A Look Back: What Did We Learn from the 2022 NOBULL CrossFit Games Women’s Division
Now that some time has passed since the completion of the 2022 NOBULL CrossFit Games, we have had time to digest all that happened during those five crazy days in Madison, WI. The major storylines have been covered already, especially in the women’s division where Tia-Clair Toomey once again proved that she is the most dominant CrossFit athlete ever with her unprecedented sixth “Fittest on Earth” title. Meanwhile Mal O’Brien showed that she’s ready to compete for the crown as she held off a talented and fit women’s field to finish with the silver medal.
But that’s not all that happened during those five days. Here are some additional storylines and takeaways from the women’s division..
This time last year Brooke Wells was recovering from elbow surgery in Malibu, CA after suffering a dislocated elbow during the “1-Rep Max Snatch” event at the 2021 Games. At the time of her injury she was in the midst of what could have been her best Games finish. She was the fittest she had ever been after making the move to PRVN to train with Toomey. Many didn’t think she would be ready this season and even if she was, she wouldn’t be the athlete she was prior to the injury.
Wells proved those people wrong, showing she wasn’t just ready but was Games-ready. She showed that through every stage of the season but questions still lingered whether she was going to be a factor at the Games especially after a Semifinal performance where she struggled, but qualified for the Games by just two points. Once again she proved all those people wrong as she had perhaps the most impressive Games performance in her career.
The Wells we saw at the Games was no longer the “strength-based” athlete but a more complete version of herself which could be attributed to the PRVN training and her commitment to not just the training but the rehabilitation process. She had six top-10 finishes and just two finishes outside the top-20, none more impressive than her sixth place finish in the “Sandbag Clean Ladder” and her third place finish in the “Back Nine” which moved her from eighth into the fifth place spot with one event left. From the end of the first day where she was in 20th she moved 15 spots to end up with her top-five finish.
Just like her 2022 season, the Games were a battle for the 27-year old. She stayed composed throughout and when she crossed the finish line in the final event she was the “5th Fittest Woman on Earth”, matching her career best placing from the 2020 season. The placing was the same but the journey was different for the eight-time Games veteran. So a season that started with so much uncertainty ended with so much promise leaving the question, “What does a fully healthy Wells, with a full season to train, have in store for the 2023 season?”
Americans Catching Up
Not counting the 2020 Games, which did not have a full complement of athletes due to the global pandemic and featured a cut down to five for the final stage of the Games, America has not had three athletes represented in the top-five since the 2013 Games. That changed this season as three American women finished in the top-five including just the fifth American podium finisher since the 2013 Games. Mal O’Brien became the highest American finisher since Lindsey Valenzuela, who finished as the runner-up at the 2013 Games.
Danielle Brandon almost made it two Americans on the podium but fell out of the third spot in the second-to-last workout of the Games and finished in a career-best fourth place. As mentioned above, Wells placed fifth to round out the top American finishers.
The podium has been dominated by Europeans and Australians since 2015 with Kari Pearce as the lone American in her third-place finish at the 2020 Games. Going back to 2015 and not counting the 2020 Games the American women had their highest average placing this season at 17.3.
Five Americans finished in the top-10 this year with Haley Adams and rookie Alexis Raptis joining the fray. The average age of the five top Americans is 23 meaning that we could be in the midst of a resurgence of American women taking back the mantle of the “Fittest” women on Earth.
Asia Qualifiers Show They Belong
As encouraging as it is for Americans to see their countrywomen do well at this year’s iteration of the Games, Asia had a banner year as well. The two representatives from the Far East Throwdown were able to make history while showing they both deserve to be competing alongside the “Fittest” in the sport.
South Korea’s Seungyeon Choi and Turkey’s Seher Kaya were not expected to make much of a push on the leaderboard, neither were projected to survive the Saturday cuts. They didn’t just survive but thrived in certain events throughout the weekend.
Choi showed much improvement from her Games rookie appearance last year, becoming the highest placing “Asian-born” athlete in 26th place, finishing ahead of Games veterans Baylee Rayl, Sydney Michalyshen and Caroline Conners. Last year at the Games she came 34th which was essentially the last spot on the leaderboard as the other athletes behind her withdrew either due to injury or sickness.
Her average event finish of 23.8 this year is a huge jump from her average of 29.6 last year. She recorded two top-10 finishes with sevenths in the “Hat Trick” and “Echo Press”, setting a new career-high for event placement at the Games. During the final two days of competition, Choi got better, averaging a placing of 18.2 including three finishes in the top-12.
Kaya made the cut and placed 30th overall, the highest finish ever by an athlete from Turkey at the Games. Kaya also set a record for the highest event finish by an “Asian-born” athlete, placing fifth in the sprint portion of “Shuttle to Overhead”.
The runner-up at the Far East Throwdown to Choi finished her rookie campaign at the Games with five top-20 finishes including three in the top-15.
