Where Does The CrossFit Phenomenon Fit Into Sports In 2017?

MADISON, Wis. – At the CrossFit Games, Australian competitor Ngarimu Ahipene is lost in concentration. His deep focus breaks, and a quick flash of inspiration and relief wash over his eyes.

“Cheese curds,” he tells me, having finally come up with a cheat-day food he’s wanting to sample in the event’s host state. ”I want to try some of the cheese curds I’ve heard so much about.” The only problem is, he’s got three more days — and seven more grueling exercise events to go before he can eat them guilt-free.

Ahipene doesn’t get the chance to indulge himself often. At 5’7 and built with 192 pounds of dense muscle, he’s a walking billboard for clean eating and paleo diet. But he’s in Madison, Wisconsin, and you don’t get to leave America’s Dairyland without sampling the goods.

He has traveled 10,855 miles from his home in Perth, Australia to midsized Midwest state capital to represent 2,000 square feet of iron and plywood — a gym called Injustice. It’s his first appearance at the CrossFit Games, the annual workout competition that crowns the fittest man, woman, and team in the world. For the first time in the event’s history, it’s left the fitness-obsessed confines of southern California for a location better known for, well, the opposite of that.

There are 640 athletes, ranging from teens to retirees, who made the trip to Wisconsin to tackle a myriad of grueling events designed to test a person’s overall fitness. Day one alone forced competitors to swim, bike, and run through a rainy Wisconsin morning before heading inside for a gauntlet of muscle ups and Olympic lifts. By day three, teams will be coerced into tandem deadlifts and an array of squats.

Whether or not Sunday’s winners truly are the “world’s fittest” is up for debate, but there’s no doubting the Games are host to the world’s 1 percent when it comes to workouts.

Those athletes and a swarm of devotees have taken over the Alliant Energy Center (AEC), turning a corner of a city known for beer, cheese, and college football into a four-day fitness mecca. Three months earlier, the venue played host to the Midwest Horse Fair. In October, it will be the home of the World Dairy Expo. The lingering barnyard effects mix with the salty smell of evaporating sweat in the corners of the exhibition hall, making sales just a little bit tougher for the bone broth and workout wipe vendors stuck with the weekend’s least desirable real estate.

Across the street is Olin Park, which will host even more paying customers the following weekend when the Great Taste of the Midwest spreads some 1,100 beers from John Nolen Drive to the shore of Lake Monona. Wisconsin is home to no fewer than 101 breweries, or one for every 57,000 people in the state. A trip to the dairy aisle at Woodman’s reveals 16 different companies that can provide cheese curds. Physical fitness is far from the first thing on anyone’s mind when the Badger State comes up in conversation.

This is the state’s first CrossFit Games. So far, Madison has been the perfect setting.

The CrossFit Games are half health expo, half gym trip

Because this is Wisconsin, the first building you cross on the expo grounds is the beer garden. Thursday morning storms have pushed a big crowd inside, turning the space into a drinking, sweating gym. Standard offerings of Bud and Bud Light are supplemented by a handful of beers brewed no more than 30 miles from the site — Mobcraft’s Oddball, Wisconsin Brewing Company’s Badger Club, and New Glarus’s Wisconsin-famous Spotted Cow. It may be 1:30 p.m. on a weekday, but that hasn’t stopped a fitness-obsessed crowd from diving in; each stand has a line at least six people deep.

While the rain pours, the indoor events — something not possible at the open-air StubHub Center the Games formerly called home — get underway. Thursday’s final team event is a decreasing ladder of muscle ups (pullups on rings, followed by an upward thrust) and squat snatches. In the first of four heats, Reebok CrossFit Back Bay runs out to a first-place finish as the crowd rises to its feet, then collectively takes a knee, too tired to celebrate. They remain planted there, panting their way to recovery, as their female counterparts take first in the following race. To celebrate, the team collapses in a heap.

The crowd behind them is relatively reserved, saving their energy for the high-profile gyms lurking in the final round. JST, a super-gym just south of London, has brought its own cheering section. A handful of rowdy Brits, happily sipping Spotted Cow, spend the minute between introductions and the actual event riling the crowd with the slow overhead clap for which the Icelandic soccer team has come to be known. The fans in front of them, several of whom carry banners with Iceland’s red cross on them, are non-plussed by this development.

JST started the day in first place, but fades down the stretch as the cheers of their supporters are drowned out by a dance remix of Drowning Pool’s nonessential 2001 hit “Bodies.” CrossFit Invictus slides into first place as a suddenly-energized crowd rises to its feet in approval.

