“I think over the next couple of years you’re going to see not just an outgrowth in the sport but an outgrowth in the adaptive community and the general population as a whole. People are going to stop being scared to be out in the world with a disability. They’re going to be more outgoing, more comfortable in their own skin because they are capable and they are being told that they’re capable, and I can’t imagine something that can be more impactful on someone’s life who’s being told ‘no’ their entire life than someone telling them, ‘Yes, you can, and I’ll show you how.’” —Kevin Ogar
In 2021, the NOBULL CrossFit Games Open included eight adaptive athlete divisions for the first time — Men and Women’s Upper Extremity, Lower Extremity, Neuromuscular, Short Stature, Intellectual, Vision, Seated Athletes (With Hip Function), and Seated Athletes (Without Hip Function).
Three of those divisions — Men and Women’s Upper Extremity, Lower Extremity, and Neuromuscular — competed at the CrossFit Games.
In this episode of the podcast, Kevin Ogar* and Alec Zirkenbach** discuss the evolution of the adaptive division in the CrossFit space, their role in the 2021 season, and the future of the division in the CrossFit Games.
Ogar and Zirkenbach have long been part of the CrossFit and adaptive communities as adaptive CrossFit athletes as well as affiliate owners, Seminar Staff, and advocates for people with disabilities.
The duo worked together with WheelWOD Open, a functional fitness competition for adaptive athletes. In 2017, they were part of the team that helped create CrossFit’s Adaptive Training specialty course.
In 2021, Zirkenbach and Ogar were an integral part of the CrossFit Games season, drawing from their experiences working with adaptive competitions to help create the eight adaptive divisions for the CrossFit Open.
While they are thankful for the addition of the divisions, Zirkenbach and Ogar recognize there are advantages and disadvantages athletes within the same division experience, depending on their impairment. For example, for the Upper and Lower Extremity divisions, Zirkenbach describes the differences in ability for athletes with an impairment above or below their elbow or knee joints.
And while expanding the divisions would make the competition more fair, Zirkenbach says, “We try to make it as fair as possible through programming changes.”
Zirkenbach and Ogar were also instrumental in the inclusion of the adaptive divisions at the 2021 NOBULL CrossFit Games. Not only did the pair help write the classification manual that defines who is eligible to compete in each division; they also consulted on the competition process, helped create adaptations for workouts, and were on the floor at the Games running the adaptive competition.
Understanding the first year would not be perfect, Zirkenbach and Ogar are taking the lessons they learned from the 2021 Games to improve the 2022 season.
For Ogar, being more prepared to tackle the attention to detail necessary to run a competition is important. Zirkenbach agrees and notes additional adjustments can be made in the future to make the competition more inclusive, like giving athletes more time to walk on and off the field, shortening the distance to the finish line, and clarifying the adaptive classifications for the Open.
“Overall, I think last year went off as well as we can expect for our first year,” Ogar says.
In the 2022 season, the top 20 adaptive athletes from the Open will advance to the Semifinals, a new stop on the road to the Games. The top five men and women from the Upper Extremity, Lower Extremity, and Neuromuscular divisions will be invited to compete in the finals in Madison.
“I think this Semifinals step is just a nice way … to give these guys and ladies another step where they can prove their fitness and get crowned the fittest in their division and really stand out instead of just stopping at the Open,” Ogar says.
Zirkenbach echoes the sentiment.
“I think it’s a great opportunity. ... Now with the Semifinals, and even the athletes that aren’t going to Madison, we have 20 athletes that we can test at a higher level to either produce the CrossFit Games champion (in their division) or send those athletes to Madison.”
Looking ahead to the future, Zirkenbach and Ogar are ready to include more adaptive divisions in the Games. Still, they understand the importance of athlete participation, experience, and time necessary to put on a well-produced, inclusive competition.
“It’s not just throwing more divisions in the Games,” Ogar says. “It’s going to take some time … of figuring out how best to put these athletes into the Games and not have it be this sideshow.”
With the announcement of a possible stand-alone CrossFit Games for the age group athletes in the future, both Zirkenbach and Ogar agree they would like to see the adaptive athletes continue to share the competition floor with the individual and team athletes at the Games as the adaptive divisions continue to grow.
Although Zirkenbach and Ogar recognize including the adaptive divisions has a big impact and contributes to the growth of the CrossFit community, their mission is bigger than the Games.
“Producing the (adaptive competition at the CrossFit Games) is definitely a passion of ours,” Zirkenbach says. “It’s something we’ve wanted to do for a while. We’ll do it to the best of our ability and keep making it better. But really, our passion is making CrossFit affiliates, and even outside the CrossFit affiliate world, more accessible to people with disabilities.”
*Kevin Ogar is a Level 3 CrossFit Trainer, Head Trainer on the CrossFit Seminar Staff, member of the Adaptive Training Academy, owner and head coach of CrossFit WatchTower, and a CrossFit District 4 Affiliate Rep.
**Alec Zirkenbach is a U.S. Navy veteran, executive director of the Adaptive Training Academy, a Level 3 CrossFit Trainer, and a Head Trainer on the CrossFit Seminar Staff.