigate the effects of lymphedema, the former 400-meter sprinter has managed to not only stay involved in sports, but also qualify for the CrossFit Games in 2011, 2012 and 2013.
After being disqualified for failing to make it through the open ocean swim by the Santa Monica Pier in 2011, Carson returned the next summer and took to the choppy, cold water outside of Marine Base Camp Pendleton and went on to finish both Pendleton 1 and Pendleton 2.
In 2012, she earned the Spirit of the Games award.
I have no doubt in my mind that Carson will handle the comeback from pregnancy with the same incredible determination. The last time we saw her compete in 2013, she had her best finish to date taking fifth place worldwide in the Open.
You may not know these women ... yet.
Ragnheidur Sara Sigmundsdottir
Sara Sigmundsdottir is the next to emerge in a seemingly endless line of Icelandic fire breathers in the women’s competition.
Following in the footsteps of other "dottirs"—Annie Thorisdottir, Bjork Odinsdottir, and Katrin Tanja Davidsdottir—Sigmundsdottir announced her presence by winning three major independent competitions this offseason.
One of those competitions was in Europe, and the past winners include Sam Briggs (2013) and Kristin Holte (2014), both of whom went on to qualify for the Games the years they won.
The list of competitors she has beaten in the offseason this year includes over 30 current and former Games athletes, including Briggs, Lindsey Valenzuela, Val Voboril, Jenn Jones, Michele Letendre and Lauren Fisher.
There's a chance that five European women will sweep the five qualifying spots to the CrossFit Games out of the Meridian Regional. With Briggs relocated to Miami, Florida, things look better than ever for prospects like Sigmundsdottir.
(North Central Region)
The frenzy surrounding Stacie Tovar's failed bid for her sixth trip to the CrossFit Games drew attention away from the incredible performance of a woman who has yet to qualify for the Games, Grace Dresher.
Dresher finished outside of the top 10 on only one event at the 2014 North Central Regional (14th on Event 4), a feat that neither Elisabeth Akinwale or Kelley Jackson could match. By the end of the weekend, Dresher was in fourth place overall just one rank and two points away from qualifying for the 2014 Games.
The 2015 Central Regional will have tons of high-level athletes, but the departure of Alexandra LaChance (South West), Kelley Jackson (North East), Jennifer Smith (North East) and Michelle Kinney (South West, injured) certainly helps Dresher’s chances.
(Teenage Division, 14-15)
One of the great things about the addition of a teenage division in the Open is that it gives athletes like Brooklin Smith a platform to showcase her already impressive fitness.
The 14-year-old can deadlift twice her bodyweight, snatch 110 lb., and string together muscle-ups. She has said that she intends to compete in the individual division of the CrossFit Games someday.
It will be exciting to watch Smith and other ambitious teenagers develop their skills over the next few years. The teenage division gives us a clearer view of the future Camille Leblanc-Bazinets and Rich Fronings of our sport.
(South East Region)
I had the pleasure of sitting down with Steph aka “The Hammer” during the Games this past July to talk about doing CrossFit as an adaptive athlete, and it was truly inspiring. Her vision for the future of adaptive athletes is trumped only by her determination to make it a reality.
Along with fellow adaptive athletes Kevin Ogar, Chris Stoutenburg and Gustavo Marquez, Hammerman has been instrumental in showing how to make CrossFit accessible to all athletes, in terms of programming and coaching. Check out their Instagram pages (@kevinogar @stouty08 @gmarqx @stephthehammer) for daily inspiration and a look at how they are widening the scope of what’s possible in the world of CrossFit.
(South West Region)
I want you to picture a female athlete. Said athlete is a National Champion in weightlifting and holds the American record for both the clean and jerk and total in her class. This athlete has squatted 315 lb., cleaned 255 lb., jerked 261 lb., snatched 175 lb., and completed 50 unbroken chest-to-bar pull-ups.
She’s coached by CJ Martin of CrossFit Invictus, and has beaten Elisabeth Akinwale, Kelley Jackson, Kristan Clever, Margaux Alvarez, Christy Adkins, Alexandra LaChance, Becca Voigt and Gretchen Kittleberger (to name a few) in competition this offseason.
That athlete just happens to be 18-year-old Maddy Myers out of Albuquerque, New Mexico, and she could be the next big thing in CrossFit and weightlifting in the U.S.