The Evolution of Training Squads

January 15, 2021 by
Image Credit: CrossFit LLC
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Over the past two weeks, headlines in the sport of fitness have featured a number of stories about the changes top athletes have been making in preparation for a 2021 season.

More and more it seems that the top level athletes are squadding up in hopes of creating training environments that can better prepare them for the stressors and intensity of competing at the sports highest level, but the evolution of such conglomerations of talent dates back much further than most people think. Let’s take a little walk through history shall we?

One big thing: The roots of the training squads trace back to the very first CrossFit gym, CrossFit Santa Cruz in Santa Cruz, CA where a trio of trailblazing women made waves in the community with a workout demo video that published December 4, 2005 and was infamously dubbed “Nasty Girls.”

  • Annie Sakamoto, Eva Twarkodens, and Nicole Carroll, tackled the three-round workout of 50 air squats, 7 muscle-ups, and 10 hang cleans, and in the process initiated a paradigm shift in a budding training community that was still more than two years away from blossoming into a sport. 

The early years of the sport from 2007 to 2010 were marked by experimentation and a more casual approach to competition as it was more of an added bonus thanks to the fitness attained by the sport’s athletes from their daily affiliate training. CrossFit as a sport and CrossFit as a fitness methodology were near indistinguishable at this point and there wasn’t really a need for the sheer volume of training that would become commonplace.

  • The existence of training squads had more to do with naturally occurring groups of individuals within a normal affiliate who distinguished themselves as regular clients. Affiliates numbers across the globe were scarce, so early adopters had a wider monopoly on athletes in their area.
  • Gyms like CrossFit Central in Austin, Texas and CrossFit Omaha in Omaha, Nebraska brought multiple individual athletes along with affiliate teams and were some of the original squads (along with others) built with names foreign to today’s fanbase like “Omaha Ricky” Frausto, Jeremy Thiel, and Carey Kepler. Some of those athletes like Kyle Kasperbauer, Stacie Tovar, and Lindsey Smith carried forward into the next era even as the competitive landscape began to shift. 

The advent of the CrossFit Games Open ushered in a new era (the “Open Era”), and suddenly the Games were able to cast a wider net competitively through online competition. Along with it came a legitimate sponsorship deal with Reebok, and a broadcast partnership with ESPN that were both catalysts for the increased professionalization of the sport. 

  • “Super gyms,” where athletes could go to find multiple competition options became the soup du jour, and the most successful squads at this point were affiliates that double dipped into individual division as well as the affiliate cup at the Games.
  • From 2011 to 2014 names like UTE CrossFit, Invictus, CrossFit New England, and Front Range CrossFit put individuals into the Games while also using the affiliate cup teams as a development squad or fall back in case Regionals didn’t pan out as planned. 
  • As individuals, groups like the “Valley Girls,” (Kristan Clever, Becca Voigt, Katie Hogan, Lindsey Valenzuela) and NorCal CrossFit  rose to the forefront, along with athletes like Dan Bailey who sought out high level training partners, and at various points trained with the likes of Mikko Salo, Rich Froning, Graham Holmberg, and Josh Bridges.

The emergence of specified training programs and established coaches started to pull the focus towards a professional CrossFit athlete who, absent of a handful of training camps at various times throughout the year, could rely on remote coaching while still excelling at the Games.

  • The individual podium at the Games from 2015 to 2019 largely featured athletes that were lone wolves who trained alone or in small groups a majority of the time, and it allowed them to balance the rigors of being a professional CrossFit athlete with professional pursuits outside of the sport. 
  • Mat Fraser, Tia-Clair Toomey, Sara Sigmundsdóttir, Pat Vellner, Brent Fikowski, Kara Saunders, and Annie Thorisdottir (and more) all balanced training with school, running an affiliate, a career outside of the sport, and even training for the Olympics while being the faces of a sport that was broadcast on the largest television stations in the world in CBS and ESPN.

The COVID-19 pandemic has shifted the training landscape considerably in the past 10 months but that hasn’t stopped athletes and coaches in their plan moving forward. Sports are cyclical, and the sport of fitness is no different, but history is a great teacher. 

The moves of top tier athletes so far this season suggests the training squad model is making a comeback and it’s possible that the professionalization of such squads through endeavors like the CompTrain Academy could be the way of the future, as the sport of fitness looks to break new ground professionally under new ownership. 

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