Image Credit: The Fittest Experience
Taylor, Texas, USA
This is stop 19 of 20, and it brings me to Taylor, Texas (north of Austin) for what was the 16th edition of this competition. I learned a ton about this competition and its history this weekend through conversations with athletes, coaches, event organizers, and staff who have been here in the past, here are some of the fun things I learned:
- It was once called the Fittest Games, for at least 10 years in fact, before they were told they could not use that name and changed to the Fittest Experience.
- This year there were both triple unders AND single unders (the single under rope was made out of a rope you would typically climb on)… this was not the first time either of those jump rope variations have been programmed at this competition.
- This was the fourth year they’ve been at the Williamson County Expo Center, and as you would expect, from a set up and execution perspective, this was the best version of it yet in this venue.
Arrival and Logistics
Last week in the review for week 18, Fittest of the Coast, I wrote an intro about how ideal the location set up was on many fronts (close to the airport, hotel situation, nearby restaurants, etc). These things which really have very little to do with the competition itself, are actually massively critical when it comes to the experience for athletes, staff, volunteers, and fans alike who are planning and traveling to these competitions.
The organizational skills, at least of the team leads I was in communication with, was pretty good in the run up to this. Collecting all the necessary information for arrival days and times, team meetings to express the vision for the media this year, emails with updates as appropriate; and I was really hopeful.
Unfortunately, and I suppose it could be on me, there was no final communication about who should be riding with whom from the airport to the hotel and/or venue on arrival days. When I’ve been in big groups before and the travel information is collected for arrivals in such a forward thinking manner, there is usually a follow up: This person has a rental car and will drive these people. These people should share an Uber and bill us for it. Etc.
I’ve had this happen at international events too (which is even worse), and it seems like a simple fix. Basically, when people are traveling in for your competition, try to be as good as possible about communicating means of transportation after arriving at the airport.
Middle of Nowhere…
The venue itself was pretty cool as the Williamson County Expo Center is an open air venue with a ton of space for multiple competition floors, a massive athlete village area, vendors, rv park, etc… but it is out there, way out there, with nothing nearby except one hotel and a Starbucks. A majority of the staff and volunteers were staying 15 miles (25-30 minute drive) away from the venue, and again there was little communicated or planned about how we were supposed to get back and forth other than ‘communicate amongst yourselves and figure it out’. The last resort is of course an Uber, but 30 to 50 dollars of Ubers here and there adds up when you do this every other weekend.
The other trouble being out there was the internet. Whether it was live streaming events on Instagram, uploading videos to YouTube, air dropping, or even posting certain things on IG, there were many people struggling to do their jobs efficiently due to this. I heard a couple people suggest a StarLink rental for the week as a potential fix. I’m not sure what the best option is in these cases, but as an event organizer of any size who is relying on internet speed for anything you have to account for the thousands of people who will be bogging down the wifi on game day when prepping for these competitions.
Doing the Little Things Right
On the total other end of the spectrum, there were some really, really good things TFX did that several other competitions could learn from. This may seem silly, but small things make a BIG difference to a lot of people at these events.
Food and Water
There were legitimate meals provided for staff and volunteers during traditional meal times every day with breaks built into the schedule for people to eat them. I can not overstate how important this is. These people are there working 10 to 16 hours a day to help pull this off, the least you can do is feed them.
Even more importantly, there was a pallet of water in the media / volunteer area throughout the weekend. This was amazing considering that in Miami finding water was a treasure hunt that would often leave you parched and frustrated.
Take care of your staff and volunteers. I once heard someone (who I respect immensely as a competition organizer say: ‘I make it a priority to create a schedule were everyone who is working or volunteering here can (if they want to) get a meal three times a day, always has water available, and can sleep 8 hours. They may not choose to do those things, but they do have the ability to based on our schedule.’)
I usually tell my boss, or team lead, at these competitions that the only things I need to be successful are access and heat sheets. Access is never an issue, but heat sheets… well!
