What was it like to coach Team USA at the 2017 Reebok CrossFit Invitational?
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In one word: Amazing. It was a great honor for me to be a part of Team USA and an absolute pleasure to work with Scott, Noah, Kari, and Tennil. It was without a doubt one of the best competitive experiences I’ve ever been a part of. Many of you have asked about the experience in more detail beyond it being amazing, so I’ll attempt to sum it up for you the best I can.
I was asked to coach Team USA about a month before the Invitational. Of course I responded with “I’m in!” as quickly as I possibly could. The month leading up to the competition flew by. I had a chance to visit with each of the USA athletes about expectations and training. We all wanted to get together for a team training camp weekend prior to going to Australia, but due to previously-planned travel schedules for the athletes, we were unable to make that happen. Each week, I would send a handful of team-oriented training sessions to the athletes and they would report back on how things were going.
I arrived in Melbourne, Australia the morning of Monday, October 30th. I got some solid sleep on the flight over so I hopped off the plane, checked into the hotel, and immediately began to explore the city. I jogged and walked all over Melbourne for several hours before ending up at a gym called CrossFit South Wharf. I wanted to train at a couple of gyms to scout things out for practice once the rest of Team USA arrived. CFSW became my home away from home in many ways during the week down under. Mitch Sinnamon, a two-time individual CrossFit Games competitor, welcomed me in immediately. I trained with a couple of coaches there during open gym, Cam and Sam. We ended up spending the majority of the afternoon together, and since the gym also has an attached cafe right inside, I also hung around for a late lunch.
The food in Melbourne is fantastic. There are a ton of great options including every variety of Asian food, Italian, BBQ, plenty of good meat and healthy options. My go-to place to eat on the go was called Pepper Lunch. The main dish was a heap of rice and veggies served surrounded by a bunch of raw meat in a hot iron skillet. The meat (beef or chicken for me) was cooked in the hot skillet as you stirred it around at your table. You could pick any variety of things to add into the mix and it was delicious! I really wanted them to open one here in Vancouver!
On day 2 I woke up at 3 AM local time and was too excited to go back to sleep. After getting some work done while it was still dark and eating my typical oatmeal breakfast in the hotel room, I headed back out to see as much of Melbourne as I could. I knew that as the USA athletes arrived that day and the next, I would be very busy getting ready for the Invitational, so I wanted to explore the city as much as I could while I had the chance. On Tuesday, I decided to cover a little more ground by renting a bike. Melbourne is a big city of over 4.5 million people, so there is a lot to take in!
As I was riding through the beautiful Royal Botanic Garden, I noticed everyone else walking and was thinking how nice it was to be on a bike. About that time, a lady in uniform screamed as I flew by her that bikes are not allowed in the park! Later, on a city street, I was stopped at a traffic light so I took a quick peek at my map on my phone before putting it back in my pocket. A couple blocks later, I realized it had fallen out! Being in a big city with no phone, especially when people are relying on you for communication, is an unsettling feeling. I raced a few blocks back to where I had last stopped and to my surprise, found my phone just inches away from heavy traffic. The screen was shattered but it still worked! Feeling like I had dodged a bullet, I kept my phone securely zipped in my backpack the rest of the ride!
That afternoon, I returned to CrossFit South Wharf for some lifting and another great training session with Aussie boys, Sam and Cam. Later, I also got to meet Kari Pearce for the first time in person. Kari is quiet, confident, and extremely positive. She is very laid back and easily gets along with everyone she meets right away. We visited for awhile about her background and goals, stretched and mobilized, then got to work. We started with a triplet of Ski Erg, GHD Sit-ups, and DB Thrusters and finished with some legless rope climb intervals. It’s didn’t take long for me to figure out that Kari is super fit, but I also very personable and coachable. I knew right away that she’d be a great teammate.
The next morning, Kari and I went to a different gym in the area called CrossFit Vault for some Assault bike intervals and plenty of lifting. It is a really unique gym in that it used to be a basement bank vault. The doors are still massive vault doors, so it’s a neat place to train. The Australians were amazingly generous and accommodating of our team during our entire trip. They loved supporting the Invitational and all the athletes’ training.
