Confidence and Mindset Push 16-Year Old Emma Cary to the Top of the Leaderboard

March 25, 2021 by
Photo Credit: Emma Cary
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By now you have probably seen the video, a 16-year old Emma Cary making quick work of NOBULL CrossFit Games Open workout 21.2 in record time. If not, you probably saw her name sitting atop the overall Open leaderboard, ahead of four-time reigning and defending Fittest Woman on Earth Tia-Clair Toomey.

Long touted to be the future of the sport, Cary has her eyes not just on the future but the immediate present. So what has changed for the 2019 “Fittest 14-15 Year Old Girl” that has her beating the women in the sport she idolizes?

Living in the “Pain Cave”: So what led Cary to become the youngest-ever Open workout winner when she won 21.2 with a world record time of 8:51, the only person male or female to break the 9:00 mark officially in the repeat of 17.1? 

  • Cary: “I love anything with the dumbbell and I do love burpees, and I am not afraid to hurt. I’m not afraid to be bold in my strategy and honestly, I was warming up and people were like, ‘Are you sure that that’s a good pace?’ I was like, ‘Yes, I’m sure that this is what I have to do. I just knew that I was capable of really big things in this workout. I wrote in my journal that I wanted to win it and believe that I could. Honestly, I just knew that every second was going to count, there wouldn’t be any time to think. I would have to do all of the little things to the best of my ability. I knew it was gonna hurt, but I knew I could do it. One of my biggest mental strengths in training is appreciating the pain. Knowing that this discomfort is where I grow, but then in competition, I ignore it. In competition it doesn’t matter how I feel because I have a job to do.”
  • The mental side is something that Cary stated is part of her fitness arsenal that she had really worked on over the last year and a half.

Confidence going sub-9:00: When Open workout 17.1 was announced as 21.2, the question was how much better would the times be for this retest. During 17.1 only four athletes finished the workout under 10:00 with three of them being women including Sara Armanius’ winning time of 9:46. Cary had only done the workout RX just once back in 2019 when she was 14 years old, finishing around the 11 minute mark. This time around with more confidence in her abilities she had a new goal in mind for the workout.

  • Cary: “I knew that it was a really good time. I had set a goal to go sub nine as a joke. I’m in a group chat with a few other teen boys from Brute Strength, and one of them texted and was like ‘Come on, guys, let’s go sub 10’. I responded, kiddingly, ‘I was thinking more like sub nine’ and everybody thought it was funny. Then the more I was thinking about it and doing that, and I was like, ‘Okay, I really can go sub-9:00’. Then I texted my coach and told him that I’m going sub-9:00.’”
  • Cary: “I knew it was an amazing time, and I hoped that it was enough to win the event. I honestly don’t think I could go any faster. I was just really more proud of my effort and just how I attacked it. I honestly started out at a pace that kind of scared me and then just hung on.”

The Open is just the start: Despite Cary’s performance in 21.1 she approached the workout and the whole Open as just a small part of larger goals for the 2021 season. Those goals are fueled by the cancellation of her 2020 season.

  • Cary: “On May 1st of last year, I woke up just preparing for a totally normal day. I checked Instagram, which is not always a great thing to do first thing in the morning. But the very first post I saw was that the Games were cancelled for Masters and Teens. I was crushed, but looking back on it, I’m sure it was the right decision. It seems totally fair and reasonable now, but at the time, it  was shocking and just horrifying. It felt like everything I worked for kind of went down the drain.”
  • After recovering from the initial shock that her 2020 goals were not going to be fulfilled, Cary quickly embraced the situation of which she had no control of and started making plans for what she did have control of and that was preparing for the 2021 season and setting new goals.
  • Cary: “I set the goal that I was going to qualify elite next year. I knew that I had extra time to get strong, to build on all of these small weaknesses I had both mental and physical. This was a gift to have extra training time. Despite it at the time hurting so much, it was the best thing that could have happened for me because not having to train for a competition allowed me to start seeing huge improvements especially in my strength.”
  • As Cary saw her strength numbers increase, something she felt was her biggest weakness and hurt her during the 2020 Open, she also saw huge improvements in her strengths. Her numbers and times in running, rowing, swimming and gymnastics started to improve. Those improvements led to her to set a goal to qualify for the Games in 2021.
  • Cary: “I set that goal almost a year ago. Now the goal has gotten bigger. Not just to qualify for the Games but to do really well. I’m just grateful that I’m sitting in a really good position. I know that there’s a lot of things that still have not been tested but all of things that have not been tested yet I feel really good or even better about.”
  • Cary: “I think I’m going to do some really big, amazing things this season. I fully believe that. But I care more about becoming more resilient, tough, passionate and mentally strong. I care about getting to the point where nothing can break me. I care about learning. Just like I care about the really good days, those are fun, but the bad days are where I’m going to learn more.” 
  • Obviously winning the Games is a future goal of Cary’s and her recent success has made her do some rethinking of those goals.
  • Cary: “2024 is the year I picked a little over a year ago, whenever I was getting ready to work with my coach Matt Torres. He told me to set a one year goal, a five year goal and a 10 year goal. That was in 2019. So I was like, “Okay, five years from now, that’s 2024.” It seemed like it was so far away and I’ll have plenty of time. Now I am a completely different athlete and honestly, it might be sooner. 2024 was the year I set, but honestly, I’m going to take it year by year.”

Confidence is key: Something most teens deal with is confidence issues and that’s for teens who aren’t competing on a national stage. Imagine how valuable confidence is for teens who are competitors and professional athletes.

  • Cary: “I’ve always understood that I need to believe in myself before I can do anything great. One of the things that helped me so much with that is to speak about my goals in conversation. Before the 2019 Games. I was planning anything after or talking about anything after, I wouldn’t say after the Games or I wouldn’t even say the date. I would just say after I win the Games. I hope that that never comes off as arrogant or entitled. But as soon as I start saying that, it just gets natural and then as soon as it comes out of my mouth so easily, it’s like every action in my life aligns with it. Success just becomes the only option, it becomes all I see. So all I can do is make choices that would leave me to success and think thoughts that are going to leave me to success. You just have to have a belief that no matter what you face, you are stronger than that situation, and you are prepared.”
  • Cary: “The goal is always to win, obviously there are competitions I have not won and briefly, that kind of hurts your confidence. But there are just so many good lessons you can take from it. Second place sometimes builds my confidence even more because it just lights a fire in me, to be better.”

What’s next: Two workouts into the Open with two top-15 finishes including an event win has Cary two points ahead of Toomey for the overall lead. With the announcement of 21.3 and then 21.4 on Thursday can the native of Marshfield, MO hold onto her lead? 

21.3 plays into Cary’s strengths as she does well with toes-to-bars, chest-to-bars and bar muscle-ups. The weight for the workout is light for her and she should do very well. 21.4 will be a test of her strength that she has been working on for the past year and a half. Though not at the level of Toomey or some of the other women in the division expect Cary to be around 200 pounds on the complex. If she can’t hold on to the overall lead and the $10,000 paycheck that comes with it, expect her to still finish in the top-five which would be an amazing accomplishment for anyone, especially for a 16-year old.

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