Cultivating a Teen CrossFit Community at the Pit Elite Teen Throwdown
Getting a room full of teenagers to raise their hands to a person wielding a microphone is a large ask – a Q&A session with Games athletes means coaxing short, basic questions out of the crowd at the Pit Fitness Ranch Elite Teen Throwdown.
On Thursday, after athlete check-in, the competition hosted seminars led by elite, well-known athletes for rookie competitors. Topics for these 15-minute talks included mindset and mentality, injury and prevention, warming up and the importance of it, and game-day tips from a Games athlete. Afterwards, an expert panel of prominent teen athletes, names even the newest CrossFitters on the scene recognize from their Instagram feed. Three-time CrossFit Games teen champion Dallin Pepper got the largest show of hands during his seminar with a simple question: “how many of you have been bullied for doing CrossFit?” Almost every single hand tentatively makes its way towards the ceiling.
That’s what the Pit Fitness Ranch team is trying to fix, by giving athletes who might feel left out or “other” among peers back home a place of belonging in the CrossFit world. For Stephanie Price, the Throwdown’s leader and coordinator, and mom to Games teen athlete Azariah Price, that takes top priority.
“Azariah came home from a high school party and said,” Mom, I don’t think I’m gonna have many friends; it’s pretty simple, I don’t do what they do,”” Price remembered. While many teenagers spent their Labor Day weekend out with friends, Throwdown athletes were easily tucked in bed by 10pm to get ready for the next day of competition. Price says this makes all the difference, being surrounded by like-minded peers to befriend and even look up to, especially with the addition of the rookie division at the competition this year.
Fifteen-year-old Ashley Perez came to the Pit on a rookie invitation. She’s been doing CrossFit for almost five years, but the Throwdown was her first experience in the world of elite competition. Perez expected the regular competition atmosphere, which she says has mainly consisted of small divisions and very few shy interactions with athletes her own age. Then, she arrived at The Pit.
“This is the first competition that I’ve placed so poorly, but I’m not sad about it. I’m still having fun (. . . ) the girls here make me feel so happy about what I do, having them around you can’t feel bad, you’re always happy,” Perez said. “Watching everybody (compete) too, get their first muscle -p. (Another athlete) got her first muscle up, I didn’t get mine, but I was so happy for her. I’ll get mine at some point, but seeing her get her (first muscle up) was just as good.”
This close, camaraderie-building atmosphere was completely intentional by the Pit team. There’s no place quite like a Saturday night “Hoedown Throwdown” to cultivate some fast-track bonding. Throughout the weekend, events were set up with the sole objective of creating those athlete relationships. Spikeball, Capture the Dumbbell, an entire yoga studio dedicated to an athlete-exclusive warm-up area, and a hired line dancing instructor, were all purposeful additions. Mid-competition, athletes paused their game faces and (most) relinquished control of their nutrition plans for Pizza Hut, cowboy boots, and the Wobble, a far cry from the closed-off nervous energy at other big competitions.
Another exciting aspect of the Throwdown for Perez was being around experienced athletes, namely CrossFit Games teens. Just the Pit Media team alone boasted a veteran roster – including three-time Fittest Teen on Earth Dallin Pepper, James Sprague, Sophie Shaft, and Azaraiah Price. In addition, eleven Games athletes competed, and numerous other high-level (and well-known, thanks to the woes of teenage CrossFit Instagram connections) athletes took part in the competition or supported competitors from the stands or as judges. Perez found this to provide a huge perspective shift.
“They’re all very human. I thought they would be more standoff-ish, but they’re so nice,” Perez said. She also mentioned that from just watching these high-level athletes on TV her whole life, she forgot they were just kids, and was amazed to find them hanging out with their friends, rolling around on the floor playing Spikeball and eating pizza. “It’s really crazy, I felt very comfortable around them, not like they were a huge celebrity, just a new person. It was nice meeting them and not having to be nervous.”
On the opposite side of this mentorship is Will Campbell – a longtime CrossFit athlete who traveled from his hometown in Pennsylvania to support the competition, judge, and talk to rookie athletes during the seminar sessions after check-in about mentality. Campbell, 18-years-old, spent most of his high school career in the gym and emphasized both during his seminar presentation and in an interview with the Morning Chalk Up that those relationships and role models can make a difference for the youngest of CrossFit athletes.
“My favorite points are when athletes are emotional, because I’ve been there. When there are tears streaming down their face, choked up because they’re nervous, because they can’t make a lift, it’s like ‘look, I’ve been there,’” Campbell said. “It’s an honor to be in their corner, cheering them on. I love the opportunity to have that impact and keep them going, get them excited. That’s by far my favorite part of the competition.”
Now on the opposite side of his stint in the teenage division, Campbell, like many of his peers, can recognize the dangers and pitfalls of CrossFit teens existing almost exclusively online and in their basement gyms: it creates a lonely misinformation cycle. When young athletes, especially those new to the sport, get online and see advice from every corner of the internet about how to train, eat, sleep, and live their lives, Campbell was quick to point out how harmful that can be. He hopes the Throwdown and the community it helps build is a tool to give athletes new perspectives and support.
Campbell: “Everything we do here is to set kids up for a successful future. As much as we want to have a cool competition and push kids, at the end of the day, they’re teenagers, they’re just little kids. They’ve got so much ahead of them, we just want to set them up for success, in competing, in life, being healthy, in everything they do. And I believe having a community, as well as that competition and highly experienced people really creates an environment where they can learn and grow in a safe space.”
19-year-old Rachael Skinner hasn’t been doing CrossFit for long – she transitioned just over a year ago after a childhood full of gymnastics – but has already found lifelong connections and friendships within the sport. Skinner had her eyes set on competing at The Pit since the 18-19 division was announced last spring after seeing the success of the competition in 2020, but says she wasn’t expecting the amount of camaraderie and bonding she would experience during the competition.
“Having the girls here, they all relate to you, and want to do the same things as you and have the same goals as you, it finally feels like you aren’t alone,” Skinner said.
Skinner says that an integral part to her bond with new friends from around the world was their shared interests and passion for CrossFit, of course, but also the mindset and lifestyle that comes with it. She describes herself and her competitors as trendsetters, people going against the grain, and while that makes them different in their general populations back home or at school, it creates a deep-rooted understanding and connection.
“We’re all ‘lone wolves’ in one way or another. We train alone. We stand out alone. (. . . ) No one is afraid to be the lone wolf, they’re afraid of not being the wolf, leading the pack,” Skinner explained. “And when we come together, that pack is strong. We aren’t lone wolves in those moments.”