Patrick Cummings, the creator of that video, writes about the event.
The car ride to Albany is quiet. The 'what-if' conversations and 'I wonder' talk gives way to long stretches of silence. The trees that line the Berkshire Highway whip by, and Stacey, in the back seat, says, "How about we just go to Buffalo instead."
We meet James at the hotel. He's sunburned and in good spirits. If he's nervous, I can't tell. If he gets nervous, it doesn't show. He unpacks a bag of M&Ms and we leave for Albany CrossFit for registration.
The Northeast Qualifier is the final competition before Aromas. These athletes have watched the videos and done the workouts. They've compared themselves to those who have qualified and those who did not. They've run through the weekend's programming, once in the gym, and a hundred times in their minds and in their sleep. The only thing left to do is pick up the barbell and go.
Saturday morning and the sun shines through clouds. With only three heats of women, Stacey doesn't have to wait long. The numbers aren't as high as we thought they'd be. Twelve minute AMRAP, thrusters and burpees. Sixes and sevens lead the way. Stacey finds eight rounds and goes into the second workout as the leader.
Nobody knows who he is when James starts his first workout. He's in the back row, near the trees. I know to keep my camera on him, and it's all I can do not to scream at him with each thruster. When he's done, when he's on the ground, sweating, heart racing, arms and legs sprawled, he looks up and catches my eye. He smiles the smile of a boy who just raced the dog home from the bus stop and finally won.
The second workout, a 2K row, only proves that the first wasn't a fluke. Both James and Stacey place top 5. The leader board is announced after the sun goes down. After a first and a second place finish, Stacey leads the women's division. James is in third for the men, only three points behind first.
The Day Two workout is announced, power cleans, pull-ups and KB swings. I hear a single cheer let loose from somewhere in the crowd. I can't see him, but I know James is smiling.
Stacey spends the morning pacing and watching the men race through the workout. The knowledge that only two women have been able to finish weighs heavily on her mind, and she spends a few hours on the sidelines, as if looking for clues that might show her the secret.
She picks up an empty barbell in the warm-up area and says it feels heavy. She says that she doesn't do power cleans.
She seems to be the only person in Albany who doesn't think she can do this.
Ten minutes before the final heat, she wanders around beneath the pull up bars and amongst the barbells. She doesn't know what she should do about dropping the bar on the cleans. She asks for advice. Asks people to show her. Doesn't want the heat to start, but can't wait for it to be over.
I remind her that everybody's chasing her, that the pressure is on them, and she says she'd rather be in tenth place. That she'd rather be the one chasing. I wonder how somebody so unsure of her abilities has found such success in this test of mental strength. I watch her chalk her hands and try to understand the contradiction. And then I see something.
Camera zoomed in, her face filling the screen, I watch her close her eyes. The two-minute warning blares through the speakers. The crowd not ten feet away is nervous, loud. Camera zoomed in, her face filling the screen, I can see something change. For all the nervousness, all the self-doubt, all the jokes about wanting to go home, Stacey finds the place every great athlete must find. When her eyes open again, she's different. She's the girl that everybody's chasing.
Thirteen minutes and forty-three seconds later, the last kettlebell swing falls from the sky and Stacey falls to the pavement. It's good enough for third in the event, and more than enough to keep her atop the leader board.
Ten minutes later and the top 16 men stand in a wide circle, the pull up bars in the middle and the crowd surrounding them all. I weave through the athletes with my camera.
I make my way to James. As we stand and wait for the start, I watch as he shakes his judge's hand. He asks her what CrossFit she's from and where it's located. If he's nervous, I can't tell. If he gets nervous, it doesn't show.
The heat starts and ends in what feels like thirty seconds. Between shots, I can't help but look over my shoulder to watch James. To try to gauge what round he's on. To see where he stands. I want so badly to be with our friends on the sidelines, screaming my voice away. The only thing we can do to help.
I realize he's in the lead, but barely. Brad Posnanski and Scott Lewis are close. I watch James finish his second to last set of KB swings. I watch him pick the barbell up, rack it, drop it. I watch him run to the pull up bars. I watch him run back to the kettlebell.
When it hits the ground for the last time, I hear James scream. I watch him get sucked into a sea of arms. I don't know if I've got the shot. In the moment, I don't know how to marry my job and my friendship. I teeter somewhere in the middle for a moment before turning my camera around in time to catch Scott finish. James wins by six seconds.
The clock stops ticking and the competitors are picked up off the ground. Everybody knows who James is now. He shakes hands and says thank you. The smile on his face, it hasn't changed. If he believed that this could happen, it doesn't show.
The final standings are announced, and neither James nor Stacey are sure they've won. Their names crackle through the speakers when there are no other names to be read and I watch a mixture of relief and surprise wash across their faces.
Before the weekend, I would have told you that I didn't think a person could win if they didn't go into the event convinced of success. I'd seen the calm and confidence of Dutch Lowy in Hell's Half Acre. I'd met Jeremy Thiel and felt the drive that emitted from him. I'd watched Carey Kepler take the lead the moment she stepped out onto the field.
And I thought that that's what separated elite from very good. That level of intensity. The kind you can see. The kind you can hear in a voice.
But I'm beginning to realize that determination can't be measured by my camera. I can't zoom in close enough to see what happens to somebody when their eyes close and open again. I can't get my microphone close enough to hear what they say to themselves in the moments before the gun goes off or in the moments when the pain sets in and there are more reps left to go.
Driving home, I think about how that is what we're all chasing. Those answers. Those secrets. Those short cuts to our athletic potential. But I'm smart enough to know that even if Stacey Kroon and James Hobart, Dutch Lowy, Jeremy Thiel, Carey Kepler and the rest of the CrossFit Elite could tell me what they say to themselves, it wouldn't matter. I'm smart enough to know that the voice in each of our heads speaks a language only we know how to translate. Their voices are foreign to me. Their answers are no good.
Driving home, I realize that for all the times I've witnessed Stacey and James rip through a workout in CrossFit Boston, for all the confidence I had in them, I failed to realize one thing: That they could still surprise me.
Driving home, I ask into the darkness if anybody still wants to go to Buffalo. Stacey in the backseat says no, and soon falls asleep.