UCLA Goes to the Games

July 14, 2009 3:41 PM

Posted in The Games »
15 Comments » on this entry

pushpressdb.jpgOne of the most remarkable things about CrossFit is its sense of community. Most CrossFitters tend to feel deeply connected to this community, even though they may have had no firsthand interactions with it. For a long time, I fell into that category. My experiences were limited to what I could see on the screen of my laptop. Everything changed this weekend, when I had the privilege of attending the 2009 CrossFit Games.

I was accompanied by four friends, all of us current or former UCLA students. Vincent and Chris have just completed their first year at UCLA, while recent graduate Louis has remained there to pursue his Master's degree in Mechanical Engineering. Thomas just graduated as well, and is an aspiring Marine. I myself just graduated in June with a degree in Business Economics, and will be moving to China in August to teach English.

We arrived on Friday to find ourselves overwhelmed by the sea of affiliate shirts in every direction. It seemed like everyone but us was associated with an affiliate, and they all had the shirts to prove it. Once the Affiliate Cup competition was underway, it became clear that all these affiliate members hadn't merely matched shirts in order to look cool. It was all about team spirit. I noticed, however, that there was no conflict between rooting for one's own affiliate and rooting for other affiliates. Audience members heartily cheered impressive accomplishments performed by all competitors, regardless of who performed them.

The more I thought about it, the more it made sense. In CrossFit, we are always competing, whether we are working out by ourselves or with others. The competition implicit in the CrossFit method is not a means by which we vanquish other CrossFitters, but rather a means by which we elevate ourselves.

"Our workouts are competitive events. The strength and value of CrossFit lies entirely within our dominance of other athletes. This is a truth divined through competition, not debate." Thus read the banner hanging over the stadium, which also doubled as the wall-ball target. It was a fitting setup, as the meaning of those words was being demonstrated with every medicine ball heaved breathlessly against them. In the indiscriminate enthusiasm of the crowd, as well as the mutual encouragement on the part of the competitors, I realized that more than ever I was now immersed in the true spirit of CrossFit. By the end of Day 1 I was feeling as inspired as ever to hit the gym and start setting PR's.

After another meager night of sleep, we showed up in Aromas for Day 2 and the start of the main event. Five events were on tap for the eager individuals hoping to be crowned the fittest in the world. After a brief introduction by Coach Glassman, the athletes were off on the brutal seven kilometer run.

The run itself featured stirring performances by many of the athletes. Jason Khalipa collapsed toward the end with what appeared to be cramping, but managed to pick himself up and complete the run. Others literally stumbled or even crawled through the finish line.

There was to be no rest for the weary, however, as the second event was to follow less than an hour after the conclusion of the run. As the furious conveyor belt of deadlifts progressed, the athletes continued to inspire as they worked up the ladder. Little Nelson Barriga, whose max deadlift is listed on the website as 305, drew deafening cheers from the crowd as he muscled a 335 pound barbell up to a standing position. Others set PR's as well, undoubtedly fueled on by adrenaline as the raucuous crowd urged them on. The women impressed as well, with many working their way past the 300 mark as they sought PR's of their own. One of the loudest cheers of the day from any event came when Cyndi Frieling completed the ladder by lifting 375.

The big winner of the event was the unassuming Mikko Salo. After having finished right behind Speal on the run, he accomplished the penultimate lift of 495 before just missing on the final bar. With such strong performances on such different events, the secret was out that the World's Fittest Man may have actually arrived in Aromas from all the way across the Atlantic.

The five of us continued to soak up the atmosphere the rest of the afternoon and into the evening, as we watched the remaining three events, walked around the booths, and made occasional pit stops at the beer garden. Throughout the day, the closeness of the community was on full display once again. There was, of course, the continued support of the crowd for the athletes, and the athletes for one another. There was the immense respect, on the part of all, for the legends of the CrossFit world -- Josh Everett, Jolie Gentry, OPT, and all the other athletes who first started setting the standards years ago.

Most of all, there was the general friendliness of all present, as everybody, including the athletes, was always willing to stop and have a chat. At one point, after we had sat down in the shade during a break in the action, we saw Freddy Camacho walk by. As we all immediately recognized the familiar tattoo sleeves and gregarious voice sauntering past us down the main path, Thomas yelled out, "Freddy!" He immediately walked toward us, shook all our hands, and shared a minute of conversation with us before proceeding on his way. Everyone, including the most famous athletes, was similarly approachable; egos were absent in Aromas, and positivity was the theme.

