Athletes Offer Perspective on the First-Ever CrossFit Games Adaptive Division
“We’re here to compete.”
Omar Iglesias, an athlete who participated in the 2021 CrossFit Games Adaptive Division, says about his community. For the first time this year, adaptive athletes were included on the CrossFit Open leaderboard.
Remind me: CrossFit announced the addition of the Adaptive Division in early January, in line with the release of the 2021 CrossFit Games Rulebook. The division was detailed in a 15-page adaptive athlete policy, a document that outlined a variety of regulations, including the following:
- Divisions: 16 divisions, eight for men and eight for women. They include upper extremity, lower extremity, neuromuscular, vision, seated athletes (with hip function), seated athletes (without hip function), short stature, and intellectual.
- Age: There were no age groupings; all athletes, starting at the age of 14, were eligible to compete.
- Eligibility: Any impairment must be permanent — diagnosed and documented — and fall into one of the eight divisions.
- Leaderboard: Each division had a separate leaderboard (in other words, the upper extremity and lower extremity athletes would not be on the same leaderboard). Athletes were held to the same submission rules as other, non-adaptive divisions.
One key takeaway: Despite some growing pains, athletes viewed the Adaptive Division as a big step for inclusion.
- “Just having [the Adaptive Division] in the Open, people don’t understand how huge of a step that is,” said Zack Ruhl, a seated athlete (with hip function).
- “This was more about being included and many of us just participated in it to…be part of the bigger voice and show that we are serious,” said Iglesias, who is a lower extremity athlete.
- He continues: “I think the first step was us getting behind them and showing HQ that ‘Hey, we’re here to compete. We’re not looking for handouts.’ The same way you have a teenage division, a masters division, an RX division… we’re here to compete. We just want the opportunity to do that.”
Moving forward: “I’m so happy we’re moving forward, but I’d be lying to you if I said I wasn’t demanding a little bit more,” says Ruhl.
- Amanda Kloo, a neuromuscular athlete, puts things plainly: “If this is, in fact, a building year… a pilot test to what this division will look like in the future, we have to have all of the positive results and all of the negative results to develop an assessment for next year.”
Some negatives: For Michelle Geiser and Steven Walker, both upper extremity athletes, the workouts were a bit more of a mixed bag.
- “It started off very exciting,” says Walker. “The first workout was super great and balanced out…the second workout was pretty mixed up with how the standards were with the upper division.”
- For upper extremity athletes, 21.2 was the same as the non-adaptive divisions. Geiser, who had her left hand amputated but has the majority of her forearm, says the workout made her use the same arm for the burpees and snatches.
- Walker says he felt like this adaptation was a “loss of communication” and hopes for “better communication moving forward.”
CrossFit only put up one leaderboard for each Adaptive Division this year, which Kym Dekeyrel, a vision athlete, calls a “bombshell.” In other words, there was only an Rx leaderboard for each, no scaled leaderboard.
- “I was so proud of myself that I finished 21.1 and then, to have it so somebody that was just jumping in place without a jump rope to get first place, [I was] like, ‘Why am I doing this?’” she says, noting that there was no leaderboard penalty for scaling.
Rick Fox, a seated athlete (without hip function) says at first, he was equally frustrated with the mixed leaderboard.
- “But when you start to look at it, [the organizers] had to do all of the scoring sheets and the standards and stuff like that for eight new divisions… when you compare it, yes, the able-bodied divisions had the no-equipment and the foundations put in, but they just had to do that once. It was a lot larger of an undertaking than a lot of us gave credit to the people involved,” he says
Some positives: Dekeyrel says that the adaptations for her division have been “perfect.”
- Dekeyrel, who is totally blind, uses 21.1 as an example: “I was like, ‘Oh crap, if I have to wall walk I’m going to have to wait until someone tells me that my hands pass the line, and the other line, and then I’m going to lose time in the transition.”
- “The fact that we didn’t have to wall walk, and that it was a shoulder-tap-shoulder-tap push-up combo, I didn’t have to move from a place, it was totally fair,” she continues.
- Dekeyrel goes on to say that the stimulus of 21.2 was equally fair. Her division kept the RX weight, but instead of burpee box overs, adapted the movement to burpee stand-ups. “I didn’t have to jump, which I thought was very thoughtful,” she says.
Another vision athlete, Chris Schulmach, says he’s also been happy with the workouts. Before brain surgery on a tumor, Schulmach competed in the Masters non-adaptive division, and says the workouts have been “pretty comparable.”
- “You don’t want to look at the moment and think, ‘Oh, that doesn’t match the able-bodied,’” says Ruhl. “You want to look and say ok, that stimulus matches the able-bodied stimulus, and I feel like [the organizers] nailed that portion.”
Hopes for next year: Fox says, in addition to a scaled leaderboard, he wants to see more divisions within divisions.
- “If you take my disability compared to Kevin Ogar’s disability,” Fox explains — Ogar is another seated (without hip) athlete. “Kevin had a much lower break in his spine, so he has full ab muscles and back muscles and everything else.”
- “Compared to me,” he continues, “My paralysis starts in my chest. So I have no ab muscles, I have very weak if little back muscles. Currently, he and I are doing the same weights in the same workouts.”
- “I’ve loved the fact that looking at the leaderboard now, I see that there are other quadriplegics similar to me that are doing this. This is great, because the more of us that are doing it, the more people see more severe disabilities, it will help us be able to, down the road, get more of a split or our own division or something,” Fox adds.
Kloo echoes this call for more divisions, saying it would help “level the playing field.”
- “There’s such an extraordinary range of neuro conditions and neuro abilities that there has to be different workouts, different movements, different workout designs, different loads,” she explains.
Schlumach hopes to see a competition post-Open.
- “[I’m] kind of bummed it’s not going any further than three weeks and there’s nothing we can do about that,” he says.
For Ruhl, it’s about showing what they can do.
- “If I could say anything to make it better, I would say… challenge us. Don’t be scared to challenge what we’re capable of,” he says.
Shannon Ogar, a neuromuscular athlete, hopes for the Adaptive Division to become the norm.
- “Instead of ‘Oh it’s an impressive amount’ [of athletes], we have a new division,’” she says, “I’m excited for it to just be normal. I’m excited that we had a first step into a normal, natural thing.”
The bottom line: It’s going to take time to perfect the Adaptive Division. As Dekeyrel says, it’s been “so great just to have an Open.” She, like other athletes, acknowledges that even with frustrations, “it needs to be seen as a gratitude to be part of the frustrations. To be at the beginning of it, to have a voice. To say, this is great, this was not so great.”
- “Overall, it has been a great experience,” said Sean Eberle, a short stature athlete. “You know, we’re finally on the leaderboard, it has its growing pains, [and] people are starting to realize that everything has its growing pains… We’re moving forward.”