More than 400 CrossFitters are gathered at CrossFit South Brooklyn in New York to watch the live announcement of Open Workout 13.2. The only free space in the gym is a 25-foot square in the middle, boxing-ring style, where defending Reebok CrossFit Games champ Annie Thorisdottir will compete head-to-head with DogTown CrossFit’s Lindsey Valenzuela just moments after Games coordinator Dave Castro announces the workout. Fans hang over the barriers, stand on boxes or stacked sandbags and perch atop pull-up bars to get a better view. They are psyched, and it is loud. But amid the pandemonium, Thorisdottir is at ease.
She stands quietly next to Castro, jaw set, hands folded in front of her, blond ponytail perfect, showing not a hint of nerves. Iceland Annie is as unfazed by the prospect of completing the workout Castro sets forth as she is by the increasing mayhem. The workout is a classic CrossFit triplet: a 10-minute AMRAP of five shoulder-to-overheads, 10 deadlifts and 15 box jumps. CrossFit announcer Rory McKernan tells the crowd, “I think I just vomited a bit in my mouth.” They nod in agreement because everyone knows a 10-minute workout is like a 400-meter run. You can’t not sprint, and the last half will nearly kill you. That is, it’ll nearly kill everyone except Thorisdottir, whose engine is legendary in the CrossFit community. “You don’t need to pace yourself that much,” she says, reminding everyone that the 75-pound Rx weight for the women is fairly light. “And in the box jumps, you should be able to get some sort of rest because you’re stopping on top of the box.”
The crowd laughs, cautiously. They think Thorisdottir might be kidding. But she’s not.
At the 2012 Games last summer, Thorisdottir became the first-ever repeat champ, finishing 85 points ahead of second-place finisher Julie Foucher. In 2011, she was also way out in front, 43 points ahead of runner-up Kristan Clever. Her goal for the 2013 Games is to claim her third consecutive title of “Fittest on Earth.” Despite Thorisdottir’s speed, stamina and strength, the three-peat won’t be easy, particularly because, at press time, she was rehabbing a partially herniated disk in her back. But it’s her dedication to getting better and her near-religious devotion to mechanics that make her an odds-on favorite to come back — and win.
Thorisdottir, whose last name aptly translates to “daughter of Thor” — as in the long-haired, hammer-wielding Norse god of thunder and lightning — began CrossFitting in 2009, just two months before the CrossFit Games in Aromas, Calif. She had been teaching boot-camp classes at home in Reykjavik when a friend convinced her to enter the Iceland CrossFit Regional on a lark. She did, and she won, qualifying her for the Games. In Aromas, the raw strength and body control Thorisdottir had acquired as a competitive gymnast and pole-vaulter helped her into second place heading into the last of eight workouts, in which she was bested by a movement she had never attempted before: the muscle-up. She completed just one of the 10 required reps and finished in 11th place.
Nowadays, Thorisdottir can string dozens of muscle-ups together, but she still gets nervous when she sees them in a workout. “I’m a lot better at them than I used to be,” she says. “But I’m never super-excited to see muscle-ups in a workout.” And she certainly doesn’t want to see them once a workout is over.
While Thorisdottir was unable to watch the 2012 CrossFit Games when they aired on television — ESPN doesn’t broadcast in Iceland — she did watch most of the events on YouTube, except for the track triplet — a grueling event featuring 400-meter runs, split snatches and those daunting bar muscle-ups — in which she finished 12th. “I watch events to pep myself up,” she says. “When I fail, I know what I was doing wrong. I don’t need to watch it over and over again.” And in the triplet, it was once again the bar muscle-ups that proved her nemesis, exhausting her grip. After the first set, she tore off her gloves, tossed them to the ground and continued on without them. Before she finished her first lap of the track, Thorisdottir knew improving her grip strength would be a priority over the winter. “I’ve been working more on going to failure,” she says. “After doing a workout that really taxes my grip, I’ll go right into 10 or 20 pull-ups when I’m tired to push myself to hold onto the bar.”
Though she’s been the fittest woman in the world for two years running, Thorisdottir is always assessing her weaknesses and attempting to turn them into strengths. This winter, she set out to improve another movement she has always considered to be a limitation in her otherwise spectacular skill set: the squat.
At 5 feet 7 inches, Thorisdottir is taller and longer, with considerably longer femurs, than many top-level CrossFit athletes and subsequently has more distance to travel during a squat. So after the Games last summer, Thorisdottir began a program to improve the mechanics of that particular movement. “I was using my back too much and needed to be more upright, so I went down in weight to focus more on my technique,” she says. “Then I started to get the weight back up again.” And up it went. By November, she had increased her back squat PR from 253 pounds to 286 pounds. The increased strength in her back squat also helped her deadlift, and she improved her best to 375 pounds.
But it was all a bit too much too fast. “I was too greedy at the gym,” she says. “My legs got really strong, really fast, and my core couldn’t hold on.” At the end of November, she herniated a disk in her back. For a week, Thorisdottir was unable to get out of bed. “It was really challenging mentally,” she says. “At first, I thought I would never be able to train at the same intensity or compete in CrossFit again. By the beginning of January, I thought I’d for sure be out this season. But I did my rehab, and I was as lucky as I could be in being unlucky.” After weeks of rest and rehab, she was healthy enough to begin the 2013 Open, and was ranked 12th worldwide after workout 13.3. Then, in late March, she had another stroke of bad luck. “A disk slightly moved in my lower back again,” she says. “I won’t be able to do any more of the Open and don’t think I will compete at Regionals. My doctors don’t recommend it, and I don’t want to take any chances with my back.”
