Annie Sakamoto and the culture of CrossFit

Tonight ESPN2 will be showing the “Double Banger” event from the Reebok CrossFit Games this past summer. I recall being in the stadium and holding my breath while one of the crowd’s favorites, Annie Sakamoto, at 5-foot-tall and smaller than most all of the other top women, battled with an event that clearly favored the larger, stronger athletes. Sakamoto had met her match with the event–reminding me of a sled drag exercise she faced in the 2011 Games that she had to thrown literally everything she was made of to make the thing move an inch. One of the reasons that Sakamoto is such a favorite at the Games is because of her tenacious athleticism that is displayed within so many of the early videos posted on CrossFit.com–when you’re new to CrossFit you comb through the archives and Annie comes up often in these inspiring vignettes of she-will-not-be-denied efforts.

Annie Sakamoto pushing the sled in the 2011 Reebok CrossFit Games chipper.

I first reported on Sakamoto after attending the 2011 Reebok CrossFit Games. I was just becoming immersed in the new sport myself. This was the story:

IT’S JUST KILLING KELLLY STARRETT. He shakes his head slowly, eyes fixed on the fault, a wincing, profound hurt registering in eyes. It’s bright and Orange County warm, late on a Saturday afternoon, day two of three at the 2011 Reebok CrossFit Games at the Home Depot Center in Carson, Calif. He’s watching a young woman perform a set of seven front squats with 155 pounds, and in her drive to complete the movement her midline stability breaks into a state of overextension comprising her lower back.

Over-extension: Starrett agonizes when he sees it—an athlete splashing away power like a drunk holding a to-the-rim glass of the finest champagne. The break in posture opens the athlete to potential injury and, as Starrett puts it, “leaves performance on the table.” Starrett, a physical therapist and owner of San Francisco with his wife, Juliet (who competed in the Games last year), has logged thousands of hours coaching athletes, watching them move and obsessively coaxing them into better mechanics, learning, testing and absorbing the rich data of human movement. Obsession is the right word: Problems of movement simmer in his thinking despite the busiest of days, his working solutions being posted daily, for almost a year now, in videos relaying the daily discoveries on mobilitywod.com

Kelly Starrett, left, coaching at a CrossFit Mobility certification at CrossFit Invictus.

“CrossFit is the perfect tool to expose holes in our movement,” he says. “A CrossFit gym is a lab: it’s a safe place to press boundaries, experiment, test and re-test, see what works and what doesn’t work, and become better athletes.” Starrett’s out to make the case that increasing performance is not limited to how much we can train or how hard we can train, but peak genetic performance becomes achievable only when posture, mechanics and movement are developed like skills, freeing up more power and becoming more efficient. When another athlete allows her knees to buckle inward as she thrusts the weight from a deep-knee bend to a standing position, Starrett slowly shakes his head again. “She’s so broken,” he says. Starrett knows he could help her if he just had the chance. Watch him walk through San Francisco CrossFit and he’s constantly seeing and coaching every athlete that steps near his frame of vision. This is how he’s hardwired and why most everyone in this stadium knows his name.

CrossFit is not just about becoming the athlete of the future, he’ll tell you. It’s about becoming a better human being. It’s about self-actualization. It’s about creative thinking, it’s about not being OK with imagined limitations, it’s about not making excuses, sucking up the discomfort and living life well and hard.

Reebok CrossFit Games

The Reebok CrossFit Games may be the world’s ultimate fitness lab—throughout the Home Depot venues there are men’s and women’s elite individual competitions, a team competition pitting the best CrossFit affiliates (commonly known as “boxes”) against one another, masters competitions and a teenage event. The competitions themselves are direct expressions of the daily workouts performed at 2500 affiliates [Note: as of September 2012, the number is estimated to be near 4000] around the country, throughout U.S. military installations, including Iraq and Afghanistan, and internationally. The workouts are constantly-varied combinations of movements and exercises plucked from gymnastics, endurance sports, powerlifting and Olympic-lifting, performed at high-intensity and against the clock and against one another. For example, the one we’re watching now consists of the three rounds of the following: 7 reps of the front squat, 700 meters on a stationary bike and a 100-foot traverse of “the killer cage,” a sprawl of post-apocalyptic looking  set of monkey bars. The elites would do the most—10 different workouts spread across three days, the final three performed with brief rests in between. At the Reebok CrossFit Games, fitness–with rigorous attention to how fitness can be defined and measured—is a sport.

