A series of barbells spaced equidistant apart end-to-end aligns on the StubHub Center track in Carson, Ca. The 19 fittest women in the world ages 55-59 line up for their turn to progress as far as they can down the row of weights that start at 185 pounds and incrementally increase 20 pounds up to the 335 pound bar. This is the deadlift ladder and it’s the first event of the 2014 Reebok CrossFit Games.
Arms swing. Bodies twist left and right. Feet bounce, bounce, bounce. Legs wiggle. Tension and excitement mount. At the sound of the buzzer, each woman will get 20 seconds to lift the barbell, only advancing to the next heaviest one if she succeeds. Once a woman reaches a level at which she cannot lift the weight in front of her, she drops back to the 135 pound bar and lifts it as many reps as she can before the 20 seconds expire.
As the women take their places, spectators in the stadium whoop. Some hold up signs for their favorite contender. Phyllis Collier from Augusta, Ga., will be the ninth woman in her cohort to step up to the deadlift ladder. Her husband Robert, along with her dad and several friends from her home gym, CrossFit 4 Everyone, cheer. This is the first of several fitness challenges she and her fellow competitors will face over the next three days.
FORGET MR. UNIVERSE
Sure, he can lift weights. Sure, he looks like a toy-aisle action hero. Sure, his body ripples with muscles. But what can he really do? How far can he walk on his hands? How fast can he climb a rope? How many ring dips can he do in two minutes?
Out with Mr. Universe and in with the fittest man—and woman—on earth. The annual CrossFit Games held in Carson, Ca., each July brings competitors from around the world. CrossFit competition differs from other athletic events in that the players don’t possess a specialized skill set. They don’t know what they’ll be asked to do until hours or sometimes minutes before stepping onto the field or diving into the pool or entering the gymnasium. They can prepare for it in general ways, but they cannot train for it precisely. “The program is focused on functional movements done with intensity…”The expectation is that they demonstrate competence relative to their peers across many domains.
Collier advanced through the spring qualifier events to represent herself, her gym, her hometown and her region at the Masters Level 55-59 age group at the 2014 Reebok CrossFit Games. Of the 700 women worldwide who submitted scores from the qualifier events, only 20, including Collier who qualified in 11th place, were invited to enter the CrossFit Games at StubHub Center. About 170,000 people across all age groups competed in the initial qualifying phase called the Open.
She’s an ordinary 57-year-old woman who happens to love climbing ropes. Of all the CrossFit challenges she enjoys rope climbing the most. For her, hauling herself up a rope and lowering her own body weight back down is a thrill. But she loves CrossFit, one of the fastest growing trends in fitness, because it tests her ability to do not only the things at which she excels, but also to do everything of which the human body is capable. υ
is a relatively new fitness endeavor for Collier, who has participated in CrossFit workouts for about three-and-a-half years. But she has long been involved in exercise for fun and fitness, beginning with gym classes on Friday afternoons at Henri Price Academy when she was in middle school. “Everybody my age did it,” she says. “[Mrs. Price] contributed greatly to my love for working out.” The students built human pyramids and performed stunts choreographed to music. “It was huge fun, but it was serious,” remembers Collier.
In high school and college she participated in tennis at a competitive level. She taught herself to ride a unicycle in her teens and still can. Her 20s and 30s brought physical fitness via group exercise classes such as dance aerobics and step aerobics. At her sister’s prompting, she became a certified fitness instructor at age 35. She says, “I’ve evolved with trends.”
Initially, she signed up her husband Robert, not herself, at CrossFit 4 Everyone. He had told her to find something he’d like. “I would go down and watch,” she says. Within six months, she joined him in completing WOD—Workout of the Day. “Flexibility and mobility I’ve gained through everything else I’ve done help me in CrossFit,” she says. Working out together several times a week at CrossFit 4 Everyone and entering competitions have become “dates” for Phyllis and Robert. “We’re there at least five times a week,” says Phyllis.
Ask someone in the know what CrossFit is or to describe what a workout is like and that person is likely to smile and say that there isn’t any particular workout, that CrossFit is a lot of things. It doesn’t readily compare to a spin class or a strength training class or running on a treadmill. “The program is focused on functional movements done with intensity,” explains Joshua Miller, a level 1 certified CrossFit trainer and co-owner, with wife Julie, of CrossFit 4 Everyone. “Every day the workout differs from the day before.” Workouts can include selections from gymnastics, calisthenics, Olympic lifting, power lifting, biometrics, swimming, biking, running or other tasks combined into a single WOD. The goal is to either perform the assigned movements as fast as possible with correct form or to perform as many reps as possible within a set time limit. Though everyone does the workout together, which builds a sense of community and camaraderie, each person moves at his or her own pace. The real competitor is the self. The drive is to beat one’s personal best of record.
innovated a formula that quantifiably increases fitness. It enables measurement of capacity across broad time and modal domains. Increased capacity indicates increased fitness. As Collier describes it, “It’s about what you can do and how fast you can do it.” Based on Glassman’s program, CrossFit is the sport of fitness. Since starting in a California gym in 2003, its popularity has increased exponentially to now include approximately 5,500 affiliated gyms and 35,000 certified level 1 trainers.
Collier arrived at the CrossFit Games last July with an entourage of supporters and a nagging hamstring injury. She says, “I didn’t know what to expect. I was humbled and thrilled. I’m just a mom and a grandmother who likes to work out.” Standing in the line of women waiting to perform the deadlift ladder, she realized her injury was her biggest obstacle. Fearing she would irritate it and thus forfeit the rest of the competition, she immediately dropped back to the 135 pound weight and tapped the bar, putting herself in dead last after the first event. Over the next three days, she walked on her hands, pulled a sled 100 yards, ran, climbed ropes, lifted a medicine ball, did burpees, performed ring dips and showed off other skills on demand. She fought her way out of last place to finish 15th in her age group, technically making her the 15th fittest 55- to 59-year-old woman on earth.
What possesses a person to put herself through the rigors of the unknown and the unknowable? For Collier, it’s a method for testing limits and expanding them. It makes strengths stronger. She also says, “Regardless of how good you think you are, it’s going to expose your weaknesses. It exposes your goats.” It takes a person to the brink of quitting and it builds mental toughness. Because no two workouts are alike, boredom never rears its head. The competitiveness and variety hold her attention and the sense of community boosts confidence and encouragement. No one leaves the gym until the last person completes the WOD. She says, “We stay with the people who are new, who are struggling to get through it.”
Though she plans to compete in the qualifier events again, “for fun,” she does not plan to enter the 2015 CrossFit games. “I need to take a year and learn to walk on my hands and get better at ring dips and muscle ups,” she says, adding that her training will not slow down. To that end, she has enrolled in adult gymnastics along with other CrossFit 4 Everyone members seeking to improve similar skills.
The other night, after a 36-minute grueling WOD, she flopped on the gym floor next to Robert. “I hate this,” she said. She gulped for another breath, then gasped, “I love this. What time are we coming back tomorrow?”φ
This article appears in the January 2015 issue of Augusta Magazine.