“Not Disabled Enough”: Several Multi-Extremity CrossFit Games Athletes Ineligible Under New 2023 Rules
The multi-extremity division (former neuromuscular) roster at the CrossFit Games will look a whole lot different this year, as the majority of the 2022 Games athletes have either been deemed ineligible under this year’s rules, or they chose not to compete after seeing the new eligibility requirements.
The details: Morgan Johnson, Leila Ives and Alyssa Kobela, the first, fourth and fifth place women from last year’s Games, have all been found ineligible to compete in the multi-extremity division this season. Kobela and Ives are both appealing the decision, while Johnson has quietly moved on to powerlifting.
- Further, last year’s third place finisher Letchen du Plessis switched from the multi-extremity to the lower extremity division this year once she saw the new rules, as she has dystonia, which affects muscular power in her entire left leg.
- On the men’s side, two-time multi-extremity champion Brett Horchar, and Jeremie Perera, third in 2022, said when they saw the new rules this season they opted not to compete as adaptive athletes, as they figured their milder forms of multiple sclerosis (MS) would render them ineligible. (Further, at least one other competitor from last summer, who wants to remain off the record, has also been found ineligible).
Remind me: Last year, having a diagnosis such as Multiple Sclerosis (MS) or cerebral palsy (CP) was enough to qualify to compete in the adaptive category in CrossFit, but under the new rules just having a diagnosis isn’t enough.
- Now, athletes must go through physical testing and assessments and submit paperwork to prove they have one of the 10 eligible impairments to qualify to one of the adaptive categories. This means that an athlete with an MS diagnosis must also prove they have, for example, hypertonia, a common side effect of MS that leads to muscle stiffness and rigid joints.
- Similarly, a spinal cord injury diagnosis itself is no longer an eligible impairment, but that athlete could be found eligible should they show they have impaired muscle power.
In short, athletes competing this season must show greater evidence of their impairment, and proof that this impairment consistently and measurably hinders their ability to do CrossFit movements.
What the athletes are saying: The common feeling among last year’s multi-extremity Games athletes is that the new rules are disqualifying athletes based on a judgment made by CrossFit LLC that they’re “not disabled enough.”
Alyssa Kobela: Kobela, who has MS and ataxia—meaning poor muscle control that causes clumsy movements—has been outspoken about it on social media. Although she thought her ataxia was “pretty evident” in her Open workout videos, she was still deemed ineligible.
- “With no additional explanation from CrossFit despite my impairment being clearly visible in my video,” she said.
Leila Ives: Fourth at last summer’s Games, Ives is another athlete with MS who was ruled ineligible this season. She feels the same way as Kobela.
- “For them to say you must have something visibly wrong with you at all times is ridiculous. MS is an invisible illness and on most days you wouldn’t think anything is wrong with me,” Ives said. “But during a hard workout you will see I start to lose balance, so the reason I was deemed ineligible was because it was not obvious at all times something was up.”
Morgan Johnson: Last year’s female multi-extremity champion, Johnson, said she received her ineligibility letter before the Open started, so she opted not to compete this season and has chosen not to dwell on it.
- Instead, Johnson, who has Tourette Syndrome (TS), has moved on to bodybuilding, which she said has been good for her as it keeps her heart rate lower and more calm, whereas CrossFit something made her condition worse, she explained.
- That being said, Johnson said she’s “mad for everyone” still competing and thinks the new rules just make eligibility too subjective, and are giving athletes the message that, “Oh yes, you are disabled but not enough,” she said.
Brett Horchar: Two-time Games champion Horchar also has MS, and said before he registered for the adaptive division in 2021, he contacted CrossFit and told him his story about being diagnosed in 2018 when his body went completely numb, how he had to learn how to walk again, and how today he lives with what is currently a mild form of MS. He was told he could compete and he went on to win the Games in 2021 and 2022.
- Horchar, who sits on CrossFit’s Adaptive Council, said understands the spirit of the rule change—CrossFit wants disabilities to be “consistently visible and consistently measurable,” he said—and he thinks there should be a place in the sport for those who are “severely affected by their condition,” but the way it has played out has just left it “more complicated and less inclusive.”
- “When you watch me workout, I have adapted to where you just aren’t going to see (my impairments) consistently across competition, but that doesn’t mean that things aren’t still affecting me on the inside,” he said. “Just from having a neuromuscular condition, it takes three to four times more energy just to do what any normal person can do, so it already puts you at a disadvantage, but it’s a disadvantage that you’re never really going to see.”
- What this means for Horchar is sometimes she gets a “claw hand,” where his entire hand seizes up while working out, which is common with MS, he said, and on other occasions he has gone into “full blown attack,” where he has lost use of his legs entirely. In fact, after one workout at last summer’s Games, Horchar had one of these attacks and had to be carried off the competition floor.