For the competitors, there’s a notable difference between the crowd in Madison’s domed arena and Carson’s outdoor stadium.

“The Coliseum — absolutely electric,” Taylor Williamson, a team competitor from CrossFit OC3 in Iowa’s Quad Cities making her second appearance in the Games remarked. “It was awesome. The atmosphere, the lighting — I think that’s a lot cooler than being in a tennis stadium.”

Williamson wasn’t alone in her assessment. “It’s incredible,” Wasatch Crossfit’s Mandi Janowitz told a buzzing crowd after taking first place in the Couples Couplets event. “You guys are amazing.”

The other thing about these fans? They’re all in tremendous shape.

There’s no such thing as a casual CrossFit fan

Much like an NFL crowd is filled with replica jerseys, the Games’ spectators wear the uniform of their local gyms and favorite competitors. Breathable fabric and booty shorts are the norm. The entirety of the building looks like it just finished a workout 15 minutes earlier.

Of the 44 people I talk to Thursday, 43 have been active in CrossFit for at least a year. The one exception is a recent convert whose experience cheering on Team JST convinced him to join a Box. With a handful of exceptions, each looks like they’d be able to fill in for an injured competitor on the floor in a moment’s notice.

Aside from parents and young children of competitors, there are few outsiders in the stands. The CrossFit community is an insular one, and the four-day Games is a celebration of that. On Saturday, as more and more Madisonites decide to spend their weekend checking out the event, the divide between the two groups is apparent.

Day three of the event is a warm, cloudless day that brings the Games’ biggest crowd. A larger contingent of locals, facing a weekend with the Brewers out of town, have made their way to the grounds to check out the Couples Couplets event pushing co-ed teams to their limit inside the arena.

John, from nearby Sun Prairie, has taken his family to the event in order to fill out a lazy weekend afternoon.

“It’s great to see this in Madison. I used to work out — still do, you know — but never like this,” he says. “It’s definitely something we’ve never really had out here.”

His seven-year-old son, Max, isn’t as impressed.

“The lifts are cool,” Max says, “but everything takes too long.”

He isn’t the only non-devotee nonplussed by the event. One Madisonian I talk to has been turned away from the arena with his general admission wristband, despite the fact the stands are at most 40 percent full for the evening’s team events playing out in the background. He’s more than happy to vent a little frustration at the Games.

“It’s something different, but it gets old after a while,” the frustrated fan explains. “For $34 you can go down to the [local college summer baseball league team] Mallards, watch a game, and get all the food and beer you can handle. Here, you’re just watching people work out, and you’re not even guaranteed a seat for the night’s events. The beer tent is a nice touch, though.”

Still, these curious locals are a minority in a sea of spandex.

“I think it has more to do with personalities,” Williamson explained. “If you’ve never exercised before, you might not get it. Most people that do CrossFit really love CrossFit. You don’t really get casual [members].”

The move from California to Wisconsin also allowed the Games to be a city’s centerpiece. A sign between the AEC and downtown proper welcomes the event while proclaiming Madison as the fittest city in the nation. There’s probably a citation needed there, but CrossFitters appreciated the passion.

“In L.A., I feel like this would just be another thing,” James Bevinly, a competitor from Washington’s Cascade CrossFit opined. “With Madison, I get his sense of ‘this is — we are — CrossFit. So far, especially for it being their first time, I think they’ve done a great job with that.”

The other main benefit of moving the event to Wisconsin is an influx of first-time spectators. Sue, an enthusiast from Toronto, says the 12-hour drive to Wisconsin was the deciding factor in her decision to attend. The parking lot is dotted with cars from across the Midwest and even the East Coast; most have decals representing their local gyms — affectionately called “boxes” plastered on their rear windows.

The effect wasn’t lost on the fans and competitors.

“One thing I noticed I hadn’t experienced at prior Games was the announcing in different languages. You heard officials speaking in German, French, Spanish out here,” Nathan Beveridge, a Canadian who placed 10th in the 35-39 Masters competition, says. “The crowd in Madison was much more diverse. It was good to see more global fans included.”

The Games make sure those fans aren’t left wanting when it comes to keeping in competition shape. Across from the stage that holds this year’s Masters events — the section of the Games limited to competitors 35 and up — is an area set aside to crown 2017’s Fittest Fan. Weights and rowing machines are meticulously lined up for any attendee willing to take on the day’s designated workout. It’s a popular spot; the dull clatter of falling bumper plates echoes through the exhibition hall all hours of the day.

