The 2015 Reebok CrossFit Games are set to kick off in just a week. The event will attract tens of thousands of fans to the StubHub Center in Carson, California, to watch the best CrossFit athletes in the world fight for the title “Fittest On Earth.”
Being a CrossFit Games athlete today means ESPN interviews, drug tests, sponsorships, and prize money. It means recovering between events in an air-conditioned athletes’ lounge, with your own personalized cubby and recliner chair.
While I can’t speak about 2012 and 2013, in 2014, competing at the Games made me feel uncomfortably like a rockstar. In the weeks leading up to the Games — and the weeks following — Reebok sent me unexpected packages on a weekly basis. Too many sports bras to count. Upon arrival in Carson, after receiving six new pairs of shoes and a new wardrobe, they continued to play Santa Claus, often surprising us with something new in our cubby — pants, a jacket, five new tank tops. Something new everyday. Clothing aside, the event —from the world-class organization, to the food and dinners we were served, to the media appointments and treatment options, to the thousands of fans — it was an overwhelming experience that felt like a dream. Was this actually happening to me?
The CrossFit Games in 2007—held on Dave Castro’s family ranch—looked nothing like the spectacle it has become today. Air conditioning, let alone a lounge, didn’t exist at the ranch. Instead, athletes struggled to find shade between events, and the warm-up area was a 20-foot-by-20-foot square of dusty ground with two barbells and a rickety rig that shook when you did pull-ups.
The crowds at Aromas paled in comparison to the thousands of fans that flock to Carson today to watch their favorite athletes.
Back then, you didn’t even have to qualify to compete. You just registered and showed up on game day.
“Aromas was like a scene from Mad Max: A group of outcasts and misfits fighting to survive in a dust-swept land where hope goes to die,” said Andrew Swartz, 2008 and 2009 individual CrossFit Games competitor. Where the ancient era ends and the modern one begins can almost be seen in the clothing, Swartz said.
“The Aromas were the pre-spandex days,” said Swartz, who competed at the ranch in ripped, dirt-stained board shorts. “We didn’t even know when or where our next events were. It was mentally exhausting to be in a ready state for 13 hours,” he added.
Brett Marshall, who placed second at the Games in 2007, has a similar memory.
“I was literally walking to the bathroom to an outhouse and Dave (Castro) yelled at me, ‘You’re in the next heat.’ I hadn’t even been to the warm-up area yet, so I just walked right into my heat and competed,” said Marshall, who registered for the first CrossFit Games when he saw a blog post advertising the event on crossfit.com.
Marshall—who made the trip to California from Calgary, A.B. with his training partner James FitzGerald—stayed in a hotel, but many other competitors and spectators set up tents and campers on Castro’s property, and spent the weekend boozing between events.
When Greg Glassman felt it was time to get going, he took the stage in front of a whiteboard.
“Coach (Glassman) wrote 1,000 m row on the whiteboard, and then he pulled the other movements from a hopper,” Marshall said. Pull-ups and jerks were the other two movements chosen for the first Games workout—then called “The Hopper.”
1000 meter row
Then 5 rounds of:
“And I remember he pulled a blue ball that said ‘heavy,’ and he said, ‘Ok, they’re going to be heavy jerks.’” Marshall said. Then it was quiet, as Glassman and Castro debated about how heavy to make the jerks.
“Eventually, Coach said, ‘Ok, we’re going with 135-lb. jerks, and everyone was like, ‘Oh my God, this is going to be so heavy,’” said Marshall, who went on to win the event in a time of 13:07. The event was programmed again at the 2013 CrossFit Games, and renamed “2007.” Josh Bridges won the event in a time of 8:33.
The second event in 2007 was a long run, which Marshall believes was around 5 km. He placed third, behind Chris Spealler—who won the event—and FitzGerald, who placed second.
“There was prize money in 2007, but the way it was distributed was total randomness,” Marshall said. “I remember Coach reaching into his pocket after James (FitzGerald) was second on the run and being like, ‘I’ve got $100 for you.’ That night, we went for dinner and James said he’d buy because he won some prize money, and I was like, ‘How come you got money for getting second, and I didn’t get anything for winning the Hopper?’” Marshall laughed at the memory.
By the third year—2009—the sport of CrossFit had evolved considerably. Michael FitzGerald, James FitzGerald’s brother, competed in his first Games that year.
“At the time, Jason Khalipa was the favourite to win the 2009 Games. But once the design of the Games was released and the first two workouts had been completed, a new favourite arose—Mikko Salo. Nobody had any idea who that guy was. Even after two events, he was impressive as we knew he was a very good runner for distance, and he was also strong as hell. That kind of combo had not been seen,” FitzGerald said of Salo, who went on to win the 2009 Games.
Like all Games athletes who competed in those early days, one of FitzGerald’s most poignant memories is the infamous hill they tackled in various ways during those first three years.
“Many of the people I know that competed still say that was the most pain they have ever experienced in that hill sprint,” FitzGerald said of the 2009 sandbag hill run.
Par Barber, who competed at the Aromas in 2008 and 2009, echoed FitzGerald’s memory.
“It was such a beast,” Barber said of the Aromas hill. “In 2008, we had the 800-meter run that devastated people. Then in 2009, the 7 km run to start the Games and the sandbag sprint, which was probably one of the most intense leg pumps many of those competitors have ever had, even to this day.”
Barber and FitzGerald are two of just a handful of athletes who were fortunate enough to compete in both the ancient and modern Games. FitzGerald competed in Carson in 2010 as an individual, while Barber competed as an individual in 2011, and with a team in 2010 and 2014. He will compete for a sixth time this summer with NorCal CrossFit.
Pat Barber and his NorCal CrossFit team placed first at the California Super Regional this May, punching their ticket to the 2015 Games.
“I am honoured to say that I was there at the beginning, and I am honoured to say that I’m still around,” Barber said.
Even though FitzGerald has competed at the big show—under the bright lights in the tennis stadium in Carson—his best CrossFit memories are rooted in the Aromas.
“There’s something very special about that barn and dusty hill,” he said. “I look back at that weekend (2009) as one of the most joyful weekends I’ve ever experienced. It was…complete excitement and pure joy to compete there.”
Marshall added: “What I loved about those days was how there was so much discovery. I mean essentially everything was new, un-edited, un-scritinuzed, un-analyzed.”
In order for today’s athletes to truly appreciate their sport, they should take the time to learn about what it looked like in 2007, Marshall said.
The spectators, along with the athletes, had a very different view in 2007 than they do today.
“For me, the history is interesting. What an individual sees now—I don’t know if they can appreciate it to the degree one can who was there when it all began,” Marshall said. “If you pick it up part way, it doesn’t have the same effect.”
He added: “To see how far it has come is pretty amazing.”