July 26, 2013: Bridges Burns It Down, Pichelli Builds It Up
Setting the Scene: It’s dusk on a warm Friday evening at the Stubhub Center in Carson, CA. The programming of the 2013 CrossFit Games so far was an eclectic array of five tests that included a half-marathon row, the first and only event ever in a pool, and a burden run event that sprawled across the entire compound and introduced a devastating new implement known as “the Pig.” When fans poured into the tennis stadium for the final event that evening they were treated to an assemblage of rope and steel never before seen at the CrossFit Games. Eleven competition lanes filled with 44 barbells, and a massive, floor-spanning rig. The tennis stadium had been transformed into a fitness jungle with 110 shortened climbing ropes hanging ominously across the competition floor as yet another programming twist awaited.
But first, some back story: Josh Bridges became an instant superstar in 2011, finishing 2nd behind only Rich Froning in his rookie season at the Games after years of throwing up impressive scores on “dot com.” Unfortunately Bridges missed 2012 due to a combination of his job in the Navy, and a knee injury that resulted in surgery. Coming into the Games in 2013 Bridges was on a short list of potential threats to Froning’s throne but the previous four events weren’t kind to him — he entered the event in 18th place after a 42nd, 17th, 15th, and 39th respectively. “Initially I thought I was pumped it was legless, I figured being lighter it would help out. No one had really been practicing legless (rope climbs) at that point.”
Alessandra Pichelli was a quiet, soft spoken rookie who stood on the affiliate cup podium the year prior with Diablo CrossFit, and 2013 was her time to shine in the individual competition. She dominated the Northern California Regional, and through five events was sitting in 3rd place on the heels of established veterans Sam Briggs, and Christy Adkins (then Phillips). This was a massive breakthrough opportunity for Pichelli — in the previous three heats no woman had managed to finish the workout under the time cap with most burning out quickly on the rope climbs.
The workout: “Legless”
27 Thrusters (95 /65)
4 Legless Rope Climbs
21 Thrusters (95 /65)
3 Legless Rope Climbs
15 Thrusters (95 /65)
2 Legless Rope Climbs
9 Thrusters (95 /65)
1 Legless Rope Climbs
Time Cap: 10 minutes
How it went down: Bridges came out swinging. Clearly in need of a top finish to climb back into the top 10 he was the only man in his heat to go unbroken on the thrusters. And from the round of 21 onward his only threat was the time set by Gary Helmick in the previous heat. As Bridges made his way into the final round, the energy began to build into a palpable frenzy until everyone in the stadium was on their feet. “The crowd was always so loud and they felt right on top you,” Bridges states, “It was just an experience you can’t replicate!”
- I was working as an associate producer for a desk that had Chris Spealler on it at the time, and I sprinted from the top of the stadium bowl down to the media pit after we finished as Bridges torched the field to watch the final round from eye level, I remember watching row by row as people begin to stand like a bottom up version of “the wave,” the hair on the back of my neck stood up and Bridges crossed the finish line and seized with fervor in another classic celebration.
- Bridges: “The surge of adrenaline that would run through me was just insane. Nothing about those celebrations were fabricated, it was just something I needed to let out.”
The focus wasn’t on Pichelli to start, but rather on overall leader and clear cut favorite to win Sam Briggs. Pichelli immediately took some of the attention away when she started kipping the legless rope climbs with a long, methodical kip swing that stood in stark contrast to the rest of the field. “I had spent a little time working on technique just so I knew I could do one,” Pichelli revealed, “I recall practicing a total of three times, legless was definitely a curveball.”
One by one her peers fell off the pace and started hitting failure on the rope but Pichelli never faltered from her technique and moving into the round of 15 thrusters Pichelli was in a dead heat with Adkins leading up to the final rope climb. Pichelli took the chance first and it paid off, as she swung her way to her first career event win at the Games.
- Pichelli: “Prior to the Legless event, I remember thinking that this event may not be great for me because there were a lot of lighter and more gymnasty girls than me. At that time, that many rope climbs meant you had to manage fatigue and pace yourself. Many girls underestimated the difficulty of climbing the high rope without using your legs and came out too aggressive. I guess in the end my pacing and game plan paid off!”
- The media pit was buzzing after the event at the thought of a breakthrough rookie effectively cracking the Dave Castro code of legless rope climbs under the lights and employing a technique that no one else managed to figure out.
The importance of the workout: It’s hard to imagine a time when legless rope climbs weren’t a staple of CrossFit programming, but in 2013 that was the case. The floor layout was a treat in and of itself, but the formal inclusion of the new skill into the CrossFit Games kick started a couple of things that are now commonplace practices.
- For one, this was the start of Dave Castro using the Games as a testing grounds for implements and elements that would trickle down into the rest of the season’s programming as a way of pushing the envelope of what was expected for athletes in Regionals and the Open. The very next season, 10 legless rope climbs would make their way into the Regionals program, and the trend has continued ever since. Pichelli was a trend setter with her kip, and soon it was standard practice, with nearly everyone utilizing it in some fashion under fatigue going forward.
- Lastly, and this is a big one, the CrossFit Games’ formative years were 2013 and 2014, when the sport made its live debut on ESPN, and Dave Castro truly figured out “the spectacle,” of the sport with regards to programming the layout of the floor and progression of the workouts at the Games to guide the viewer’s attention. In my opinion Legless was the start of that run as it was the first to fit the bill as far as primetime television goes, and the workout included unheralded implements like the shortened barbell, and short ropes that open up the play book as far as spacing and workout flow are concerned to give a better viewing experience as well.
The career impact: This was the seminal moment of Alessandra Pichelli’s career as it solidified her as a legitimate elite in the sport. In my opinion, she has had one of the most underrated careers of any female CrossFit Games athlete. That year she went on to finish 4th, missing out on a podium spot via tiebreaker to Val Voboril.
- Since then she’s rattled off seven consecutive CrossFit Games appearances (which would’ve been eight this year before the adjustment), and five times she’s finished 14th or better at the Games, including two top ten finishes. She’s by no means flashy, but where other athletes have burned hot then fizzled out after a year or two, Pichelli has been the model of consistency out of the Northern California region where the sport was born.
Few athletes in CrossFit Games history have elicited a more visceral response to their performances than Josh Bridges, a man who led by example. When the stage was brightest, Bridges could light up a workout leaving the field in his wake, and THEN the real fireworks began, with Bridges bringing the heat with his legendary celebrations.
- Bridges has become synonymous with the electrifying summer night events of the Games in Carson, and for good reason. During the formative years of 2013 and 2014 his finishes during the Friday and Saturday night workouts were 1st, 1st, 2nd (winning the final heat), and 1st.
The workout that started all of this? Legless.