The Killer Cage at the 2011 CrossFit Games.

STARRETT IS ONE of countless coaches in attendance and competing. Another, sitting 200 feet to Starrett’s right in section 7, sipping on a beer–and no doubt in equal distress over the poor front-squat technique on display–is Mike Burgener, owner of Mike’s Gym, an Olympic weightlifting expert with more than 30 years of coaching under his belt. Brian MacKenzie, CrossFit’s resident endurance sports leader, is also here with a posse of CrossFit Endurance coaches. In fact, through most of the stadium you’ll find CrossFit-certified coaches, box owners and their members. Arriving at the Games, the competitors had no idea what the workouts would be. The CrossFit athletes had to train the best they could for anything and everything, and from the original pool trying to qualify to be here–according to Reebok more than 25,000 participated in the process [Note: In 2012 more than 60,000 entered the initial stage of qualifying]–the best were now grinding their way through the flurry of races, testing their speed, power and stamina in a demonstration of CrossFit’s attempt to define precisely what fitness is. CrossFit’s open borders have attracted an array of experts from various disciplines and sports sparking discussions, sharing of ideas and the ongoing lab test of the daily WOD (workout of the day) that ordinarily would never have happened within the relative isolation of individual sport communities.  Competition WODs of the 2011 Games drew in elements as widely varying as an ocean swim, wind sprints, dead lifts and climbing across monkey bars, and through the workouts a parade of powerful, sinewy athletes were physically and psychologically engaged in a showcase of what Starrett calls “the unified field theory of athletics.”

This “open-source code” structure of Crossfit has caught fire. The Games started modestly in 2007 and through 2009 was held on a ranch in Northern California.  Rising with the tide of meteoric growth of CrossFit boxes and Crossfitters, the event moved to the Home Depot Center in 2010. But perhaps the most telling signal of CrossFit’s viral explosion is the investment being made by one of the world’s largest fitness shoe companies.

IT WAS LAST November that I first heard that Reebok, a global sport and fitness footwear company, signed a $150 million dollar 10-year sponsorship with CrossFit—CrossFit being the grassroots, viral fitness phenomenon a decade in the making that has been steadily re-writing the books on what constitutes a local gym. I had known Reebok since my years in the late 1980s selling their shoes at a technical running shoe store in San Francisco, but I’d only become introduced to CrossFit through reporting I was doing for a Triathlete magazine story.  I knew enough to know that those watching from the sidelines could see the risks for both brands. Consider the collision between the two brand images: CrossFit was Navy SEAL Hell Week set to death metal music and Reebok was an hour of step-class performed to music from “Flashdance”—Reebok’s global image could be muddied and spiral out of control and CrossFit, a training movement based on a grassroots revolt, could betray its followers, spark countless spinoffs and shatter to pieces. The 2011 Games weekend was a key checkpoint in the relationship. I’m here for several reasons—one being that in the last six months I have joined the growing legions and have become a Crossfitter myself, a surprise considering my old-school, long-distance running past. I also came to report on the partnership with Reebok and how Crossfitters were reacting to it.

 What is CrossFit?

SO WHAT IS THIS CROSSFIT? This is how I discovered it: One afternoon, about a year and a half ago, I was running on a treadmill at LA Fitness near our office in San Diego. My running was restricted to the treadmill because of the injuries that have long been biting me—illiotibial band syndrome, Achilles tendinitis, Runner’s Knee, sciatica and such. Even with the softer-impact stress of the treadmill I had a tough time warding off injuries. Like many runners, I often chose to try and plow through the small ones. But then, like one winter’s day when I had sat down next to an art director to talk about a cover design, my back would freeze up and I’d spend the next week or two downing Advil, icing, heating, and stretching until the spasm released. There would be no running at all.

But on one of the days I could survive 40 minutes on a treadmill I watched from a distance as a personal trainer powered a client through cycles of pushups, burpees and medicine ball tosses with no rest between sets. At the end of 10 minutes he was vanquished, lying on the ground heaving for air. “What that hell was that?” I thought. I found the trainer and asked questions. She gave me a Xerox of a story from the publication called the CrossFit Journal entitled “What is Fitness?” by Greg Glassman. That night I spent hours searching through CrossFit.com, and in the following weeks many more hours. In the article, Glassman boiled down his conceptualization of fitness and how to approach it into the following:

World-Class Fitness in 100 Words (from CrossFit.com)

■ Eat meat and vegetables, nuts and seeds, some fruit, little starch and no sugar. Keep intake to levels that will support exercise but not body fat.

