Image Credits: CrossFit LLC
This will be the first in a series of articles that selects the best CrossFit Games athletes by era- with the era being determined by the location of the Games. Therefore the first era is “The Ranch Era”, consisting of the years 2007, 2008, and 2009 when the Games took place at Dave Castro’s family’s ranch in Aromas, California.
Although many of the athletes on this list (and many others who are not on this list) would go on to continue competing in subsequent years at different locations; only the accomplishments from these three years were considered for this list.
With such a limited sample size in terms of not just years, but total number of workouts (in 2007 there were 3, in 2008 there were 4, and in 2009 there were 8- that’s 15 total, which is the number we often see in just one year now), a lot of self negotiation about how to weigh the relative performance of athletes who only competed once would compare to athletes who competed three times.
The general assumption is that, especially during these three years, the level of competition got dramatically more robust each year. So how does a fifth place finish in 2009 compare to winning in 2007? Becomes a viable question.
In general, I try to strike a balance, rewarding both excellence and longevity. Some athletes make that easy, others difficult, but at least for the “Ranch Era” it’s fairly straightforward in at least one regard. Every podium finisher from this time period is on the list, and the only athletes with one appearance that make their way into the top ten are the top four finishers from 2009.
1. Jason Khalipa
|2008||1st||Clean and Jerk|
The scoring in 2008 was unlike any other year at the Games. Rather than points, it was total time that determined the rank order of athletes at the end of the weekend. Once the dust settled, Khalipa’s total working time was 13:17, over a minute ahead of second place that year, and second place overall on our list, Josh Everett.
Khalipa followed up that victory with a respectable fifth place finish the following season against a new stable of athletes who were not there in 2007 or 2008. He reeled off event finishes of 1st, 2nd, 2nd, 2nd in the final four tests to propel himself up the leaderboard after taking a beating on the first workout (a 7k hill run) when he finished 72nd. Over the course of the other six workouts he accumulated a mere 34 points…the overall winner that year had 78; it’s no wonder Khalipa sought out Chris Hinshaw’s running coaching a couple years later.
2. Josh Everett
Finishes of 4th place on the Hopper and 2nd on the CrossFit total in 2007 secured Everett a place on the podium by six points over Chris Spealler. He’d follow that up with another impressive performance, this time second overall in 2008, including 2nd on Fran and 5th on Squat Grace. He got the better of the fourth ranked man on our list, and also a few notable men in Pat Barber and Jeff Tincher who narrowly missed this list.
3. Mikko Salo
He’s legendary, but in this context he only has one year to his name. He actually only has four Games qualifications total, and only two of those were impressive…with the win in 2009 standing out. However, when you break it down, he didn’t actually win by too much (5 points), and the performance overall was rather mediocre for a Games champion.
Taking second on Triplet and then winning Chipper to close out the weekend propelled him to victory. And being great at the end of the Games is what sets champions apart. However, before those two workouts he was 8 points behind the eventual second place finisher, and 6 points behind the eventual third place finisher (both of whom are coming up shortly here).
Salo had other strong finishes that year, 2nd on the hill run and 4th on Couplet, but coming up one bar short on the deadlift dropped him to 17th and he took 32nd on the slightly controversial Sledge Row test. His snatch of 190 lbs that year placed him 11th, which was worse than the next four men on the overall leaderboard.
Salo got the job done and made a name for himself in the process, but placing him any higher than third on this list didn’t feel right.
4. Jeremy Thiel
Thiel, like Everett, is one of four men on this list who were at all three Games. In 2007 he improved on every event, going from 19th on the Hopper to 7th on the trail run and finishing with a 5th on the Total. It was good enough for 6th overall.
He clearly went back to work over the next year, because when he came back in 2008 the field was stronger, and yet he did better. The thing about 2008 though, is that so much ended up riding on the final event: 30 squat clean and jerks at 155 lbs crushed most of the men, and because it was for time, there was a massive opportunity for the athletes who didn’t struggle to surge up the leaderboard.
Thiel had by far his best finish on the final workout, 3rd overall in a time of 3:52. The athletes who finished just behind him had times of 4:56, 5:02. and 5:52, allowing Theil to beat them by :25, :49, and :1:07. Even Dutch Lowy and Matt Chan who finished 7th and 8th that year were ahead of Thiel heading into that workout. He and Khalipa capitalized most by this design, and are still reaping the rewards of it a decade and a half later.
5. James Fitzgerald
The Original Games Champion. OPT. James Fitzgerald. A legend in his own right, but finds himself fifth on this list. Despite regressing year to year during the Ranch Era, Fitzgerald does show consistency where some others have not. As you see he actually finished ahead of both Thiel and Everett in 2009. A very difficult placement for sure.
He didn’t win any individual events in 2007, but he was second on both the Hopper and Trail Run, and for a smaller athlete at the time had a respectable 11th on the Total which was enough to secure a two point victory over Brett Marshall.