- So while his MS clearly affects his ability to workout, when the new rules were announced, Horchar opted to compete in the individual division in the Open, because he didn’t think he’d be eligible, nor did he want to go through the scrutiny of having to prove that MS causes him to be impaired.
- “It’s almost like your identity gets questioned on if there really is anything wrong with you. And it’s a weird feeling to have to put that in the hands of (CrossFit) to say, ‘Hey your MS isn’t really bad.’ But I’m the one who goes through this every day,” he said.
Jeremie Perera: Finally, last year’s third place finisher, Perera, has a similar story to Horchar, opting not to compete in the adaptive division this year.
- “The new rules ask to have a disability that can be visible on video,” Perera said. And although his MS means he has ataxia, which gets worse during hard physical efforts, it’s not always visible on video, so he didn’t throw his name into the CrossFit Games this year.
- And while Perera is thankful that his MS isn’t as severe as many people experience, and that he can “live well” despite the illness, he also said he still “cannot train like a normal person.”
What CrossFit is saying: CrossFit explained to the Morning Chalk Up that the multi-extremity division has been “discussed the most” this year, because in the past a diagnosis was sufficient to qualify for competition, “which made for an unfair advantage for some because the severity of an athlete’s impairment could not be evaluated.”
- This “unfair advantage” is one of the reasons CrossFit created a “minimum impairment criteria” this season, the representative explained, a criteria they determined after referring to the “leading authorities in the adaptive athletics field,” and following the same 10 eligible impairments of the International Paralympic Committee, with the ultimate goal being to create a more level playing field.
- “The new classification process was designed to ensure athletes are competing against similarly able peers and the Fittest on Earth are crowned, not the least impaired athlete,” he continued.
In light of this, some athletes being ineligible is just the name of the game to keep things fair for all athletes and “mitigate situations where the least impaired athlete is advantaged regardless of the test,” the representative explained.
- “Unfortunately, in any effective parasport classification system, there will be athletes who are not eligible. But, this ensures athletes who are eligible are competing against similarly able peers. This is something that was heavily debated before moving forward with the new process, but was ultimately determined to be the best course of action for the integrity of the sport,” he said.
The representative said CrossFit is taking the time to review each athlete, as well as appeals, which is why the CrossFit Open adaptive leaderboard has not yet been finalized, but it should be by mid-April
- “Our team is committed to reviewing every eligibility submission and validating all top scores. Winners of the Open in each division will be announced no later than April 14th with the full finalization of the leaderboard to follow,” he added.
One big thing: During a CrossFit Adaptive Council meeting prior to determining this year’s eligibility rules, Horchar said he suggested CrossFit break the neuromuscular division into two categories—minor and major impairments—to allow the division to be more inclusive both to those with less severe and more severe forms of neuromuscular conditions. It’s a concept that has already been proven, Horchar explained, by the WheelWOD Games, a worldwide adaptive event.
- Those who compete at the WheelWOD Games still must provide a diagnosis and documentation, and then they’re put into one of three categories: minor, moderate or major.
- Horchar is frustrated his voice wasn’t heard, as he thinks breaking the category into two or three could help solve the problems and ensure inclusivity. Instead, the rulebook has “gotten rid of two thirds of the division,” he said.
The big picture: The intention of the new adaptive eligibility rules might have been paved with good intentions—”to create a more fair competition for all athletes”—but for the athletes, especially those in the multi-extremity division, it has led to a hellish start to their season, leaving them angry, to say the least.
- “I’m not disabled enough for them. I can still do high level gymnastics so I’m not impaired,” Kobela said. “I would never tell my brother who served in the Air Force that he is not a veteran enough to deserve military benefits. Why is it OK for you to tell a person they are not disabled enough?”
- During CrossFit Adaptive Council meetings, Horchar said “they kept saying, ‘It’s not going to his at many people as you think,’ but now you’re seeing athletes who have been competing for the last two years in this division getting told they’re not adaptive enough to be considered a CrossFit adaptive athlete…and it’s like, ‘We had a place to compete, and now you’re telling us you don’t belong here,’ but we don’t necessarily belong in the individual division because we have limitations,” he said.
Regardless, Horchar said he will continue doing CrossFit, and continue coaching CrossFit, because competing at the Games was never the ultimate reason he does the sport. He does CrossFit because the lifestyle helps him stay healthy and fit and make a difference in other people’s lives, and as an added bonus he said fitness helps him manage his MS symptoms.
“As far as the CrossFit Games, I don’t know if there will ever be a spot for me to compete there…But I still love CrossFit,” he said.
Perera agrees. As disappointing as it is, he’s thankful for all CrossFit, not the CrossFit Games, has done for him.
“I do CrossFit to help me not be in a wheelchair. Not to make the Games,” he said.