■ Practice and train major lifts: Dead lift, clean, squat, presses, C&J, and snatch. Similarly, master the basics of gymnastics: pull-ups, dips, rope climb, push-ups, sit-ups, presses to handstand, pirouettes, flips, splits, and holds. Bike, run, swim, row, etc, hard and fast.

■ Five or six days per week mix these elements in as many combinations and patterns as creativity will allow. Routine is the enemy. Keep workouts short and intense.

■ Regularly learn and play new sports.

Simple enough to read, but the imagery on CrossFit.com is both compelling and intimidating. Videos are routines of athletes performing fast, furious workouts where one moment they’re performing power lifts with barbells and bumper plates, the next handstand pushups and the next 500 meters on a rowing machine, repeating the sequence over and over in a race against the clock, the session leaving them spread flat on the floor while others applaud the anaerobic implosion (this is the exact nature of the how the competitive events are structured at the Games). The resulting body-types and athletic capacities displayed in the videos are awe-inspiring. Those who think CrossFit is meant to build body-builder-like piles of muscle mass are wrong—the elite CrossFit athletes are strong, sinewy and pliable. If you blend a decathlete, a gymnast and a triathlete together, you get an elite Crossfitter.

One month ago I joined Crossfit Elysium, a box near my home in the North Park neighborhood of San Diego. Before that I did the bulk of my workouts alone. Being in the box, you get coaching and push yourself much harder. At least I do. And it’s certainly more enjoyable to have others with you slogging your way through the workouts. Perhaps the most powerful thing that the founder of CrossFit engineered, in my mind, is the sense of community he installed into the structure of how CrossFit operates. You don’t walk into a CrossFit box anytime you want to work out in a lone wolf state of anonymity. Rather, you’re coached within a small group of people that inevitably share the cohesive we’re-all-in-this-together bond to help one another max out. At CrossFit Elysium, and other boxes I’ve had a chance to work out in, I’ve seen the same thing. And it was the same at Reebok Crossfit One, in Canton, Mass. on the Reebok campus. In fact, it was a week before the Games when I paid a visit to Reebok to get perspective on their new relationship with a sport I’d personally become involved with.

Athletes competing in the team competition

The “Boxes” Are Full

CROSSFIT GYMS are called boxes because that’s usually what the are: a large box of raw space. In a typical box you’ll find all the equipment stashed along the sides or in the corners of the gym—barbells, kettle bells, jump ropes, and weights are the standard fare. Climbing ropes usually hang from the ceiling and sprawling cages can stretch out alongside one wall for exercises like pull-ups or toes-to-bar. Reebok Crossfit One is massive. I’m not sure but I think you could host an arena-league football game inside it.  On the day of my visit they held classes from 6:30 am to the early evening, five workouts in all. I joined the lunchtime workout where they’re were about 20 of us. Three coaches, lead by Denise Thomas, hovered throughout the hour, talking us through technique and firing off bits of encouragement. The “met-con” segment—met-con short for metabolic conditioning—was a combination of rowing, thrusters with a weighted barbell and pull-ups. A thruster, roughly speaking, is a combination of a front squat and a push press, and it’s become fascinating to me how the heart-rate bangs against the ceiling whenever you start cranking out reps of these relatively technical movements (far more technical, for example, than doing arm curls on an arm curl machine) that tax a combination of muscle groups. I was partnered up with a Reebok employee named Neil, and we pushed each other to the end of the met-con.

Before the workout I chatted with Chad Wittman, Reebok’s director of sports marketing and fitness training, and he told me that, of some 1600 employees at the Canton headquarters, the number of those going to the CrossFit classes has grown to 400. “I think eventually half of the company will be doing CrossFit a year from now,” he said. “That’s how much our people have embraced the culture. It’s not just that CrossFit is a hard workout—it is for sure—but it makes hard training fun.” In fact, the program has proved so popular that the Reebok café has been transformed to offer options that are Paleo-friendly, the Paleo diet (a diet that recommends meat, fish, vegetables, fruit and nuts and staying away from processed carbohydrates like pasta) being foundational to the overall CrossFit approach.