TFX had binders printed for both Lauren Kalil and myself (and I believe the emcees) with workout descriptions, movement standards, and fresh heat sheets every day. Again, I cannot say how amazing this is, it’s a small thing that makes my job, and so many others jobs, easier.
A hot topic for many, and this seems like a great competition to provide some commentary with regards to it.
The first thing I noticed about this weekend is that the overall design of it for the pro level seemed to mirror a semifinal pretty nicely:
- Three days and seven scored events
- A long monostructural test
- A weightlifting specific test (in this case in the form of a ladder)
- Two back to back workouts
- An interval style test for reps
- Two different tests with gymnastics playing a critical factor (one from a pressing standpoint, one from a pulling / midline perspective)
This, I would say, is a positive; especially because several of the pro athletes I spoke to mentioned that they were using this weekend as a checkpoint to see where they were at five months out from semis.
For the athletes it’s more than just testing their bodies on the floor. They are evaluating how they recover, their eating plan during weekends, and a variety of other off the floor details that contribute significantly to a successful or unsuccessful weekend of competition.
I’m not sure entirely of who, or how many people, are involved in the programming for a competition like this that has over 1200 athletes and over 30 divisions, but getting it right for all of those divisions is probably something that requires a team, and a lot of testing, that is beyond the scope of one individual.
Let’s look at the lifting ladder in isolation for the Pro and Rx divisions (because they had the same weights):
- Men’s Pro: 5 out of 16 athletes cleared the ladder
- 10 athletes had ties
- Women’s Pro: 13 out of 17 athletes cleared the ladder
- 13 women had ties
- Men’s Rx: 3 out of 81 athletes cleared the ladder
- 75 athletes had ties
- Women’s Rx: 11 out of 45 women cleared the ladder
- 29 athletes had ties
Two key points here:
- The women’s ladder was too light relative to the mens’ (or the men’s was too heavy relative to the women’s depending on what you were going for)
- The workout design allowed for way too many ties (I think it should always be the goal to minimize these as much as possible); when 80% of the athletes in those two divisions alone had a tie with at least one other athlete…there’s a problem with the design of the workout.
Safe Lifting Conditions
The other thing about this workout that MUST be taken into account is safety. It was a good decision at this venue to do the lifting outside beside the pavement is flatter than the compacted dirt inside the arena, but the lifting mats weren’t quite big enough.
The athletes were seeking a two rep max shoulder to overhead from the floor, so it’s safe to assume a split jerk (or two) is going to be required for most. Some of the male athletes are well over six feet tall. When they split their legs a four foot width mat is just not enough.
It happened on many occasions, but it was never more clear than when Bill Leahy was lifting his “call your shot” weight and his back foot landed off the mat behind it for his second jerk. As he went to move his foot forward (with 345 lbs overhead) his toe tripped on the edge of the mat causing him to miss the lift. Thankfully it did not result in any sort of injury, but it could have.
Athlete safety is of the utmost importance and must be taken more seriously, perhaps never more so than when heavy weight is going overhead.
Moving Back and Forth
Another thing that happens frequently at competitions, and happened on several occasions across divisions at TFX, is when workouts require traversing the floor back and forth several times (thing lunges, handstand walks, shuttle runs, etc. and there is no way to keep track of it.
Back in the Regional days CrossFit introduced a counter that attached to a rig for a down and back chipper which counted up to ten during a set of rope climbs in the middle of the workout. This seems like an easy, one time investment many competitions could benefit from as a means for tracking rounds in a workout that is cyclical in nature as many events at competitions end up being these days.
Alright, enough about the logistics, let’s talk about some of the pro athletes who impressed this weekend. As mentioned above, this field consisted of mostly Semifinal, or aspiring semifinal athletes, and competitions like this are important for the ecosystem- many events I’ve covered this offseason fit into this category.
The only previous individual CrossFit Games athletes in this field were in the women’s field: Sydney Michalyshen (2x CFG athlete- 2021, 2022) and Abigail Domit (CFG rookie in 2023). It seemed unlikely that anyone would challenge them, and that ended up being mostly true.
