In 2007, a small group of athletes assembled at a ranch in California to test their fitness in the first-ever CrossFit Games. Thirteen years later, over 200 of the strongest CrossFit athletes in the world go head-to-head in hopes of earning the title, “Fittest on Earth”.
Emma McQuaid, a two-time CrossFit Games athlete, first started the sport in 2014 and excelled almost immediately. While working as a gym instructor and coaching three classes per day, she began training for competitions in her free time. But, just as the sport had evolved over the years, so had the athletes. The fittest CrossFitter back in 2007 would find it hard to qualify for the Games today. To keep up with the amount of training needed to succeed against her competitors, McQuaid quit her job and became a personal trainer. This allowed for more flexibility in her day.
The CrossFit Games has evolved over the years into one of the biggest tests of athleticism. Its unique style of competition focuses on fitness over appearance with programmed workouts that evaluate how well-versed a competitor is. Athletes first start in the Worldwide Open to qualify for The Games. This online competition tests participants through a series of events over the course of five weeks. For each event, athletes get to choose if they want to scale the workout to their abilities, or perform the workout as prescribed (RX), which lets everyone in the CrossFit community participate.
Only those who complete each event RX can qualify for a spot at the CrossFit Games. The top man and top women from each country are deemed “national champions” and automatically earn a spot at the Games. Alongside the champions, the top 20 men and 20 women worldwide are given an invitation. In 2020, over 90,000 women competed in the workouts, RX, in hopes of grasping a spot. That is a .0002 percent chance of advancing from The Open. Participants who did not quite make the cut have the opportunity to compete in one of the 28 CrossFit licensed competitions, that also allow for a CrossFit Games qualification.The top athletes from each sanctioned event advance.
Held annually in Madison, Wisconsin, the CrossFit Games puts the strongest athletes in the world in an ultimate test of fitness, and awards champions over $2.3m in prize money. Athletes participate in events that are strategically built to test every aspect of their fitness in five days. Part of the competition is to find their weaknesses in order to determine who is the most well-rounded when given different movements, equipment, and time domains. Many workouts combine elements of strength and endurance which pushes athletes to their limits. Competitors are not informed of the events until days, and even minutes before they compete, so they must prepare for anything.
"That was a big change for me, being self-employed,” McQuaid said, “You have no security with your income.”
In just over a year, McQuaid qualified for the European Regionals competition and made her first appearance at the CrossFit Games in 2019. Her training has become a full-time commitment to stay at the top. She trains seven days a week with three to four sessions per day. Each day is very structured with cardio every morning followed by a few movement sessions. Her cardio changes daily from long to short to steady to fast, preparing her body for any event she might face in competition. Later in the day, she will work on her strength, core, gymnastics and Olympic weightlifing.
While on the competition floor, the mental strength needed to place above the most elite athletes is one of the more important aspects of the sport. McQuaid said that the workouts never feel easy, and if she is not hurting afterwards, then she did not try her hardest.
“You can take two approaches to every CrossFit workout,” she said, “You can take it to a place where you know you are going to have to lie on the floor for two and a half hours before you feel normal, or you are going to finish the workout and start another one straight away.”
Most CrossFit athletes follow a strict nutrition plan to utilize their full potential in competition. McQuaid did not have a good diet when she first started competing and noticed it was taking a toll on her performance.
“Anyone who was on my journey with me from the start knew I was not very good with my diet,” she said, “You can only train on a bad diet for so long before it catches up to you.”
She noticed she was getting injured more frequently and taking longer to heal than her competitors. In 2017, McQuaid became friends with Sam Briggs, a well-known CrossFit Games athlete, and noticed she was recovering from a similar shoulder surgery a lot faster. Nutrition was the main factor that distinguished the two athletes in terms of preparation for the Games, and that pushed McQuaid to change her eating habits.
“It helped being around another athlete who is superior to you,” she said.
For the past three years, McQuaid has been working with Eat Naked NI, an online nutritional food store that delivers healthy meals to her home. The company has guided her nutrition and she has lost five kilos of weight, which is seven to nine percent of body fat, since fixing her nutrition.
Making it to the CrossFit Games takes time, dedication and patience. McQuaid took a risk at the age of 24 to pursue a career that had no foreseeable outcome. She proves that hard work can pay off. This year, she finished first in Ireland during the Worldwide Open and will be competing in the 2020 CrossFit Games. With the setback of events due to COVID-19, she continues to train at her home gym until the time comes for her to step out into the arena against the fittest athletes in the world.