On the first day of the Games at the Home Depot Center, I attended a small press conference held by Reebok and talked with Reebok’s Chris Froio, who is spearheading the company’s partnership with CrossFit. “Our mission is to refocus the brand back into what it was founded upon: A fitness training brand,” he said. “We know that a lot of people are out there doing fitness activities but they’re not enjoying it. We’ve been asking, ‘What is our definition of fitness? What is motivating? What can make fitness fun?’ We researched every idea possible over the last three years. We found CrossFit to be the best partner for us to take to our mission to the world.”

I asked about the strategy of this: In the DNA of CrossFit is a revolt against the popular ways of mainstream fitness. Will the greater CrossFit community revolt against the intrusion of a corporate giant?

“I think you can see the reaction here at the Reebok booth has been very positive and we’re putting people to ease that we’re not the monster that is going to ruin their community.”

“We knew we had to prove that we were real,” Froio adds. “We started our box nine months ago with just a few members, but now we have 400 active Crossfitters.” Froio said that they were purposefully slow to announce the new partnership, allowing for an incubation period, one in which Reebok spent time talking to leaders in the CrossFit world to ask what people wanted and didn’t want from them.

Froio believes the approach has paid off and that the authenticity of Reebok’s embrace is valid. “This fitness culture has transformed our office in Canton. This is a viral thing. People talk about it. The community is realizing we’re not just a bunch of suits just out to throw money at CrossFit.”

At the press conference was Kate Rawlings, owner of Cocoa CrossFit, an affiliate based near Cleveland, Ohio. Rawlings has become one of the first professional CrossFit athletes and is sponsored by Reebok.

Kate Rawlings, owner of Cocoa CrossFit, talking to a group of international journalists at the CrossFit Games in 2011.

“I think they’ve done a beautiful job,” Rawlings said. “They didn’t come in and just tell us what they were going to do. They put the community on a pedestal. They made it less corporate.”

The most powerful spokesperson on behalf of the authenticity of Reebok’s embrace of CrossFit, however, was Peggy Baker, 53, who has worked at the company for 27 years. A type-2 diabetic for 22 years, Baker says she’s needed pills and insulin shots for 18 years. When she was pressed to try a CrossFit workout, Baker said her goal was clear: “I would try it so that I could tell them I hate it. Seriously! I’m 53 years old. I haven’t run since high school. I said, ‘Listen, I’ll try it. But is my health insurance going to cover this? Will my husband get a double-payout on the life insurance?”

The first element of the workout was an out-and-back 400-meter run. “I was afraid,” she said. “Right away I was well behind everyone. I get out to the halfway point and I wasn’t sure how I’d get back.”

Denise Thomas, one of Reebok’s Crossfit coaches, then appeared at Baker’s side, and quitting was not an option. Thomas comes from professional soccer and is as lithe as she is explosively energetic. In her coaching she somehow manages to mix equal parts cheerleader and drill sergeant. Baker soldiered on, and was energized by a sight of the finish. “Everyone was standing on the ramp into the gym, shouting ‘you can do it!’”

In telling the story Baker choked up. “It’s a community like I’ve never seen,” she said. In two months she’s lost 33 pounds and her insulin injections have been cut in half, and she’s been told that she may be able to go off insulin treatments completely by the end of the year. I asked her what she had to say to others struggling with adult-onset diabetes and weight problems. She replied, “If I can do it, you can do it.”

Reebok’s stated intention is to take this message—If a 53-year-old hasn’t-exercised-since-high-school diabetic can become a Crossfitter, you have no excuses—to Europe and Asia. Froio said that Reebok intends to open up Reebok CrossFit boxes on both continents but will not be supplanting the current affiliate system.

Would Crossfitters at the Games welcome or reject the immense presence of Reebok? A valid answer to this question will take another year or two, but one thing was immediately sure: There was no boycott of the Reebok booth.  A half a day into the Games Reebok reported having already sold $70,000 worth of product. Throughout the weekend, the booth, selling mostly a new line of Crossfit apparel and shoes, was clogged with shoppers. While the Crossfit.com forum in the preceding months didn’t hold back with outrage at the idea of a Reebok CrossFit t-shirt for $50, prices didn’t slow down the crowd in Carson.