Typically, a herniated disk takes about three months to heal, and the Games are four months from the date of Thorisdottir’s injury. Because she was unable to complete Open Workouts 13.4 and 13.5, she is technically disqualified from the Regionals and the Games. But, should she be healthy, this clause in the 2013 CrossFit Games Competition Rule Book will likely still put her on the floor at the Home Depot Center for the Games in July: “CrossFit Inc. reserves the right, in its sole and absolute discretion, to invite past winners, guest athletes, teams or others, to participate in any stage of competition.”
If and when Thorisdottir returns, it will be because of her indomitable spirit and determination to be the best. “I cried for about two to three days [after the injury], then it was time to face reality,” she says. “It was a mistake. Of course I could be frustrated and disappointed, but this is just another learning experience. I intend to get my back 100 percent again. That is the No. 1 priority. In the meantime, I can work on technique and other things that might be a weakness.”
In the process, she will rely on her fundamentals to carry her through the competition and protect her back. “Annie is brilliant and talented and egoless enough that she gets better and better,” says mobility coach Kelly Starrett, who, along with Finn Jami Tikkanen and American gymnastics guru Carl Paoli, is part of Thorisdottir’s coaching team. “When Annie gets tired, she doesn’t devolve into bad positions. She’s smart enough and good enough to respect her mechanics, so she’s always there at the end.”
In the 15 events that made up the 2012 Games, Thorisdottir collected two first-place finishes, six top-three finishes and eight top-five finishes. While those who relied solely on brute strength and the ability to outwork their opponents were eventually beaten by their own
inefficiency, Thorisdottir’s ability to move effectively prevents her from ever having to overcome a deficit created by bad positioning. Her consistency placed her so well throughout the tournament that she was able to coast through the last event — “Fran” — and still retain her No. 1 spot.
“In the modern games, where athletes are only 1 or 2 percent different metabolically, the difference comes down to efficiency and economy of position,” Starrett explains. “Over four days, inefficiencies can aggregate into a 5 or 10 percent metabolic difference. Annie, though, keeps better shapes as she fatigues.”
Nowhere was that more evident than during Open Workout 13.2. As Valenzuela fatigued, her shoulders rounded and she began hinging more and more at her hips during her deadlifts, which put more and more pressure on her lower back. Her box jumps suffered, and she began using her hands to push off her knees at the top of the box. Thorisdottir, though, maintained perfect form with the barbell, pulling to her knees and pushing her hips through to save her lower back, and was able to maintain a blistering pace with the box jumps because of it. “My plan was to go hard for the first two rounds and see where it would hurt the most,” she says. But the pain never came. Thorisdottir finished with 361 reps to Valenzuela’s 335.
Because of her efficiency, Thorisdottir is able to push herself to the limits of her endurance and her strength, in training and in competition. “You want to be better at both, but you have to increase endurance without sacrificing strength and increase strength without decreasing endurance,” she says. “That’s hard, but when you get better at both, it’s really something.”
Maintaining that balance while rehabbing her back will of course be difficult for Thorisdottir. But she’s known for her ability to adapt and bounce back, and she’s taking some inspiration from an American sports legend. On the day she announced she was out for the remainder of the Open, Thorisdottir posted this John Wooden quote on her Facebook page: “Things turn out best for the people who make the best of the way things turn out.”
If history is any indication, Thorisdottir will do just that.
Journey to Iceland
It’s 5 a.m., and I’m heading to Los Angeles International Airport. Conflicting schedules didn’t allow us to shoot Annie while she was in the States, so Iceland it is. With a six-hour layover in Boston, I’m looking at a 17-hour marathon from Los Angeles to Reykjavik, enough time to create the shot list, the route for the location scout and other logistics. With a little time travel, I’ll arrive 6 a.m. the following day, when I’ll meet Peter Lueders, my partner in crime and photographer.
Upon our arrival, we start right away with the location scout. With the shoot being the following day, there’s no time to waste (no time to sleep, either). We spend eight hours on the road, and after taking in all the tourist-heavy attractions, we narrowed down the list to two to three stops for the shoot. But before we could get to the hotel to finally get some sleep, we confronted our first challenge: the weather. It was supposed to be clear, but we’re told to expect rain and wind instead. That’s followed by a second challenge: a phone call about Annie’s injury. We keep our cool and proceed as planned (and hope for the best).
And the best is what we got. If I had to think of a word to describe Annie’s spirit throughout the entire day, “warrior” would be dead-on. Despite obvious pain and limitation as a result of her injury, she was as committed and focused as you would expect from the athlete who won the crown twice. We seized the day, and the Norse gods kept the rain from falling. We wrapped the shoot and had a glimpse of both forces of nature: Iceland and its warrior Annie Thorisdottir.
In hindsight, I’m glad the shoot didn’t happen at our studios in New York or Los Angeles. Iceland and Annie are both better experienced live.
— Alexander Norouzi Creative Directo