He was pretty solid in 2008, before the final test. While guys like Khalipa and Thiel skyrocketed up the leaderboard, a time of 6:29 on Squat Grace caused massive incursion to Fitzgerald that year. A time of 2:00 faster, which still would have been a minute slower than Thiel, would have put him on the podium by one point instead of him.
As the field continued to get better and stronger, Fitzgerald still held his own in 2009. He had finishes of 4th, 6th, and 8th, offset by finishes of 37th and 25th. He was one of five men to receive a DNF on the Chipper finale, and wound up 13th over all finishing behind his brother (Michael) in 11th and Spencer Hendel who was 12th that year.
6. Tommy Hackenbruck
We mentioned Hackenbruck when talking about Mikko Salo, so you already know how close he was to winning this year. He actually got off to a very slow start though: 14th on the Hill Run, 24th on the Deadlift, and 17th on the Sandbag Sprint left him with an uphill battle.
He notched all top ten finishes the rest of the way to earn the second place finish (this would not have boded well for him in the 2019 version of the CrossFit Games by the way). 1st on Sledge Row, 2nd on Couplet, 9th on both the Snatch (205 lbs) and Triplet, and finally 7th on Chipper.
You might be wondering why he’s three spots lower than Salo if he was so close to beating him…and the answer is it pays to win. Thiel and Fitzgerald have cases in their own right to be higher as well; but the results are the results, and decisions had to be made. Sixth isn’t so bad with only one appearance during this era anyway.
7. Chris Spealler
No question about it, Chris Spealler was the best runner during the Ranch Era, and maybe in the history of the CrossFit Games.
Having one event win all but sewn up before the competition even starts does wonders on the leaderboard (ask Jonne Koski or Sam Briggs), and while Spealler stands out for this, it’s not what makes him legendary in this sport; it’s quite frankly everything else.
Besides winning the Trail Run in 2007, he was third in the Chipper, and 22nd on the Total. Six more points on the total puts him on the podium, but to get those points he needed to find 100 more pounds across the three lifts.
Absent the Squat Grace test Spealler was the 2008 Games Champion. But his time of 7:27 was nearly as much as he spent on the other three tests combined, and was the slowest time of anyone else in the top 22 that year.
In 2009, with 74 men in the field, Spealler placed 71st on the deadlift… and still managed to fight back to 25th overall. He also took 48th on Sledge Row and was ultimately Cut before the final three workouts. It would have been interesting to see how he would have netted across those three tests. Presumably the Snatch would have been another big hit, but the Triplet of handstand pushups, kettlebell swings, and GHDs may have been a win, and final could have given him some redemption with the barbell (there were cleans at 155 and thrusters at 135), but also a chance to do some damage against the field on the ring muscle-ups. I’ve never been a fan of cuts at the Games, and I think we were robbed of some great Spealler moments due to cuts that year.
8. Moe Kelsey
Kelsey had an up and down start to the Games in 2009L 28th, 1st, 24th, 3rd. He leveled out from there, and like Hackenbruck was ahead of Salo with two workouts remaining. Finishes of 13th and 9th were good enough to hold on to a podium spot, but not good enough to absorb the limelight that seemed to be all encompassing for the Finnish sensation who set fire to the floor on the final day that year.
Kelsey’s tenure as a Games athlete was limited to two seasons (he’d go on to take 14th in 2010), but his podium performance in 2009 against the toughest of the three fields is good enough to get him a spot on the Ranch Era top 10.
9. Brett Marshall
Runner-up to Fitzgerald in 2007, Marshall had an event win and a third as compared to Fitzgerald’s pair of second place finishes with only the Total remaining. He lifted 15 lbs less than Fitzgerald however and finished both two places on that workout, and two points on the overall leaderboard, behind him.
He had more of a falling off in the next season, and didn’t compete at the Games again after that. Like many others, the Squat Grace finale did him in, his competition weight was listed at 155 for those two years- so 30 bodyweight squat clean and jerks was likely very daunting compared to the bigger men (Kelsey was listed at 215 for example) in the field.
10. Steve Willis
Rounding out this top ten list is the only man besides Spealler without a podium finish to his credit during any of these three years. Like Salo, and Hackenbruck, and Kelsey, Willis only competed in 2009. And really that is the case and point right there about how much more difficult that year was. Not only did the number of tests more than double, four men entered the field who beat every previous contender- including the defending champion, Jason Khalipa.
Seeing as Willis is only one of four men who managed to do that during the Ranch Era, and Khalipa is holding down the top spot on this list, and the other three made the list at some point, he seemed like the logical and necessary choice for the final spot.
He’s another who would have suffered from the dreaded 2019 format. He opened with 33rd on the Trail Run and 20th on the Deadlift. Over the remainder of the competition he was 15th or better on everything including a 4th (Sandbag Sprint) and two 5th’s (Snatch and Triplet). He ended up 10 points behind Kelsey for the final podium spot, and five points clear of defending champion Khalipa. This was Steve Willis’s only appearance at the Games.