April 23, 2011
The Woman Behind Sam Briggs: Jo Cartwright

Last July, as their plane touched down on the soft sun-heated asphalt of the LAX tarmac, Sam Briggs and her partner Jo Cartwright sat buckled in but uncertain of what lay ahead. 

Sam, a firefighter from Manchester, England was not new to competition. Before she got into CrossFit in the spring of 2009, Sam played soccer for the Northern Premiership League and combined running and cycling as a triathloner and world-class duathlete. 

Stepping into the Home Depot Center on Friday night, few knew her name. It wasn’t until the next morning that Sam caught the attention of the crowds as she swiftly distanced herself from the pack during “Pyramid Double Helen.” By the end of the weekend, she had taken 19th place overall, and quietly returned home to prepare for 2011.

After five weeks of the Open, Sam has become a CrossFit household name. Each week, “Samantha Briggs” has appeared near the top of the Leaderboard. With the hope of getting to know Sam a little better, we talked with her main support  -- her partner, Jo.

Before we get to Sam, let's talk about you. What do you do for a living? 

I work full time as a graphic designer in a studio called Corporation Pop, which is based in Manchester City Centre. I’ve been there nine years, joining straight from university, and now head up the print design department. As jobs go, I have to say it’s a pretty great one and the one thing I always dreamt of doing since being a three-year-old kid who just never wanted to put the crayons down.

How did you and Sam meet? 

Sam and I met through mutual friends back in 2007. Back then, she was living in Leeds and I was in Manchester (about 40 miles away). Sam was really into her football, and I would spend the weekends cheering her from the sidelines … but a few injuries took their toll and she talked about moving into something different. As she was still a keen cyclist and enjoyed running, it seemed a fairly obvious move to triathlons and she quickly notched up a few wins in the amateur leagues.

When Sam moved in with me in Manchester, she was still racing and regularly competing in triathlons, and it was at a gym over here that someone suggested CrossFit to her. Immediately I could see how much she was taken by it. And I guess the rest, as they say, is history on that score.

What’s Sam’s edge in sports? Any moments that stand out?

I can remember picking her up from work after she’d done a night shift and driving her to a race, and she was so tired as she had been at a fire for most the night so hadn’t had any real sleep, and she just got changed in the car, staggered over to the start line, ran it and came in first. I called her Forest Gump!

It was clear she had real talent at the endurance stuff and could push through a barrier a lot of others couldn’t … I definitely did not share this talent and following a traumatic cycling weekend in Wales, we have vowed never to exercise together ever again.  

Some CrossFit athletes live, train, and date through CrossFit. But we hear you’re not sipping the CrossFit Kool-Aid. How do you and Sam support each other while having different interests?

I did a lot of sport right up until I went to university and really enjoyed it and really missed it for a long time when I gave it up. But somehow we’ve managed to make it work between us. When we go away to competitions, in return for me standing in the cold watching (and being left with only a selection of meat and nuts to choose from), she puts up with my requests for trawling local bookstores for rare design finds. 

I think the contrast suits us both. For me personally I wouldn’t want to be training next to her and then coming home together and inevitably talking about that training. It’s testament to both our careers, I think that we have held onto what drives us and what we’re passionate about and made them work alongside each other. Without a doubt it’s give and take, but while Sam’s riding such a high, I’m more than happy to let CrossFit take the lead in our lives.  

Although I don’t do CrossFit myself, I fully support her and try to play as much of an active role in the community as I can — whether that’s photographing the competitions, or even just a group of them hurling sandbags and swinging from the trees in our local woods, to travelling with her to the various boxes she trains at around the UK and meeting all the people involved. It’s a fantastic team to feel part of at any level. It’s turned into quite a long-standing joke with Sam and her fellow athletes that I actually don’t do anything remotely like exercise despite being so immersed in the CrossFit world, though I do like to wear the T-shirts!

How have the last few weeks of the Open affected your life? What has life been like in the Briggs-Cartwright home lately? 

The Open itself has felt pretty relentless and I’m not even taking part in it. It’s been a big thing in the gear up to it and then trying to work it around her full-time firefighting shifts, and fit in with her training pattern, takes some scheduling. Especially as her work is just so unpredictable each and every day, so she can plan to do a WOD and then have a hectic day or/night in the lead up to it, and she then just feels knackered. 

But that’s the whole idea of CrossFit isn’t it? Dealing with the unknowable and still putting in the performance. I admire her tremendously for that. I know there’s some women out there who have less demanding jobs, or who even work full time as personal trainers in their own box and Sam’s more than aware of what impact that can have on their training and preparation for the Games, but she just gets on with it, puts the fires out when they blaze and then hits the WOD as best she can, when she can.   

Sam has gone from being an unknown athlete to the Games, and then from a 19th place finish in 2010 to the top of the Leaderboard with an Again Faster sponsorship in 2011. That's enormous progress. What’s gone into her growth as a CrossFitter?

I think Los Angeles was an amazing learning curve for her, to be out there on such a big stage, competing with athletes that just blow your mind. It was inspiring and humbling and made her want to be better and be on that level and go up against Kristan Clever and Annie Thorisdottir and see whether she could go rep for rep with them. 

The Fit as Fu*k CrossFit Challenge in Copenhagen last September was just amazing to watch for that very reason, and to see Sam beat Annie over a lengthy final WOD was obviously a real confidence booster for her, but she’s not naive enough to think that necessarily means anything going into the Games this year.  

Sam came back from L.A. knowing her weaknesses and with a determination to return as a much stronger athlete this time around. It’s fantastic to see that her hard work is starting to pay off and she’s being noticed – the Again Faster sponsorship has further boosted her confidence. The team have been really supportive and the other athletes were so welcoming to her right from the word go, I think she will learn a lot from them and benefit hugely from their presence out there at the Games.

How has the community support changed as Sam has shown herself to be one of the best CrossFit athletes out of Europe?

The support for Sam has been phenomenal since her Games debut, and it’s powerful stuff to see a community get behind her and want to train with her and even see how much she’s encouraged people to pick it up from scratch. I know she’s got a lot of the guys at her fire station working out now and from all accounts they’re sticking at it.

I think the level she’s achieved now has done wonders to help promote the UK CrossFit scene and make people see it’s here to stay.

I’ve certainly noticed a momentum build in the UK this year, there’s some great new units opening up and a real sense of community and pride in our athletes going up against the best in Europe and having a chance to go head to head in Bolton come June. Iceland certainly looks dominant so far, but it’ll be interesting to see who steps up and performs on the day when they’ve just got the one chance to get it right and not two, three, or even four attempts like some are hitting each WOD in the Open. There’s some real emerging British talent coming through and it’s been great to see them at the recent European competitions starting to make their mark.

What do you see coming in the future?

Hopefully the next step will be for Sam to open her own box and be able to commit full time to training herself and others. I’d like to think she knows a good designer to help her out on the graphics. 

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