After two straight CrossFit Games, it was a bit surprising that Michalyshen missed the Games in 2023. She finished 15th in the NA West semi, 6 spots and 32 points outside of qualification. It wasn’t a terrible performance, but with 5 finishes between 15th and 20th, there wasn’t anything great to offset a 37th on the running/snatch workout (event 5). Interestingly enough, there was a running and snatch workout at TFX which she took second to Domit in (by one rep). Domit had been 4th at Semis in that same workout, so perhaps this is an area Michalyshen has been working on and has improved in.
Domit had an overall better showing at Semis than Michalyshen and qualified 8th (making it by 8 points) earning her rookie debut at the Games. Her lowest finish at Semis came in the weighted gymnastics event 3; there wasn’t really anything that paralleled that at TFX, but at the Games her worst event finish came on ski bag. At TFX, outside of a 10th on a freestanding handstand hold, her worst finish came on the workout with sandbag squats again- an interest similarity to take note of; perhaps something for her to continue working on in training.
The one athlete on the womens’ side who managed to challenge Michalyshen and Domit was 31 year old Cody Veteto. She competed at Semis last year on CrossFit Kemah, but she’d actually qualified 40th in the West as an individual too after placing top 200 worldwide in both the Open and Quarterfinals- all that to say, she should have been picked to do well here, but being on a middle finishing team at Semis often result in being underrated as an individual. She had taken 26th the year before at Syndicate Crown, and she was nothing short of impressive this weekend. Going toe to toe with the two Games veterans in the field, she did end up third, but her only finish out of the top 5 was on the triple under skill event. If she decides to go individually this year, she absolutely has a chance to make the West semi, even with only 40 qualifying athletes.
Prior to the competition I had said I thought this had the chance to be Bill Leahy and then everyone else, but that he would still have to go and earn it because in his last two live appearances he’s withdrawn, and then taken 6th at a pretty good field at Crash Crucible.
Well, Leahy finally seemed to show up in the way we’ve been expecting him to. He did have a 7th place finish on “Inverse”, and other than that was top three on everything (I’m counting the Atlas 4th place as a tie for second because of the aforementioned mat issue). At Crucible he finished 8th on the final workout which had deficit handstand push ups (which “Inverse” also had), it wasn’t his worst finish there, but if you were trying to pick out something from the weekend for Leahy to take home and continue to work on, that might be it.
Although the field wasn’t deep and experience in the way a semifinal field would be, I believe this was a great decision for him to show up and compete at. Get some more reps on and off the competition floor in terms of managing a competition weekend- traveling in, recovery, meals, etc. The margins are as small as they’ve ever been in North American, especially on the men’s side. Making a semifinal is no guarantee for most, and the caliber of athletes 1-40 in both East and West this year is going to be very high; the details will matter and I believe Leahy will be more prepared for that because of attending TFX this year.
Benton, Wise, and Brady
There were three other men in the field who ended up pulling away from the rest. One I knew quite well, one I knew a bit about, and one who was a relative unknown to me prior to this weekend.
Travon Benton is the most seasoned of these three, and I had him picked for one of the podium spots (he ended up taking second, but wasn’t in a top three position until the very end). Benton has been at Semis, and Wodapalooza elite, the past two seasons, and a 28 years old seems to be entering his prime. He improved significantly at WZA from 2022 to 2023, and although a 24th (2023 semis) looks worse than 18th (2022 semis), remember the field was twice as big, so it’s actually a relative improvement as well. He had taken third at TFX once before, and now takes second, so across the board Benton is having better finishes at the competitions he has competed in multiple times.
Matt Brady ended up barely missing the podium (by 5 points) despite having a great weekend. Brady popped on my radar last year at Semis right out the gates with a top ten finish on event 1. He backed that up with an event win on the first workout at TFX (both of which were the longest tests of the weekend). He’s a bigger guy (listed at 6’1”, 210 lbs), so no surprise than running, biking, rowing, odd object carries or pulls, are all in his wheelhouse, and while a third place in the final (with rope climbs, bar muscle ups, and toes to bar plus lunging and burpee box jump overs) is a solid finish; the worst finish (10th) came on “Inverse” with chest to bars and deficit handstand push-ups. If he wants to qualify for semis again, he’ll need to continue dialing those style of workouts in and find a way to not let it cost him too much in a quarterfinals workout that is likely to feature them in a much higher volume than this workout at TFX did.