Thankfully after some flight delays and travel challenges, Tennil, Scott, and Noah all arrived later that morning. We rallied after lunch and headed back to CrossFit South Wharf for our first full team session. We did some rowing intervals practicing quick transitions, a partner chipper, and some synchro work with the whole group. Since three out of the four team members had just arrived earlier that day, we kept it light and fun. We spent much of the evening just hanging out and getting to know one another. We talked a lot about who we are, our expectations, goals, fears, and what the week would look like. Al four teammates are phenomenal athletes but also really down to earth, driven, and humble people. We really enjoyed spending time together and agreed that we wanted this to be the best CrossFit competition experience we’d ever had.
Tennil is a smart athlete who loves to laugh. She trains hard but definitely flips a switch and is a fierce competitor once it’s go time. Noah is a jokester and knows how to have a good time. He is constantly giving people a hard time in his own fun-loving way. He especially likes to dish it out to Dave Castro and the guys from Reebok (he’s a Nike athlete). Scott is a very seasoned athlete and CrossFit competitor. His steady, dependable demeanor, consistency, intelligence, and leadership made him the perfect fit as USA team captain.
The next few days were a blur. I typically trained early in the morning so that I could focus on the team during our scheduled sessions. Sam Briggs, the Europe team coach, became my most regular training partner and we had a lot of fun. When workouts were finally announced, we would even run through them together in order to figure out the best strategy for our teams. The spirit of the competition was unique in that of course all the teams wanted to win, but everyone also had a great time training and spending time together, even athletes on opposing teams.
Our first officially scheduled team practice was a two-hour window on Thursday afternoon. They were very strict on time in order to keep it even for all the teams, and after interviews and photos, we were allotted just under 2 hours. CrossFit provided transportation to and from the gym, so we had to stick to the schedule. We basically ran through a mock Invitational-style training session. There were 4 components with approximately 10-15 minutes rest between each. We used that time to debrief and learn as much as we could about one another as quickly as we could. The energy was high, the vibe was super positive, and the team began to gain confidence in one another. It was a really solid practice and the team vibe was great. Lauren also arrived that day, so it was so awesome to have her in our corner!
That evening, CrossFit hosted an athlete reception dinner. The highlight was when Dave presented Pat Vellner with the 3rd place medal from this year’s Games. Pat originally took 4th, but after Ricky Garard tested positive for a banned substance, Pat earned the 3rd place honor. Dave also announced the addition of the 4-person worm to this year’s competition and that we’d have it available for one practice the following day. It was a nice evening to hang out with our teammates and the athletes from the other teams and get to know one another. Justin Bergh, the General Manager of the Games, Rory McKernon, the lead broadcaster, and Dave Castro, the director, also rotated from table to table visiting with the athletes. It was awesome to ask them questions about the Games and our sport and get a glimpse into lots of things going on behind the scenes. I learned a ton about a side of the Sport of Fitness that is pretty unknown to me.
On Friday, I was reminded that back home, everyone was a few days into a running challenge, so I decided to kick the morning off with a 6-mile run. I was so excited every day, I never slept past 4:00 AM, so I always had plenty of time to train in the mornings! Our Friday practice was scheduled for 10:00 AM. We had about 90 minutes to learn the worm. After some varied practice, we did a couplet of rowing and squats, bar muscle-ups and clean and jerks, and thrusters and burpees. The team picked it up quickly, worked together well, and had good communication. It wasn’t perfect of course, but we felt really confident with that implement after limited practice time. When the competition events were later announced, we also felt really excited because we had done an extremely similar version of two of the competition workouts in practice.
We spent some more time together as a team and then that evening, CrossFit hosted another dinner. This time, spouses were invited and he announced the first workout. We had some Australian steak and it was really, really good! Another unique part about the Invitational is that there are only 4 teams and a total of 16 competing athletes and 3 coaches (James Newberry coached Australia but also competed after Ricky Garard’s disqualification). We stayed in the same place, rode the bus together to and from functions, had meals together, and even trained together at times. It was a very intimate group and a lot of fun to be so closely connected to all the other athletes and teams.
