My first CrossFit Games. Most people will say their first Games experience is one they wouldn’t forget. For me it definitely was that, just three months earlier I was selected to judge at the Central Regionals (my first taste of high-level CrossFit) and didn’t think there was a chance I would get picked for the Games. But with the move from Carson, CA to Madison, WI, a new host of volunteers was needed and I was honored to be chosen to judge the age group divisions at the 2017 Games. As those divisions wrapped up earlier in the day, a buddy of mine who had to leave for home gave me his seat in the Alliant Energy Center Coliseum where I hunkered down and was able to witness one of the most exciting, emotional and nerve-racking finishes in Games history.
Setting the Scene
Unlike the men’s finale that would occur later, the “Fittest Woman on Earth” title was far from decided heading into the 13th and final event. The current leader Tia-Clair Toomey held just a six point advantage over fellow Aussie Kara Saunders (then Webb). The belief in the moment was that whichever one of them won the final event, the “Fibonacci Final”, would be crowned champion.
The field was even through the first round as the star-studded final heat made short work of the five deficit handstand push-ups and five kettlebell deadlifts. Annie Thorisdottir started to pull away after the second set of handstand push-ups meaning that the title would have to be decided by Toomey either beating Saunders or staying close to her so no other athlete finished between them, assuring her the title.
Toomey opened up a seven rep lead over Saunders heading into the final round of kettlebell deadlifts. By then Thorisdottir, Katrin Davidsdottir and Sara Sigmundsdottir all started their 89-foot 35 lb kettlebell overhead lunges before Toomey. By the time Saunders finished her deadlifts, Toomey was ahead of her by 15-feet. Saunders had to go unbroken on her lunges and hope that Toomey would break for her to have a chance to catch up.
Toomey broke at the halfway point and glanced over her left shoulder to see Saunders gaining. Saunders was just a few feet behind Toomey now and they had just 25-feet left. Meanwhile Sigmundsdottir won the event followed by Thorisdottir and Davidsdottir, making it an Icelandic sweep of the top three spots in the heat.
Saunders finally broke, just 14-feet from the finish line and Toomey looked to have clinched her first Games title as she continued on to the finish. However on her final lunge she failed to keep her left arm lock-out overhead and was no-repped and sent back four feet to start over. Saunders caught her and was able to cross the finish line ahead of Toomey by one-tenth of a second.
Kari Pearce finished fourth in the heat followed by Saunders and Toomey. What was unknown to both athletes were how the other athletes in the previous heats would affect the final leaderboard; Brooke Wells and Alethea Boon, in particular, as each of those women won their heats with times better than both Saunders and Toomey.
I was watching from my aisle seat next to the upper level concourse and noticed Toomey’s then-fiance and coach Shane Orr pacing back and forth followed by a cameraman. He was shaking his head and kept looking at his phone trying to figure out what the finish meant.
Toomey immediately started shaking her head, resigned to the fact that for the third-straight year she would be the runner-up to the “Fittest.” She looked for her fiance, who sprinted down the steps from the upper bowl to the finish line, and apologized to him. Saunders was hit with emotion as she realized that the Games were finally over and she had given everything she had.
Dave Castro called the two women over as he received the final results and announced that “the 2017 Fittest Woman Alive is from Australia” followed by him announcing Toomey as the champion. The reaction by Toomey was one of surprise and relief as she finally accomplished what she came up short of doing the previous two years. The crowd cheered as she was overcome with emotion.
The Redeemed and The Dominant
The title of that season’s Games documentary was used to describe Toomey (the redeemed) and Matthew Fraser (the dominant). However since that moment the latter descriptor could be used to describe Toomey as she has laid waste to her competition, winning the 2018 and 2019 Games in emphatic fashion. Her confidence and work ethic has set her apart from the woman she was at the 2016 Games, who doubted herself and even questioned if she deserved to be wearing the championship jersey heading into the final day. The person she is now expects to be wearing the white shirt and red shorts of the overall leader — she has proven that even in this crazy 2020 season, winning two Sanctionals and the Rogue Invitational. She is hands-down the favorite for this year’s Games and many more past that.
Being able to witness this in person, the start of greatness, a dynasty, is something that still gives me goosebumps. I left the Coliseum that evening and began my eight hour drive back to St. Louis with that whole moment replaying in my head. It still replays when I think of my favorite moment. How could it not?
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