Ben Wise was the standout/surprise of the weekend for me across all divisions. At 31 years old, Wise’s CrossFit Games account dates all the way back to the first ever CrossFit Open when he finished 173rd worldwide and 15th in California. He’s made quarterfinals easily the last three years, and has been getting closer and closer each year to making a semifinal; in 2023 he was 70th in NA East. Knowing that, you could understand him being in a dog fight with someone like Brady (who was 61st in NA West during Quarters). Wise is a much smaller athlete (listed at 5’7” 194 lbs), and his worst finish came on “Snatch and Go” (the interval style test of running and snatches at 185). He did manage to sneak the final spot on the podium ahead of Brady, and very similarly to him, has a real chance to make a semifinal this year if everything aligns during quarters.
There aren’t necessarily a ton of off-season competitions anymore that have elite, or pro, MMFF divisions like the CrossFit Games season does, and TFX actually does have MMM and FFF teams of three, but not in the “pro” category.
Coming into this one 14 of the top 15 teams from the online qualifier were in the field as well as the two-time defending champions #teamdensity. Personally, without knowing everything about every team I thought there were four teams that would be battling for three podium spots:
- The online qualifying champs: CrossFit SDA: Excellence
- The third place qualifiers: The Salty Hive Squad
- And the fourth place qualifiers: Lone Star CrossFit Blackf
The team who qualified second was called SBDC, and basically I just didn’t know who they were (their team name is just their initials and they had two different gyms listed, neither of which I was familiar with).
As the competition wore on the expected teams did filter to the top, but outside of the race for the top spot it wasn’t exactly close. Lone Star Black ended up finishing about 35 points ahead of the 5th and 6th place teams, but were nearly 55 points behind Salty Squad who finished third.
Salty Squad in turn was nearly 50 points behind the top two teams heading into the final, and the battle for those top two teams ultimately became a winner take all scenario with one event to go. It doesn’t happen often, but there’s no better way to set it up than that.
Unfortunately (just as had happened the previous weekend at FOTC in the pro men’s division), the race in the final event wasn’t exactly a close one. The format for the final was MM pairs ran through a chipper of synchro rope climbs, synchro burpee box jump overs, and synchro thrusters which would then release the FF pair to do the same three movements in synchronicity.
The male members of density, Marco Coppolo and Casey Strong surged ahead of the field from the jump and never looked back. However, Logan Jenkins and Mitchel Minton of SDA were second across the line releasing their women.
By that time density’s ladies, Randi Stevens and Calin Sims, had a two rep lead on the rope climbs. And, even if they wanted to, Victoria Tinklepaugh and Anastasia Lowe, would have been hard pressed to catch Stevens and Sims who, if there was a way to measure it, likely would have had the second fastest split amongst all the female / female pairs. I seay second fastest because Salty Hive’s women smoked this trio of movements, passed SDA’s women, and ended up second in the event. It’s probably safer to say it would have been very close between the two.
For a competition that is in their 16th edition, there were some things that, as you’d expect, were extremely well dialed in. I didn’t get to touch on all of them here, but they had a lot of talented and experienced personnel in critical roles which make putting something like this on at this magnitude happen pretty smoothly for most involved. On the other hand, there were certainly things that could be refined to take it to an even higher level, and that can be said for nearly every competition.
Not just with TFX, but in general, some of these small things are understandable, and others leave me scratching my head. In the end I think I come back to a recurring thought I’ve throughout most of the year. Everyone seems to be trying to do everything on their own without much collaboration. I know there are people out there trying to do something about that, and I am hopeful that we’re going to see an evolution in the sport in this regard coming sooner rather than later.