As the CrossFit Games, Open and Regional events continue to grow in scope and popularity, it is only natural that other local competitions will begin to evolve on a similar scale to their level of production. One “offseason” event that has witnessed a ton of growth since its inception in 2011 is the Kill Cliff Granite Games, which takes place each September in St. Cloud, Minnesota. I was able to talk with John Swanson who, along with wife Jess Swanson of CrossFit Fast Factory, founded the event. The Swansons say they strive to keep the Granite Games as a competition that “everyone — doctors, nurses, stay-at-home moms, teachers — has a chance for one weekend out of the year to put down their day job and put on their ‘athlete’ shirt.”
Last year, in the 2015 Granite Games, the online qualifier boasted more than 7,000 athletes who submitted videos from all over the world. The 2016 edition will be the largest yet and plans to expand to the St. Cloud State University football field to compete under the lights (weather permitting).
Here’s what John Swanson had to say about the past, present and future of the Granite Games.
What is the back story about the early days of the Granite Games?
It was originally called the Cloudy Town Throw Down in 2011. At that time, we had a lady who came in to specifically get fitter and lose weight. She wanted to transform herself physically —that was her goal — and I started to refer to her as an athlete. She asked why I did that because she wasn’t an athlete and had never been an athlete. It struck me that she had never had those “butterflies in the stomach” moments like I did when I was an athlete and played hockey. I wanted to create a competition that she could do so she would get the chance to experience what it was like to compete and get to actually be an athlete. That’s essentially how we started.
What do you think were some factors in its evolution as a fitness competition?
There was nothing special that made our competition evolve. We always take into account the overall athlete experience. We just want it to be fun, fair and challenging but safe. During the qualifying up to the day of the Granite Games, we will get hundreds of emails, and we take the time to answer every single one of them. All the athletes are treated the same, and we want them to all have the same experience, no matter what level they are competing at. It needs to be safe and fun because we understand that come Monday, they will be heading back to their regular lives and we want them to leave here smiling.
What do you do to ensure that it is still a competition for everyone?
The reality is that only about 1.5 percent of the athletes who compete at the Granite Games are “pro” athletes. We want it to be a place where those elite athletes can have fun, too, and showcase their skills. But we aim for the other 98.5 percent of the competitors to have just as much fun competing at their level whether it’s Masters, AsRx, Scaled or Intermediate.
How do you bring in such high-quality athletes while still making it an experience that anyone in the community can be a part of?
I feel like our event is appetizing for [pro athletes] as a way to restart or kick off their next season (CrossFit Open/Regionals). For them, it helps get their juices flowing, and they know what they can expect from the programming. They can win a little money and showcase what they can do. For the average person, we set it up so that if they can win a championship in their division, it will make them feel like a pro.
What prompted the decision to include an online-qualifier process?
So when this started in 2011, we had 49 competitors. It doubled in 2012 to 98. That number tripled to more than 300 in 2013 and filled up so fast that we overbooked the event and bumped it to more than 500 registered athletes. The problem was that the whole event sold out in one minute. It was so fast that it overloaded the site we were using for registration. We didn’t want the event to be based on how quickly you could get logged in; we wanted it to be fair for anyone who wanted to register. So we came up with an idea to set up a series of online qualifier workouts to be submitted. In 2014, we took about 1,100 athletes, and in 2015, there were 1,300 competitors.
What are your hopes for this competition in the coming years?
As far as the coming years, we really just want to keep it a safe and fun event and always take into account the athlete’s experience. Any everyday CrossFit athlete should be able to compete and then go right back to their regular lives. The thing that makes our event special is the countless hours our army of volunteers puts in. We work 12 months a year, and they are the reason that the Granite Games continues to have so much success.
No matter your level of experience, the Granite Games has a division for you. Online qualifying begins June 9, and registration is underway. Check out the site for more information about how you can get involved.
Stay on the grind