Actually, Wisconsin is a perfect fit for the fittest people in the world

Madison boasts five CrossFit institutions within city limits and three more in neighboring suburbs. However, the fitness boom isn’t limited to just specialized boxes. Keith Kubiesa is a Madtown native who worked as a trainer at a handful of local gyms before opening Summit Strength and Fitness in nearby Fitchburg last winter. While he offers cross training and yoga, the centerpiece of his establishment is an expansive, multi-colored climbing wall. In true Wisconsin fashion, he has the space to cater to rock climbers and fitness buffs alike thanks to the state’s rising liquor industry; his gym occupies the former warehouse of the since-expanded Yahara Bay Distillery.

“Part of the reason why I opened this gym (after six years as a trainer) was to combine the new ways of working out,” Kubiesa says. “Our niche is climbing, and going into it I thought I was going to be training just climbers. Instead, we started working with a lot of non-climbers, using the climbing wall as another fitness tool,” Kubiesa explained. “That’s where the trend of fitness is going. Finding new fun ways to move, and not necessarily a program sheet that says ‘do three reps or 12 this.’ We’re not isolating one thing — it’s putting more fun into a workout.”

That idea — that formerly unorthodox exercise makes fitness more accessible — has swept through Dane County. While traditional gyms like the Princeton Club, a behemoth facility shilled on local ads by former Wisconsin Football head coach Barry Alvarez, are key players, they’re supplemented by storefront workout rooms that offer less obvious workouts like kickboxing, pilates, and pole dancing.

According to Yelp, there are 133 gyms in the Madison area, or one per every 1,898 people. By the same metric, there are 1,600 in Los Angeles — or one for every 2,485 residents. By leaving southern California, the CrossFit Games actually found a fitter clientele.

While a few fans found the contradiction of the Badger State’s love of dairy and beer with a group of people known to monitor every calorie in order for optimum performance — one presumptuous couple from Cleveland even opined the Games could help Madisonians develop healthier lifestyles — 2017’s athletes were happy with the venue.

Ahipene, the Perth resident, was also pleasantly surprised by a city he hadn’t heard of six months earlier, even if he was skeptical at the outset.

“At first we [his team, CrossFit Injustice] thought it was a bit strange,” Ahipene says. “Especially on the first day, we were thinking ‘what the hell’s going on here? What are they up to?’ … But we’ve seen the city itself is quite active. Just seeing them out on the water once the sun comes out, being active, biking around, all the kayaks and stand-up paddleboards, all that stuff. It’s encouraging to see.”

Alex Bozenhard, who made the trip from Rhode Island to Wisconsin for his first appearance at the Games with Crossfit Ocean State, wasn’t disappointed he missed out on a chance to perform in southern California.

“Madison’s a really cool city. It’s nice here … You walk around downtown for dinner, and [Madison] has a lot of fit people, and CrossFitters like to take care of themselves, like to eat clean. But they’re also pretty big partiers. I think the city is fitting.”

Bozenhard’s sentiment was one shared by nearly all the athletes. Beer and cheese isn’t a traditional part of the CrossFit diet — the actual in-competition drinking habits of competitors vary, but typically approach zero for most. On Sunday, however, with four days of competition in the rear view, all bets are off. Madison was primed to play host to the most epic cheat day in America.

640 CrossFitters needed an outlet after four days of grueling workouts. Madison was happy to oblige.

The Sunday night party promised by Thursday’s competitors turns out to be relatively tame by Madison standards. Beers and burgers go out in large quantities, but most of the city’s weeklong residents fail to reach the standard set by a football weekend in the college town.

Rogue, one of the events most visible sponsors, has gotten a head start on the competitors. They’ve worked out a deal with State Street Brats, branding the outside of the bar with a giant lit Rogue logo. Inside, fit visitors sip low-card Tito’s specials at one of the Badgers’ most famous hometown bars throughout the week.

State Street Brats is a great place for beers, sports, and, well, brats, but few restaurants embody Madison like The Old Fashioned. It’s yellow neon shines on the Capitol building from its place catty-cornered 75 feet away. Inside, bartenders pour out the institution’s namesake drink in true Wisconsin fashion — with Korbel brandy, not bourbon. Their fried cheese curds, replete with a mayo-bleu cheese-horseradish sauce called Tiger Bleu, are some of the best the city has to offer.

While the restaurant boasts it’s sold more than 760,000 of the classic drink, that pace has slowed with the Games in town. As a top word-of-mouth recommendation from locals, the restaurant is inundated with the world’s most fit tourists. Sugar-heavy drinks have fallen in demand. Questions about carb content have risen significantly.

