By Danya Levine, CNN
(CNN) — As I stood in the Home Depot Center Stadium and looked around, I realized that in just two short years I have witnessed a true evolution in CrossFit.
Here in Carson, California, before a sold-out crowd, athletes from around the globe have come to challenge themselves like nothing you have ever witnessed before, in the hopes of being crowned fittest one earth.
Brutal workouts of burpees, pullups, running, Olympic lifting and gymnastics will force them to take their bodies to their limit. What was once a grassroots organization with garage gyms, and what some believe is a crazy approach to fitness, is now a televised event on ESPN with full sponsorship from Reebok. Million-dollar campaigns are now seen on primetime networks, as Reebok shows the world its specialized gear, specifically designed and inspired by CrossFit. There’s even a growing celebrity segment that has my mom finally believing that what I do is OK. That’s right if “Bob” says it’s OK… then mom says it’s OK. That “Bob” would be Bob Harper of NBC’s Biggest Loser, who was an avid spectator for the three-day event.
Community is the key in CrossFit. From large sponsors to small startups to charities, CrossFit athletes support their fellow members.
The charity Barbells for Boobs was started in 2009 by a southern California woman. For a donation, CrossFit athletes and affiliates can participate in a special WOD (workout of the day in CrossFit jargon) where all proceeds go toward Mammograms in Action. With the growth of CrossFit, this charity went from raising $4,000 in 2009 to more than $600,000 in 2011.
It’s support like this that makes the CrossFit community so unique. Justin Key, a representative for 2Pood, a small sportswear company started by crossfitters, credits the community and support for allowing him to leave his corporate job. He now coaches at his own gym and sells sportswear full-time. For the Keys, CrossFit is a family affair, with them spending quality time together in the gym with wife, daughter and son all lifting and having fun. And Justin is more than proud to tell you that after only 18 months, his lovely wife has a 275 pound dead lift. This is a mother of two who works in the apartment management industry, not someone who works out professionally eight hours a day.
The Games is a sort of an annual mecca for the CrossFIt world. Competitors and spectators come from the four corners of the world and in all shapes, sizes, ages and religions. They spend three days together having the time of their lives while battling it out on the field. A total of $1 million in prize money is awarded to athletes in 11 divisions, with $250,000 awarded to winners in the individual division, $30,000 awarded to the top team and $3,000 awarded to winners in each of the eight masters divisions.
It all begins months in advance, with what HQ calls the open, where affiliate owners, gym members and even garage athletes can sign up to compete for a golden spot in the games Each week a new workout is announced with a scoring system, and after five weeks, those with the highest scores move on to a regionals competition. Then at regionals, it all comes down to just the top three winning a slot to compete in the official games.
Russia, Australia and Iceland are represented here. At, 22 and standing 5-foot-7, Iceland’s Annie Thorisdottir’s strawberry blonde hair, blue eyes and bright smile make her a true fan favorite. The 2011 and 2012 fittest woman smiles after every grueling workout, and she hugs and supports all her fellow competitors. Oh, and she snatched 95 pounds 30 times in 1 minute 21 seconds. Her male counterpart is Rich Froning Jr. who hails from Tennessee. As fittest man, his dead lift is 525 pounds. These two are both young and in great shape but, age, size and strength are not all that matters in the CrossFit Games. Heart and mental toughness are the real winners and are how crowd favorites are made. Two who stand out most are by far the smallest competitors on the field, but definitely the owners of the biggest hearts.
Meet 36-year-old Annie Sakamoto, one of the original women of CrossFit. Standing at only 5 feet tall and weighing only 120 pounds, she can back squat more than double her body weight. And she will be smiling, laughing and having a grand time while she’s doing it.
Or Chris Spealler, who in a sea of 5-foot-10 to 6-foot-2 men, stands 5-foot-5 and can back squat 380 pounds, which is about 2.5 times his body weight. He is also one of the nicest people you will ever meet. These two get the screams and support because they are amazing to watch.
There are masters divisions for athletes 60 and older. There are team competitions where three men and three women must rely on each other, work together and strategize on the fly about how to make it to the finish line. All diverse in age, size and backgrounds. Some are lawyers, others software programmers, college grads, gym teachers, moms and Julie Foucher, the second place winner for 2012, will soon be a doctor. CrossFit has something for everyone, which is why it’s grown in leaps and bounds.
But in all honesty it may not be for everyone. There is a certain excitement and tenacity in a crossfitter you don’t find in everyone, but I think it can become an infectious quality if you are willing to take the leap. Because whether it’s your first unassisted pull up, lifting a heavy weight for the first time, or overcoming a fear of handstands, all while people you just met scream and cheer you on – the feeling and sense of accomplishment is one you will never forget. You will leave a CrossFit gym a completely different person than when you started . If you get a chance to watch the games replay, I think you will see what I mean.