Pair of Up-and-Coming South African Athletes Talk About the Future of the Sport

September 17, 2023 by
Image Credit: The Fittest Games
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Ruan Potgirter and Gilmari Reyneke both placed third in the 2023 African Semifinal in Johannesburg, South Africa. The pair, both from the country they competed in this spring, had the same outcome, and a similar outlook on what comes next for them. But how they got here differs widely and tells a greater story of what elite competition is like for African athletes. 

Potgieter, now 26, found CrossFit in eighth grade and officially joined an affiliate–CrossFit Sledgehammer–in 2016. Through his later teen years and well into adulthood, it held his interest and the idea of competing at the top of the sport like he saw while watching the CrossFit Games on YouTube lit a fire in him. 

  • “I didn’t know if I was going to be good, but I knew I was going to enjoy it,” Potgieter said. “I immediately enjoyed the idea of competing, and (my excitement) has skyrocketed every year.”

Potgieter has been on the up-and-up ever since. Since his first Semifinals appearance in 2021, where he placed sixth, he’s slowly chipped away at the final spots separating him from a CrossFit Games appearance. Of course, the region is only awarded one male, female, and team ticket every year, making that spot highly coveted. 

At the 2023 Semifinals, Potgieter placed third, though after Jason Smith’s failed drug test, he would’ve been just three points away from a Games qualifying spot over Conrad Winnertz. Despite being so close to making his dreams come true, Potgieter says that he’s okay with waiting for the right moment. 

  • “I want to make sure that I don’t get (to the Games) because I’m lucky that year,” he said. “I want to get there because I’ve earned my spot.”

One challenge, though, that Potgierter has experienced is that he has to juggle the intensity of training to be a successful elite athlete while also making a living. 

He recognizes that sponsors don’t have the same incentives to take on athletes in Africa or Asia, where the CrossFit population is much smaller, as compared to North America or Europe. This means that Potgieter is coaching a full day every day and fitting as much training in as he can around it. 

Some perspective on this matter came to Potgieter from seasoned pro Brent Fikowski, who he competed alongside and got second behind at ELFIT in 2022. Of course, he picked up on some of the “Professor’s” signature methodical warm-ups, but he also affirmed for Potgieter that he’s doing something right with the balance he strikes in training. 

  • Potgieter: “It’s just making sure that when I train, it’s efficient as I can be, as effective with my time as I can be. So I think while the volume of work might be a little lower, it’s…just as good if not better than the volume of training that actually might not be benefitting you.”

26-year-old Gilmari Reyneke wasn’t able to avoid the trap of overtraining, though. The South African spent the first few years of her career severely burning herself out, and says that a main reason for this is the lack of education. 

In North America and Europe, where CrossFit is more mainstream and there’s much more information being spread, she says it’s common sense to not overtrain. For her, though, it wasn’t until she was sobbing through a qualifier workout that she knew something wasn’t right. 

Many doctors (who either didn’t believe her or just gave her another issue to worry about), therapists, and one coach later, Reyneke is just now finally getting back to feeling like herself in the gym again. At the Africa Semifinal in 2023, she placed third, inching closer to her goal of making it to the CrossFit Games healthily. 

  • “This year, (my goal) was just to feel that I’m fine and that I can push myself again,” Reyneke said. “Now that I know that it’s starting to change, I can train like I need to train to do my best and get that one spot.”

One issue that Reyneke has come across when it comes to competing with the elites is the barrier of entry that she faces. One of the only competitions she could financially afford to travel to this year would have been the Dubai CrossFit Championship, and she was gearing up to fight for a spot in the Online Qualifier. However, the competition got rid of its online qualifier this year, opting for an invitation-only style. This, she says, does nothing but shut out athletes trying to break into the scene. 

  • Reyneke: “It’s like…how can we compete with the best if you won’t give us a chance?”

Her complaint echoes that of many athletes from outside of the CrossFit-dense areas. For example, athletes, fans, and analysts alike pointed out last season that because of the strength of field system used to determine qualifying spots for the CrossFit Games, it’s mathematically impossible for Africa to get more than one spot per division. This puts athletes in a tough place. 

Despite her personal challenges in the sport and the frustrations she has, Reyneke knows that she’ll never give up on CrossFit. 

  • “I think you just know it in your bones, deep inside yourself, that you can do this,” Reyneke said. Her eventual goal–which isn’t that far off–is to make it to the CrossFit Games. 

For Potgieter, some of these frustrations with the disparity between how the sport of CrossFit functions in Africa versus America serve as a source of motivation–he wants to prove himself despite the challenges. 

  • Potgieter: “I kind of use it as a little bit of fire for me to train. Because yes, here in Africa, we don’t get full sponsorships.”

Both up-and-coming athletes will compete at the ELFIT CrossFit Championship in late November, the start of the season in which they both hope to finally punch a ticket to the CrossFit Games.

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