Four Years Later, Ocean State’s Finest Earns Return Trip to the Games

June 15, 2021 by
Credit: Athlete’s Eye Photography
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On Sunday afternoon two weeks ago, in Eagan, MN, Ray Fleser and his team, Ocean State’s Finest, huddled up and waited in anticipation hoping to hear their name called as the fifth and final team to earn a spot to the 2021 NoBull CrossFit Games; this is a position they had been in before. In fact, it seems Ocean State’s Finest is the only team this season bringing back the exact same lineup from a pre-Sanctionals (meaning before 2019) run at the Games. 

Flashback: At the 2017 East Regional there were six very good teams vying for five spots to the Games. In the final, Fleser’s team took third place, beating East Woodbridge by one spot in that event to hold them off, and knew it had been enough to secure the fifth and final position that year. This year, the final workout did not go as well for them. They took seventh on the workout called “Worm and Stuff”, and all Fleser and company could do was hope they’d banked enough points earlier in the weekend to fend off another experienced team — 12 Labours Lions — who was challenging them for the final Games spot. 

Remind me: Back in 2017, team rosters featured six athletes (as opposed to the teams of four we are familiar with now). However, the four athletes we saw compete at the Granite Games were part of their larger team four years ago. 

  • Ray Fleser is the co-owner and director of fitness operations of Ocean State CrossFit (also known as Ironclad Fitness Center) in Cranston, Rhode Island. He’s had extensive competition experience as an athlete, but also has done the hard work to obtain his CrossFit Level 3 credentials among several other certifications.
  • Tristan Maiorano started CrossFit in 2011 at 15 years old, he started coaching only a year later. He was the fittest in Rhode Island in 2016, featured on their 2017 Games team, and took a shot as an individual in 2018 at the East Regional where he placed 23rd. He has his CFL2 and is a member of Fleser’s coaching staff. 
  • Ashleigh Fleser (Cornell at the Games in 2017) got married to Ray just three weeks after the 2017 Games. Athletically, she has some similar credentials to Maiorano. She was the fittest in Rhode Island in both 2015 and 2016, helped their team reach the Games in 2017, and competed as an individual in 2018 placing 10th at the East Regional. She graduated from the Rhode Island Municipal Police Academy in 2018 and now works full time as a police officer.
  • Christine Middleton is the final member of their team, and the one who clean and jerked a live CrossFit competition record of 265 pounds in the opening event of the Granite Games. She is a mainstay on their team competing from 2016-2018 at Regionals, including being an integral part of their Games team in 2017. Having also recorded the top score worldwide in 21.4, it’s arguable she is currently the strongest woman in CrossFit.

The long road back: After making the Games in 2017, some of their team members took the plunge as individuals. 

  • But, with the disappearance of Regionals following the 2018 season, Fleser’s perspective changed, “It was time to learn the new season and format. The Games was not on my horizon anymore, the superteams were stacked beyond belief and the likelihood of my organic gym team going to a Sanctional and winning was not likely.”

During the 2019 season they competed at The Mid-Atlantic CrossFit Challenge and the Asbury Park Summer Games. In 2020, they took 10th at the Filthy 150 in Ireland and 11th at Wodapalooza, and in both cases did not really threaten for a Games qualification. 

  • “The hope of making the Games was never there [for those competitions]. I wanted to show up. I wanted to do my best while making friends and prove I’m a good athlete who can compete with other savages,” Fleser.

As so many athletes and teams have had to do in the past couple years, Ocean State was forced to re-evaluate the competitive landscape yet again heading into 2021. 

Fleser acknowledges the support from his gym throughout the pandemic being critical to even getting to that point, “My members are amazing. We leased out equipment for free to anyone who kept their memberships and offered home gym programming.We were able to retain most of our membership throughout, and I did not have to lay off my staff.” 

  • “We threw a huge party last July when we were allowed to open again to thank them for staying with us. Since then, we’ve flourished, growing to the biggest membership we’ve ever had at over 300 members.”

Having survived the lockdowns, and with the reversion to affiliate teams, Fleser and crew were revingorated. “I think superteams killed the affiliate bragging rights of the team division. The most impressive thing about it is not an individual athlete’s ability, but the fact that one gym was able to cultivate all that talent,” he said. 

  • “When you can produce a team, or multiple teams, it puts a focus on the gym instead of the athlete; I believe in that so much. Bringing [that format] back gave me reason to keep cultivating talent for Ocean’s State’s Finest.”

The 2021 season: Sitting here now, knowing that they’ve already made the Games, it may come as a surprise that wasn’t necessarily the plan all along. “Again it was a learning process, I wasn’t even sure we’d make it to Semifinals. Considering how many good teams there are, and that individuals could contribute their scores, I thought it might be twice as hard as it was to qualify for Regionals in the past. It wasn’t until I saw the dust settle after Quarterfinals that I got confidence for Games contention.”

  • Coming into the Granite Games, Ocean State’s approach was straightforward. “Do awesome weightlifting, which is our strong suit, and try to hang on for the fitness,” Fleser said, half being serious, half joking. 

They pretty much did just that though. Their men took fourth, while their women took first in the weightlifting workout to start the weekend. Backing that up with a third palace finish on push race meant their weekend was off to about as good a start as possible.

  • They meandered through the next five scored events taking 8th, 8th, 7th, 5th, and 7th. Not bad, but would it be enough?

Standing in a huddle at the finish line after the final event, Fleser was trying to calculate if they’d done enough, “I wasn’t quite positive. I knew it was tight, but I was working too hard to know if we’d beaten any of the teams close to us on the leaderboard. I knew Omnia had won, and MoveFastLiftHeavy did well, I could hear the emcees say that. Since we had finished seventh, and our rivals hadn’t won, I was actually pretty confident we’d done enough.”

Despite that confidence, Fleser felt an odd emotion hearing his team’s name called in the final qualifying position; surprise. 

  • “How did this happen? In 2017 we were so focused, everyone was making tremendous sacrifices for training and practice. We had one clear-cut mission…Now everyone has full-time jobs, we work out one to two hours a day, four to six times per week, and most of the time we only do the class programming. Considering I wasn’t even sure we’d make Semifinals, everything else has felt like a bonus!”

More than an athlete: Fleser, like many other team captains and members, does a whole lot more than just compete in CrossFit. He’s been running Ocean’s State since 2013, and acquired it in a fifty-fifty deal with his partners in 2016. Recently they acquired a second location (the second largest gym in Rhode Island) which has a membership of over 200 and was in need of new leadership and direction, that’s where Felser comes in. His goal is to help that location flourish just as he’s done at Ocean State. 

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