Questions & Answers

THE QUESTIONS AND ANSWERS about the relationship between Reebok and Crossfit are just starting to unfold. For example, is CrossFit big enough, or will it get big enough, to fulfill Reebok’s global interests, branding issues and financial goals? And will the qualities that have fueled CrossFit’s popularity—a grassroots revolution against the typical corporate franchising system–remain intact? And is CrossFit going to be able to retain quality control of coaching at the affiliate level if it continues to grow as fast as it is?

I know one thing: The quality of CrossFit’s growth depends on the box owners and coaches like Steve Serrano, owner of Crossfit Marina. In the morning before I joined Kelly Starrett in the stands at the Home Depot Center to watch the Saturday events, I drove down to Huntington Beach to drop into a CrossFit Marina class. I’d never met Steve and he had no idea who I was or that I was coming. Yet when I walked up to the open garage door to the gym he greeted me like I was a best friend of his brother. It was the 9:30 am workout and he personally coached me through basic thruster technique–a front squat that explodes into an overhead press. Using a PVC pipe he taught me the footwork and the movements. I then moved up to using a barbell and eventually some weight on both ends. He carefully reinforced the points that would allow me to do the work safely. Then I joined him and two of his gym members in a met-con. The entire time he cheered me on. CrossFit was many things, I thought, but the level of passion and teaching Serrano brought into his box was what made it all go. It was why, without a doubt, box communities are so loyal to their owners.

A few days after watching the 2011 Games I went to Crossfit.com and watched the archived 2009 Games videos. Near the end of the footage Serrano appeared. He was medical director and was being interviewed after the final women’s event. Emotion rose in his eyes and voice as he spoke about the efforts that he had witnessed:

“To see people go at things to such an extreme level, they exert themselves so intensely, they get this level where they drop off. It takes its toll. It hammers the shit out of them hormonally. The body gets so drained nutritionally, they get emotional decomposition. If we can support them through that–that’s the best part of this job; that’s the fun part. All their friends in the crowd–you see how that fires it up. How we support each other. It’s all part of this community. It’s what makes this method so different than everything else. It’s so cool to be a part of.”

Annie Sakamoto–co-owner of CrossFit Santa Cruz Central– coaching a competitor after she’d finished in the event.

I’M WATCHING the final women’s heat of the Saturday series of competitions, the last race of the night. Having seen all the elite men and all the women it’s apparent that the toll Serrano speaks of is not just hormonal—many of the athletes have multiple strips of athletic tape applied to shoulders or legs or backs in an attempt to yield some physiological relief. But it’s the hands that get the most attention—they are taped up like NFL linemen. Chalk, tape and gloves were critical to survival, and if you watch closely and you can see that accumulating damage to the hands is slowing down some of the athletes. I asked Max Wunderlie, a CrosFit Endurance coach based in Connecticut, about what they’re going through. “A correct grip can help you stave off the wear and tear,” he told me. “So can gloves. But there’s only so much you can considering how much friction these guys are being exposed to.” He asked if I noticed how volunteers were using towels to clean the monkey bars after each round of competition. I said I did—I imagined they were wiping the chalk off. “Chalk? No, they don’t care about chalk. They’re wiping off blood and chunks of flesh.”

The friction and force applied through the hands of the top Crossfitters is unreal. Chris Spealler is the owner of CrossFit Park City in Utah where he also coaches. He’s 32 years old and a rarity: He’s competed in every CrossFit Games since its inception and picked up three top-five finishes. Most of the male elites are around 5’10 and 190 pounds. Spealler is 5’5 and 145 pounds, yet can dead lift 420 pounds, snatch 210 and squat 375. He has also knocked out 106 pull-ups at once, double what most of his competitors have recorded. In a three-day competition where a considerable about of pulling, lifting and pushing transpires through the grip of hands on metal, the hands are to CrossFit what tires are to Formula One race car.

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 like watching a race.

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!”

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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In Inside the Box, veteran journalist and marathoner T.J. Murphy goes all in to expose the gritty, high-intensity sport of CrossFit®. From staggering newcomer to evangelist, Murphy finds out how it feels, why it’s so popular, and whether CrossFit can fix his broken body.

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