How Did Backfill Athletes Stack Up at the Semifinals?

June 24, 2021 by
Credit: Drury Mirror (drurymirror.org/)
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The new season format looks pretty good on paper, but as it unfolded this year, the timeline felt rushed at times, and some aspects of the competitive season were likely lost on many. One of those elements was the process of athletes declining individual invitations to compete at Semifinals, and the ensuing backfill process in an effort to round out the field of competitors at each Semifinal. 

Although it was not publicized by CrossFit, by the time Semifinal competition began there were at least* 26 men and 36 women who accepted backfill invitations to compete in the final stage of competition (barring the Last Chance Qualifier) before the Games.

(* – It is not exactly straightforward to track this, so there is possibility of miscounting. Apologies if that is the case, the overall story remains relatively the same though.)

Backfill Breakdown: There was at least one backfill athlete competing in both the men’s and women’s division at every Semifinal this season, but in some cases there were far more than that. 

  • Events with one backfill athlete: 
    • Men: Brazil, Lowlands
    • Women: MACC, Brazil, German, West Coast
  • Events with two-three backfill athletes:
    • Men: MACC & Atlas (2); Torian, Fittest in Cape Town, Granite Games (3)
    • Women: Lowlands (2), Granite Games (3)
  • Events with four-five backfill athletes:
    • Men: Lowlands (4)
    • Women: Atlas (4)
  • Events with six+ backfill athletes:
    • Men: Asia (6)
    • Women: Torian (6); Asia (8); FiCT (9)

How did they do? 

  • Games Qualifiers:
    • Men: Zero
    • Women: One (Baylee Rayl, Atlas Games virtual competition)
  • Last Chance Qualifier Positions:
    • Men: One (Jakub Cieslik, Lowlands Throwdown virtual competition)
    • Women: Zero
  • Top Ten, but not Games or LCQ:
    • Men: Zero
    • Women: Two (Laken Watt, Torian Pro live event; Madison McElhaney, Granite Games, live event)
  • Finishing 11th-20th:
    • Men: Nine athletes (representing 35% of all male backfill participants)
    • Women: Eight athletes (representing 22% of all female backfill participants)
  • Finishing 21st-25th:
    • Men: Six athletes (23% of male backfills)
    • Women: 11 athletes (30% of female backfills)
  • Finishing 26th-31st**:
    • Men: Eight athletes (31%)
    • Women: 14 athletes (39%)
    • Note: There were four divisions that ended up having 31 athletes compete, all of these were virtual competitions, two for the men (German and Atlas) and two for the women (Lowlands and German). This is likely due to the inclusion of the displaced athletes who could not travel for live competitions, but again there was no communication from CrossFit about this.

What does this mean?

  • For the most part, it seems that backfill athletes who were able to compete at a Semifinal performed as expected. Of the 62 total athletes, 54% of the men, and 69% of the women finished in the bottom third of the Semifinal field they competed against, and there is nothing wrong with that. One of the best ways to move forward in this sport is to have the opportunity to compete against those better than you. It is great that CrossFit gave these athletes that chance this season. 
  • The 17 athletes who finished in the middle of the pack (between 11th and 20th) are an interesting, but not surprising case. The qualifying process to advance to Semifinals is a five test virtual competition (Quarterfinals), and while it does a great job of eliminating non-contenders (of which there are many), and also further identifying the truly elite (athletes who regularly finish very highly regardless of competition format), there’s clearly a middle group which can be hard to distinguish with such a short test, especially given the selection of tests chosen year to year. 
  • The four athletes who placed 10th or better, and specifically the one man who made the Last Chance Qualifier, and the one woman who actually qualified for the CrossFit Games, yield the most important conversation of all though.

How can someone not be good enough to qualify for the Semifinals in North America, but then upon getting a backfill position finish inside the top five of the next stage of competition? (and not only that, but she came within one point of winning the Semifinal outright).

  • Baylee Rayl finished 123rd in North America. 
  • She accumulated a total of 1294 points. 
  • Of her total, 908 (or 70%) points came from the 1-Rep Max Front Squat.
  • Her other four event finishes were 22nd, 37th, 222nd, and 105th

Should one poor performance like that eliminate her when the remainder of her fitness is clearly good enough to compete?

What about Poland’s Jakub Cieslik, who needed a backfill invitation to make Semifinals, but then took eighth place at the Lowlands Throwdown and advanced to the Last Chance Qualifier in July.

  • Cieslik was 67th in Europe with 798 points, but his story is very different from Rayl’s.
  • He was 2nd in Europe on workout 1; and 18th on workout 5.
  • His other three event finishes were 215th, 268th, and 295th

An athlete like this who has the capacity to have very impressive scores on certain types of workouts will generally do better when the scoring system is reward-based (meaning there are bigger gaps in scoring towards the top of the leaderboard).

Sure enough, at Semifinals, he also had a couple great results. 

  • Cieslik took first on workout 6, and 6th on workout 3. 
  • In the other workouts, he was 12th, 12th, 16th, and 21st

So, in the case of Cieslik it’s not a 1-rep max test that precluded him from making the Semis; instead it’s the scoring system that allowed him to improve his placement so much in the next stage.

In either case, the relative size of the field is a factor. In the Quarterfinals, because participation was so high, a “bad” performance like Rayl’s on the front squat was enough to preclude her from advancing. The omission of a strength test like that in the virtual Semifinals allowed her not just to succeed, but to excel. 

What might have happened to her placement if there was a max test of strength in the Semifinals? While the severity of a poor performance wouldn’t have been as harsh as it was in Quarterfinals, it is still unlikely she would have advanced considering how tight the margins were on the women’s leaderboard at that competition. Yielding a follow-up question of should there have been a strength test in the virtual Semifinals? (To be answered in a future article.)

The big picture: When analyzing the inclusion of backfill athletes in the Semifinals and their performances, there are two overarching questions to answer. 

The first is, should backfill invitations be handed out at all? 

  • And it seems that is resoundingly a yes. Not only were some of these athletes good enough to impact the leaderboard, and in a rare instance advance in the season, but for the remainder of the backfill athletes who did not advance, they were able to gain valuable competition experience that hopefully will lead them to improving as athletes and competitors in years to come. 

The second question has to be if the selection process is appropriate given how well a couple of the backfill athletes did. 

  • What is important to remember here is that the exception does not prove the rule. The majority of backfill athletes were in the bottom of their Semifinal field, and that’s not surprising considering their performance in the Quarterfinals originally was not good enough to qualify for this round. The backfill process is good as it is, and it’s great to have a full field of athletes competing. The fact that a couple did well enough to move forward in the season is very cool, but it does not necessarily expose a flaw in the system.

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