Day 3 rolled around, and the ranch was abuzz with cheerful anticipation. The Affiliate Cup was essentially a foregone conclusion, with victory almost guaranteed for Northwest CrossFit, but the individual competitions were still up in the air. Also, the final three workouts had not yet been revealed.

The men and women had both been trimmed down to sixteen competitors, and a casual glance across the fields indicated an important takeaway lesson for anyone serious about CrossFit: train what you don't like. There were very few, if any, glaring weakness to be found among the individuals that were left, and it would be naive to assume that every one of them actually enjoyed every single aspect of CrossFit. The official theme of this year's Games was the "unknown and unknowable," and only training the movements you prefer, or the time domains you prefer, will leave you woefully unprepared for those unknowns and unknowables. I can admit I am as guilty of this as anyone. There are certain movements, such as double-unders, that I simply despise. Instead of conquering them, I just improve the things I already like working on.

Needless to say, the levels of fitness exhibited during the last three events were staggering. PR's were being set left and right during the snatch workout. The athletes then proceeded to take on the triplet, followed by the chipper workout. The way many of them were motoring through that final ten-exercise gauntlet, the last of eight events, was electrifying. The battle for first on the men's side came down to the unflinching Salo, who somehow never seemed to appear more than mildly fatigued the entire weekend, and the powerful Tommy Hackenbruck, whose name sounds like a battle tank model. Hackenbruck proved himself to be tank not just in name but in practice as well, and was more than game on the chipper. But Salo proved unstoppable, dominating the chipper and taking the title of World's Fittest Man back to Finland. As for the women, Tanya Wagner proved her second place performance from last year was no fluke, and made no doubt about her claim to the title of World's Fittest Woman.

And so it was that the 2009 CrossFit Games drew to a close. It was a one-of-a-kind experience, and even as a spectator there was so much to be learned from it all. The athletes astonished me with their fitness, thrilled me with their tenacity, and humbled me with their class. The community as a whole demonstrated that even as it has begun to transcend continental boundaries and grow ever larger, it still feels familiar and welcoming.

With the Games behind us, the five of us will now move on with the new perspectives we gained from the weekend. Vincent and Chris will return to UCLA in the fall, where they are hoping to start an official CrossFit club and spread the gospel to the bodybuilding masses. Louis will return as well, where he will obtain his Master's in December before facing the age-old question: what next? Thomas plans on implementing the persistence and willpower CrossFit has given him in working toward his military goals.

As for me, I'm off for the Far East in a month, where I will surely face no shortage of obstacles, whether it be in my attempt to continue CrossFitting or otherwise. I have no idea what to expect, but the very idea of that excites me. "Train what you don't like" is not an axiom that is restricted to the realm of fitness. In life, we are always better served by embracing that which makes us uncomfortable or uncertain, wherever it may lie. Because while the CrossFit Games will be sure to serve up the unknown and unknowable one weekend every year, life smacks you over the head with the unknown and unknowable every day. So you may as well get yourself used to it and enjoy it. So here's to a year in China, and some double-unders while I'm there. Cheers. -Roey Gilberg

15 comments on this entry.

1. James wrote...

July 14, 2009 4:18 PM

I've been involved in the triathlon community for many years and found your description of your experience at the recent games very similar to my first impression of triathletes. There is definitely a special bonding that goes on when people strive together to be their best individually. Well written article.

2. Russell Mullen wrote...

July 14, 2009 4:22 PM

Great summary from a spectator's perspective; you're a great writer!

3. joe lengel wrote...

July 14, 2009 4:26 PM

Well said. I was there as well and it was an inspiration to see human beings pushing themselves to such heights of performance. Crossover to the rest of life is truly life altering. We had many conversations with people that echoed the positive changes they were experiencing as their minds and bodies toughened up from the rigors of CrossFit. It's great to be part of this community/movement.

4. bigdub wrote...

July 14, 2009 6:43 PM

Great article! This piece captures exactly how I felt after attending the Games. It's rare to find a group of people so competitive in nature, yet so humble and supportive at the same time. CrossFit is more than a fitness program, that's for sure. Good luck in China Mr. Gilberg and go Bruins!

5. Aaron Alcock wrote...

July 14, 2009 9:34 PM

Hey Roey,

Amazingly well written article! It felt as if I was at the games myself.

I'm starting law school at UCLA this fall, and would definitely be interested in joining/helping Vincent and Chris with starting an official CrossFit club at UCLA. Any way to get in touch with either of them?


