Setting the scene:
I spent 3 years covering the age groups at the CrossFit Games, getting to know the teenagers, the masters, their friends and families. I heard their stories, celebrated their accomplishments, and witnessed their failures. The entire group feels like one big, extended family. The stands aren’t always filled to the brim…but the energy in the room is electric. Those folks are some of the BEST athletes in the game, relative to life. And they are incredibly humble and grateful for the opportunity to compete at the CrossFit Games.
The Masters division saw a big boost in 2018 with several well-known individual athletes aging up and into what were already highly competitive divisions. Legends like Kyle Kasperbauer, Sam Briggs, and Anna Tobias were taking the floor for the first time as Masters athletes. But no competition was more highly anticipated than Neal Maddox vs. Shawn Ramirez in the men’s 40-44 age group.
To call Maddox a seasoned competitive CrossFitter is an understatement. He’s a six-time Games veteran, and after making his first appearance as a master one year prior in the 35-39 division (where he podiumed in 2nd place), Maddox was hungry for a victory when he aged up for 2018. But he was facing a veteran in his own right — Shawn Ramirez, who was defending 4 years of back-to-back wins and dominating performances in a division that he seemed to have claimed for himself year over year.
It was a tense matchup to say the least. Scores were tight, event wins were swapped, and although Maddox was pulling ahead it was still anyone’s game by the time the competition wrapped on Sunday.
The final event was “Complex Fran” (21-15-9: Pull-up bar complex/Thrusters) and a race to the finish for both Maddox and Ramirez, who battled side-by-side in lanes right next to each other. Maddox pulled away despite some no reps, and walked confidently across the finish line, locking in his spot atop the podium.
But it wasn’t the event win, or even the competition win that everyone remembers.
Why it’s memorable
After walking up and down the finish mats, congratulating every athlete, thanking every judge and volunteer, and even fist-bumping with the Ramirez family, Maddox slipped off his shiny, new Nano 8’s, slid them underneath his barbell, and wiped his hands clean of competition.
In one swift action, the CrossFit legend, who had competed 6 times since 2012, who placed 25th at Regionals in 2018 just for fun even though he had no intention of competing as an individual outside of the Masters division… said goodbye to competition, and hello to retirement.
From the Competition Floor:
I try not to wear my heart on my sleeve during interviews. It’s easy to get caught up in the emotion of the moment, but I’m usually pretty good at keeping my cool and letting the athlete tell his/her story. But I couldn’t stop my eyes from welling up as I asked Neal what was going through his mind when he made the decision to leave the sport he knew and loved so much.
- “That’s it. I’ve devoted a lot of my life to this sport and I love this sport but, the next evolution is family, I’m getting married, and I’m going to dedicate myself to getting athletes to where I’m at.”
When he concluded with a tear-filled “I finally did it,” I totally lost it. Good thing the camera was on a close-up of him at that moment.
What really struck me about Neal’s performance that weekend was how incredibly gracious he was throughout the entire competition. He was consistently leaving everything out on the competition floor. And despite nagging injuries, an intense rivalry with Ramirez, and a sick mother at home (which nearly made him drop out of the competition part way through), he made it a point to shake hands with and thank every single volunteer out on the floor, after every single one of his events.
We need more people like Neal Maddox in the sport, and in the world.
This story has been updated to reflect 4 consecutive Championships for Shawn Ramirez.
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