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.