Aaron Alcock

6. Vincent Tam wrote...

July 14, 2009 9:41 PM

Hey Aaron,

I just read your comment. That sounds great! The more support the better. Just shoot me an email and I'll let you know what's going on. If anyone else wants to help/join, feel free to email me as well.

7. Charmain wrote...

July 15, 2009 4:05 AM

What an awesome article, explaining it just the way I imagined it happened. Two athletes from Africa competed and following every single twitter on the internet until crazy hours after midnight this is such a great wrap of the complete event! Well done.

8. Johanna wrote...

July 15, 2009 5:57 AM

For those of us who followed the games at home, it really is neat to have an article describe so tangibly the spirit and atmosphere of the games. Thanks for bringing it home!

Good luck to all of you fellow Bruins in your pursuits!

U-C-L-A Fight Fight Fight

July 15, 2009 12:16 PM

10. Roey Gilberg wrote...

July 15, 2009 5:23 PM

Aaron -- as Vince said, you should just get in touch with him.

Charmain -- That's great that you were following so closely from all the way over there. The Games definitely had an international flavor to them, and I'm sure people were following the proceedings equally intently from Iceland, Finland, Australia, and all the other countries that were represented.

And thanks to everyone else for the compliments!

I had an unbelievable time this weekend, and I definitely hope to be back next summer...if I'm not still exploring the other side of the world.

11. Tpost415 wrote...

July 15, 2009 10:54 PM

great article... You definitely captured the atmosphere and excitement of the games.
Time to start getting comfortable being uncomfortable. If your back in SF before taking off give me a buzz and lets get after a WOD.
Gentleman, keep up the good work, bring the pain to the Wooden Center.

12. Jesse wrote...

July 16, 2009 10:54 PM


Wonderful article. My daughter will be starting her junior year at UCLA. All last year she'd been trying to CrossFit as best as she can at the Wooden Center but she complains it's tough to CrossFit there because of the weird looks she receives, not to mention the globo gym type of set-up. Also, there's no place to do kipping pull-ups so she has to go to Drake in order to get her pull-up fix. Great to hear you are going to start a CrossFit club there. She will definitely want to join. If you can kindly have your friends post on the board when they get the club established, then we can pass on the word to her. But, knowing CrossFitters, I'm sure they will have a noticeable presence on campus and she won't miss them. Go Bruins!

13. David Blumberg wrote...

July 17, 2009 7:42 AM

Vincent and Chris,

A few friends and I are in the final stages of creating an official CrossFit Club at the University of North Carolina- Chapel Hill. I would be happy to help you with your plans to affiliate, considering that I am somewhat familiar with the process. Send me an email at dblumberg@unc.edu and I can forward along our constitution and 5 year plan, from which you can draw upon.


David Blumberg

p.s. Roey, great article, and safe travels!

14. Roey Gilberg replied to comment from Jesse...

July 18, 2009 2:48 PM


Glad you liked the article. Tell your daughter that when school starts back up she should e-mail Vince at vtam@ucla.edu. I'm sure the more people they have at the start, the easier it will be for them to get past the bureaucracies in place at UCLA and get the club going.

By the way, I've actually thought that the Wooden Center is easily the most CrossFit-friendly globo-gym I've ever been to (and I've been to a few), so if you like you can pass my thoughts on to your daughter as words of encouragement: firstly, there's an Olympic platform, with rubber plates, which is already much more than most such gyms can claim. Additionally, there's a spacious courtyard, which I've used countless times for WOD's that include GHD's, back extensions, box jumps, pushups, air squats, anything with dumbbells (swings, cleans, etc)...pretty much anything that doesn't involve a barbell. It's always nice to those kinds of things outside anyways. And if she doesn't mind those weird looks, kipping pullups are definitely doable on the tops of the two squat racks (there are handles), on the bar that hangs from the cable machine in the main room, and on top of the two sets of dip bars near the Gravitron (those have handles as well).

Hope this helps.

15. Matt Benson wrote...

July 18, 2009 5:09 PM

Aaron, Vincent, and anyone interested in UCLA crossfit-
I'm also starting at UCLA law in the fall. I was one of Josh Everett's athlete's at UC Riverside (I played basketball there) so I had an early introduction to crossfit (I think I began in 2004). Not only do I think the Wooden center is feasible for crossfit workouts, the track has rings!
Let me know how I can help to get the UCLA crossfit community started.
--Matt Benson