Former CrossFit Games Teen Stars Determined to Prove They’re Ready to Compete with the Best at Wodapalooza

January 13, 2022 by
Photo credit: Ava Kitzi
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The Wodapalooza roster this weekend in Miami, FL boasts a handful of athletes who finished on the podium at the CrossFit Games as teenagers and are hoping to prove they can make the transition to the individual division this summer.

The teen star line-up includes 18-year-old Olivia Sulek, a three-time teen competitor who was second at the Games last summer and first in 2018, two-time teen champion Kaela Stephano, two-time podium finisher Paige Powers, 2018 competitor Faith Ferguson, and 2020 qualifier Anikha Greer.

Why it matters: Much has been made of athletes like Haley Adams, Emma Cary and Mal O’Brien, all of whom transitioned seamlessly from the teen division at the Games one year into the individual division the next. But it’s important to remember that they’re the exception to the norm. The more common story is that it’s a very difficult road for most 17-year-olds to turn 18 and qualify to the Games the following year, which can be discouraging and humbling for any athlete who had early success in the sport.

  • Day 1 in Miami proved just how difficult the transition can be. Power leads the teen stars in 16th overall, while Greer sits in 18th, Ferguson in 26th, Sulek in 30th and Stephano in 36th.

Worth noting: Historically, it has proven to be even harder to make the transition from the teen to individual division on the men’s side than the women’s; however, three-time teen champion, 20-year-old Dallin Pepper is knocking on the door to breakthrough. He narrowly missed qualifying to the Games last summer when he was sixth at the CrossFit West Coast Classic Semifinal, and he is sitting in second overall heading into Day 2 in Miami.

What they’re saying: Stephano, who started CrossFit at the age of 13, admits it has been challenging at times to go from being a two-time champion and three-time podium finisher to being left off the competition floor at the Games the last three seasons.

  • In 2020, Sephano, now 21, even reached a moment of burn out. She didn’t compete in the Open that year and then took four months off “cause my body was kind of over it,” Stephano told the Morning Chalk Up just moments after finishing Event 1 in Miami on Thursday.
  • What helped her on her journey was finding things other than CrossFit that she excels at, Stephano explained, including competing at the Junior Pan Ams and Junior World Championships in weightlifting, and finishing her mechanical engineering degree. Her next plan is to go to law school. “I don’t want to be good at just one thing. I don’t want (CrossFit) to be my (whole) career…I’m smarter than that,” Stephano said.
  • Ferguson, now 21, also got a taste of the Games as a teenager when she placed 6th in the 16-17-year-old division in 2018, but transitioning to the individual level has been a whole other story. Ferguson’s goal in 2019 was to qualify to Regionals, and when regionals were replaced with sanctionals, it was a “tough blow,” she said.
  • What has helped her has been setting small goals along the way, said Ferguson, who placed 24th at last year’s Granite Games Semifinals. She also credits her coach for helping make training fun. And after a three-year long transition process from the teen to individual division, Ferguson is confident she will get back to the Games. “Soon. Real soon,” she said.
  • As for Sulek, who started CrossFit at the age of 11 and is competing in her first year as an individual, she’s hoping she will be one of the exceptions to the norm and looks to O’Brien and Cary’s success as inspiration.
  • “They’re definitely paving the way, and it’s motivation for me…I know if they can do it, I can just as easily do it. My path might look a little different from theirs, but I’m perfectly OK with that,” Sulek said, adding that “it’s 100 percent my goal” to get to the Games this summer.

The big picture: In the early days of the sport, it was a common story for Games athletes to begin CrossFit in their 20s, even mid-20s, and qualify for the Games, sometimes in just a couple short years. But as the roster at Wodapalooza this weekend shows, this is less and less likely the case. And the more the sport evolves, the more we can expect athletes to reach the individual division, not as rookies in the sport, but already with years of competition experience under their belt.

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