Choi is 23-years old and Kaya is 24, meaning that these two young athletes could be permanent fixtures at the Games representing Asia. With Choi being involved with Mayhem Athlete and Kaya training under the tutelage of CrossFit great Kristin Holte at Kriger Training, expect both athletes to continue to improve. They could be the face of CrossFit in the region, athletes that could influence others to strive to join them at the Games in the near future.
Rookies Make Their Mark
Kaya was one of 15 women who made their Games debut with eight not just surviving the Saturday cuts but thriving. Emma Lawson was the highest finisher among the rookies, placing sixth. The 17-year old Canadian made history as the youngest woman to ever wear the “Leader’s” jersey and was in contention for a podium spot the whole week. Her seven top-10 finishes helped her earn “Rookie of the Year” honors, becoming the youngest athlete to win that award.
Alexis Raptis continued her upward trajectory in her rookie season. The 23-year old placed 10th and was the first rookie to earn an event win during the Games. She electrified the crowd in the NOBULL Coliseum on Friday night with her “Echo Press” victory, finishing ahead of runner-up Toomey by over a minute.
Speaking of event wins, Lucy Campbell became the first rookie since Laura Horvath in 2018 to win multiple events at the Games. The newcomer came out of nowhere to win “Rinse ‘N’ Repeat” to start Saturday morning going toe-to-toe against the likes of Toomey and Amanda Barnhart and ended her first Games appearance with a victory in “Jackie Pro”. Those finishes helped her to a 16th place finish.
Matilde Garnes was able to showcase her skills as the next Norwegian superstar. She placed 19th but had five top-10 finishes including fifth place in the overhead portion of the “Shuttle to Overhead”.
Horvath’s Weekend Run
After a 5th place finish in the “Bike to Work” event to kick-off the Games, Horvath, a two-time silver medalist and defending 2nd “Fittest Woman on Earth” looked like she was on her way to yet another podium finish. Adrian Bozman and his programming would have something to say about that as she instead struggled in the next four events, averaging a placing of 20.2 before placing 2nd in the “Capitol”.
That was just a small reprieve from her struggles on Day 3 as she followed that event with a 12th and then a 39th to close out the day. That final workout of Day 3 “Echo Press” was her worst event finish in her Games career placing her in 15th place and seemingly out of podium contention with just two days of competition left. Her placing in the “Echo Press” obviously hurt her, the strict hand stands negated a strong movement for her in the echo bike.
The next day, Saturday, commonly known as a “Moving Day”, Horvath stood 221 points out of third place. Not an insurmountable deficit but definitely a difficult one to overcome. An athlete needs to be almost perfect and also have help in the form of other athletes struggling. Horvath wasn’t perfect but she was pretty close.
She started Saturday with an impressive 3rd place finish in “Rinse ‘N’ Repeat” which ended up being more of a ski-erg workout then a swimming workout, which is right up Horvath’s alley. She stumbled a little in the “Hat Trick” but still managed a ninth place finish which was way below her average finish at that point. She ended the evening with another third place finish in the “Sandbag Clean Ladder” and just like that she moved up six spots on “Moving Day” and ended the day in 9th place, 104 points out of the podium.
With just three workouts to go on the final day, Horvath needed to hit a homerun to make that move to the podium. She didn’t just hit a homerun, she hit a few of them starting with her first event win of the competition in the Sunday opener, “The Alpaca”. Her 100 points in that event coupled with all the women ahead of her finishing 10th or worse vaulted her another four spots into fifth and just 48 points out of third. The next to last event, “The Back Nine” gave her yet another event victory and placed her in the podium spot, thanks to a 84 point swing, ahead of Danielle Brandon.
She ended the competition with a fourth place in “Jackie Pro”, completing her comeback and securing her the coveted third place finish and her third podium in five Games appearances. Her run of finishes during the final two days was unprecedented at the Games as her average finish during those six workouts was 3.5 while it was at 17.4 the three previous days and eight scored workouts.
Saunders Makes a Statement
Games great Kara Saunders would like to forget the 2021 Games season, it was one that had her confined to her home in Australia, training for the Games. It caused her to doubt traveling to the Games alone, without her husband or daughter. When she did arrive in the United States she was hit with a serious case of COVID-19 that led to her withdrawing after four events and resulting in the worst Games finish in her 10-year Games career. What we saw during those two days of competition was a shell of the athlete who since 2015 has been a serious podium contender.
Fast forward to this season and we all got to see the athlete we loved to root for, fun-loving and smiling. The reason? She had her team with her, most notably her aforementioned husband Matt and daughter Scotti. That team, along with finding a balance between training and family, played a major role in her 7th place finish.
She had some rough events, most noticeably her 38th finish in the sprint portion of the “Shuttle to Overhead” but she never seemed discouraged as she finished with eight top-10 finishes including two runner-up finishes. She saved her best for last as she placed second in the final event with a smile on her face and was immediately greeted by Scotti at the finish line.
Saunders has six top-10 finishes in the last seven years and is just four years removed from nearly beating Toomey at the 2017 Games. Last year might have been forgettable but this season was one that she will cherish as a comeback year.