Burning Runner: Inside The CrossFit Culture

THE MEN’S AND WOMEN’S WINNERS of the 2011 Reebok Games were Rich Froning, Jr., 23, from Cookeville, Tenn., and Annie Thorisdottir, 21, from Kopavogur, Iceland (popularly known in the CrossFit world as Iceland Annie). Both put on masterful displays of power and technique—Froning, at 195 pounds, can knock out a 60-second quarter-mile sprint, dead lift 510 pounds and 75 pull-ups. Thorisdottir, who competed in her first Games in 2009, came to the new sport with gymnastics, ballet and pole vaulting in her background. Because the methodology of CrossFit allows for scaling–allowing a newcomer like me to do the same brand of workouts as the greats, made possible by scaling the workload down by degree, I can watch Thorisdottir compete and have a sense of what she’s going through. Yet, in fact, she kicks my ass. Thorisdottir weighs 30 pounds less than I do and with a 352-pound dead lift PR she beats me by 75 pounds. Throughout the weekend she softly smiled and waved to the crowd in between the bouts of her unleashing an unbelievable about of athleticism on her competition.

The most electrifying presence at the 2011 Reebok CrossFit Games, however, was a spring-loaded 35-year-old competing in her first Games. Annie Sakamoto, a mother of two with her husband, Jake Wormhoudt, co-owns CrossFit Central Santa Cruz. A roar went up each time she raced into the stadium to compete or fight through a weight lift that had her legs shaking on the verge of collapse. At 5’0 and 116 pounds, Sakamoto was a crowd favorite because most everyone who gets into CrossFit has been inspired by perhaps the most famous workout video where Sakamoto, Nicole Carroll and Eva Twardokens are recorded performing a workout called “Nasty Girls,” three rounds of squats, muscle-ups and hang power cleans for time. Muscle-ups slay the best of CrossFit athletes and the maximum effort the three women put forth in the video is breathtaking.

Sakamoto also appears in myriad demonstration videos throughout Crossfit.com–a source most Crossfitters in the stadium have at one time or another depended on.

“It was pretty humbling,” Sakamoto told me when I asked her about the crowd’s emotional reaction to her presence. “To be honest I had no idea. I thought I was yesterday’s news–the old guard!”

Annie Sakamoto pushes a weighted sled at the 2011 CrossFit Games.

Sakamoto was managing a restaurant in Santa Cruz in 2004 when she was first persuaded to try CrossFit. “My training at the time was a random hip-hop class I was going to. I went to check it out CrossFit–I’d heard all of these stories about people puking. But the teacher put me through a pretty easy workout. I thought, ‘This is for weenies!’”

Sakamoto returned for a second workout only this one was taught by the CrossFit founder, Greg Glassman. “It was just an atrocious workout,” Sakamoto recalls. “It  absolutely destroyed me. My stomach was distended. I thought I had a hernia. I felt so bad I asked my husband to take me to the hospital.” It turned out she was fine. “When I could walk again I couldn’t wait to get back in there. That was when I was hooked.”

Within six months of her first workout she got certified to coach. She has become, whether she realizes it or not, an icon of the sport.

Sakamoto’s first appearance at the Games almost didn’t happen. “I really had no intention of qualifying at the Northern California regionals,” she says. “My coach is Gary Hirthler, and he’s just fantastic, but during the regionals I told him I didn’t want to go to the Games. He’d tell me to just keep doing what I was doing and not to worry about it.” Sakamoto finished 3rd and qualified. “Driving home I again told him, ‘I don’t want to go the Games.’ The honest truth was that I was scared to put myself out there against these amazing athletes. Gary said, ‘I totally understand that. But what if you don’t get this chance again? What if you never again get this opportunity?’”

“Then I remembered what CrossFit is all about,” Sakamoto says. “You’re ultimately out not to measure yourself against others but against yourself. It’s about doing the best you can. That was a freeing feeling for me.”

When it was all said and done with the final “chipper” event Sunday afternoon, a beaming Sakamoto received an ovation. She’d finished 9th overall. The remarkable image of the 116-pound Sakamoto pushing a sled weighted up with 275 pounds 40-feet had the crowd on their feet and she was subsequently given the “Spirit of the Games” award. Sakamoto has already decided she intends to return in 2012.


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