“More often than not, the people that are just here to support CrossFitters are all like — I don’t want to say obnoxious,” Jack, a bartender at the restaurant tells me before pausing and trying to find the right word. “But incredibly obnoxious with how particular they are food-wise. It’s better as far as drinks go, it’s ‘what’s a really good Wisconsin beer?’ or one of the healthier cocktails like vodka-soda. Overall, they’re maybe not eating as healthy as you’d expect, but when you come into a place like this — we don’t really do healthy. We’ve got beer and deep fried cheese.”

He later describes the crowd’s orders as “fairly innocuous” and mentions most of the jacked customers he’s served have been pretty receptive to friendly jokes about their “bro-tanks” and short shorts.

That’s the easiest way to spot CrossFitters at the bar; several are still wearing their official Games kits. The others are simply magnitudes more fit than the bar’s typical Sunday crowd. Their orders are quick and massive. One group opts for wine and a slew of appetizers before their entrees. Another commits the Cardinal sin of ordering a bud light at a bar exclusively serving badger State brews. Almost all of them start their meal with curds. The bar has served so much root beer it’s run out.

Burgers and prime rib sandwiches are in high demand, but even after four days of workouts and hundreds of thousands of calories burned, almost everyone wearing workout gear and eating dinner at the Old Fashioned opts for a side salad.

Dinner for Aaron Bielefeldt, who took fifth in the 35-39 Masters competition, included curds, onion rings, a steak sandwich, and some greens. A pretty normal meal — until you consider it was just his first stop on a culinary tour of Madison.

“We’re gonna go get coffee, then I’ll have another big dinner in an hour or so,” he tells me, minutes after polishing off a meal most patrons would be packing up in a doggie bag.

The post-Games meal is also important bonding time for teams, their trainers, and their fans.

“As individual competitors, we don’t really get the chance to spend time with other athletes,” Robbie Perovich, who finished second among 45-49 year olds, opines. “Something like this is really a rare opportunity to catch up with our peers. It builds camaraderie within the sport.”

Another team, who didn’t want to be identified for this article, went even further.

“They talk about spirit of the Games, and sure, there’s the exercise. But this is the real spirit, right here,” one male competitor opined while gesturing to the table around him, each member with a drink in front of them. “When you earn this, it feels so much better. When you go through this with people, they become friends, family.

“It’s a bond,” a female teammate chimes in. “This isn’t something you get at a yoga studio. This is CrossFit.”

Her teammates raise their glasses around her, toasting in solidarity.

The rowdiest the crowd at the Old Fashioned gets comes when a group of teammates rails on another competitor’s girlfriend for wearing Nike gear. CrossFit, they loudly exclaim, is Reebok country. They are the annoying people from which CrossFit memes are made.

The CrossFit Games were a closed door to some, an open invitation to others

There isn’t much to the CrossFit Games outside of exercise, albeit in several different, occasionally confusing, and sometimes ridiculous-looking metamorphoses. That’s not much to offer for a fan who doesn’t care about extreme levels of fitness. Fortunately, Reebok and CrossFit have found a deep vein of the workout obsessed, a sizable section of whom are willing to travel across the country just to watch their peers run a gauntlet of pull ups and deadlifts.

CrossFit isn’t a religion; it requires more dedication than one service per week. That makes it extremely difficult to market to outsiders, but the sport’s growth is undeniable. One decade after 70 enthusiasts hunkered down at a ranch in Aromas, California, thousands flocked to Madison, most of whom were just there to watch other people work out. James FitzGerald won those first Games and a $500 prize. On Sunday, Matthew Fraser and Tia-Clair Toomey earned $285,000 each for their wins in the individual competitions.

While the Games may not have captured the hearts and minds of casual Wisconsinites, the swell of first-time attendees and buzzing atmosphere of the AEC — even if the arena rarely reached capacity — made the event’s gamble to move from southern California a success. Madison’s first CrossFit Games featured four days of strained repetitions and enough sweat to fill a hot tub, but it more importantly united the core of people responsible for turning these warehouse workouts into a phenomenon.

Against a backdrop of beer, cheese, and fish frys, the CrossFit Games carved its niche in central Wisconsin, highlighting the infrastructure that gives Madison’s claim as “the nation’s fittest city” some credence. The Games were a display of dedication, but there’s something to be said about the accessibility of a sport so difficult to market.

Anyone can work out, and while there’s no questioning the athleticism behind the elite competitors that took to the arena floor over four days of challenging workouts, there’s a certain amount of “I could do that” that makes the Games more interesting. The event’s structure leaves a glimmer of hope anyone with the time and dedication could make their way to the floor, someday.

If the CrossFit Games are going to continue growing, they have to hope those seeds of curiosity blossom into a new generation of gym-going devotees.