On Saturday morning, I got up early and returned to CrossFit South Wharf for some training. I had planned on running through Event 1 solo, but when Sam Briggs showed up at the same time and wanted to jump in, I couldn’t say no. We both got a pretty good feel for how we wanted to approach the event. I also had a chance to get my Wendler week 5 strength work done. Europe, Canada, Australia, and the whole South Wharf community were all in the gym together, so it was a great environment.
Team USA trained a little later that morning at CrossFit Vault. We had a really great run through on Event 1 and even when the music was turned up to max volume, the group responded well and was able to stay focused and communicate through adversity. It was our final session before competition, and everyone was confident and excited.
After lunch, we went to the venue where Dave unveiled the handstand agility test and announced the Synchro bar MU-Hang Snatch Event. He gave each athlete one chance to run through the handstand walking course and the USA athletes made the most of it. Some athletes chose to only complete a small part of it, others didn’t take it too seriously, but all four USA athletes attacked it and tried to learn as much as possible. They all decided exactly where they would plan to partition it in competition and the strategy paid off perfectly on Game day.
We had a little earlier dinner and got to bed as early as possible on Saturday night in preparation for the next day’s festivities. We were also told that evening that the Sunday schedule would be moved up. Originally the plan was to load the bus at 1:40 in preparation for the 4:00 event. Instead, we were told that evening that athletes needed to load the bus at 9:40, a four-hour difference. Some athletes were a little frustrated because there was no explanation as to why they needed to arrive an extra 4 hours early, but everyone rolled with it.
I woke up early again on Sunday morning for a quick run and training session and some breakfast. Then we met up and loaded the bus in route to Margaret Court Arena. Once there, the reason for the surprise 4 hour early departure was revealed: all 16 athletes were to report for drug testing. I was happy to see it and all of the athletes I talked to were also. They often get accused of not being clean due to their look, physique, performance, capacity, recovery… so everyone I saw welcomed the opportunity to prove that there was nothing to hide. It was unexpected too, as they have not all been tested at past Invitationals.
Once everyone had cleared drug testing, it was time for the event rehearsal. We spent 2 hours walking through the flow of the competition. Every detail aside from the actual workouts themselves was rehearsed. Introductions, pretend event announcements, in the locker room, out of the locker room, back in, pretend event winners and interviews, back to the warm-up area… It was a very tedious process but important to make sure everything would go smoothly in the 2-hour event timeframe.
Finally, we had about an hour to prep and warm up for the competition. Then, after team rosters were announced, Dave revealed Event 4: tire flips. He gave everyone a chance to practice a flip or two if they wanted, then we returned to the locker room before being called out again for Event 1.
Once the event started, it was off to the races. There was very little downtime and it was high-energy from start to finish. We were excited for event 1. Our goal was to be first to finish the rope climbs. We did that. Then we wanted to be smooth on the rowers and bikes. We did that. Canada and Europe beat us to the worm and we arrived at the same time as the Pacific team. Team USA communicated and worked well together through the 30 worm cleans, but the other teams went faster. Fourth place 0 points on event 1 was a tough pill to swallow, especially when going into the event we believed we could win it.
There was no time or point in letting frustration, blame, or excuses creep in so we quickly put Event 1 in the past and focused on the handstand walking course. Some athletes were more gassed than they expected, so we actually ended up making an order change last minute before going out. We reviewed each person’s individual plan: Noah unbroken, Kari a break at the second cone, Tennil a quick pause and shakeout at cones 2 and 3, and Scott a quick pause and reset at cones 1, 2, and 3. Noah started it off with a bang and won his heat. Like clockwork, Kari, Scott, and Tennil did the same and it was a clean sweep and much-needed 1st place finish for USA. That really was an amazing thing to watch and something none of us will never forget.
Event 3 consisted of 6 rounds of 4 synchro bar muscle-ups and 8 synchro hang snatches.
To be continued…