No beer, no burgers. A rookie’s road to Madison.
Sunday July 31st 6pm
It’s probably a sign of jet lag when you can’t string a sentence together even in your mind, let alone out loud. This is the state that Carmen and I are in as we stare at some purple tacos served to us at a riverside Mexican place on the Navy Pier in Chicago. “Purple? Why?” is all I manage to get out. There will be a lot of firsts on this trip. Carmen’s first time in America, our first time at The Games, but the reason why our first meal on American soil is a purple taco will remain a mystery.
We’re here as part of the team from The Progrm, supporting four individual elite athletes from Europe. Gabriela Migala from Poland, Norwegian Jacqueline Dahlstrøm, Icelandic Solveig Sigurdardottir and Moritz Fiebig from Germany. Carmen is the Business Manager for The Progrm, taking care of the sponsorship and commercial deals for her athletes and I am a one woman media machine for the week, shooting images and video for various social media accounts, writing text and recording audio for “Europe is Coming” the podcast that I host. I have been a fan of CrossFit since I started to do it myself in 2015. Since then I’ve watched as much of it as I can on YouTube, following the competition with a growing obsession as I grew more familiar with European athletes. Watching the 2021 Games from my living room was painful when all I wanted to do was actually be there.
After the purple tacos, which were prettier than they were tasty, and devouring the most elaborate looking cupcakes we’ve ever seen, Carmen and I are overcome with a combination of tiredness and a sugar crash. Should we have tipped when we bought the cupcakes? We aren’t sure. Everywhere and everyone seems to want a tip. We’re collected by an Uber driver, Ron, and head back to our motel. We pass the Trump International Hotel which inspires Ron to tell us about what a terrific chap Donald Trump is. I’m not prepared for this brush with extreme views but I can’t agree with Ron and the 15 minute journey quickly becomes tense with Carmen glaring at me to s.t.f.u. rather than get us dumped on the highway. There is some discussion about how the mainstream media gets it wrong and I can’t help but explain that I am indeed a member of the mainstream media, and actually do DO some research. Ron s.t.f.u. and magically the subject is changed.
Our motel has the slightest tinge of the Bates Hotel about it. Oddly there is an indoor swimming pool beside the lift, but only a brave or illiterate soul would venture into the water after they had read the sign reminding guests not to use the pool if they have diarrhea. Shame, we forgot our costumes. The lift proudly declares that the date of its last inspection was a mere 4 years ago. The bathroom has a shower head which spins as the water sprays out, there is fresh Gideon’s Bible in the bedside cabinet, and there is a filter coffee machine with just enough coffee left for two cups. I flick on the TV in our room, it is wall-to-wall news channels peppered with telenovelas and adverts for painkillers and fast food. We stare blankly at the screen, Carmen Facetimes her dog, and then we turn in. It's our first night as roommates, I hope that neither I or Carmen snore.
The next morning we are hungry. The buffet breakfast in the lobby is an interactive affair. Raoul limps a little as he wipes down tables and we find a free spot to sit. There’s a big machine with a photo of a waffle on it. It has to be done. I soon discover that I have no idea how to make a waffle, and I’ve become a work creation scheme for poor Raoul as there is batter oozing out of the waffle iron onto the counter and onto the floor. We are not fitting in. It’s a completely familiar and totally alien country to Carmen and I. America is living up to our expectations.
Diamond is a large man who moves at his own pace. Everything he says and does seems to be paced at 6/8th speed of everyone else, but he’s so big he probably doesn't need to hurry anywhere. He’s the driver for our shuttle back to the airport. “I´ve never met anyone called Diamond before,” I tell him, and as he smiles at me, I realise his mum has named him well. He drops us off at the car hire desk at O’Hare and the next part of our journey begins. It’s been a slog, traveling from Mallorca via Stockholm to Chicago, and now we’re in front of Cindy at Hertz. Carmen has booked a Kia, the cheapest car on the books, but Hertz won´t rent you a Kia if you are going to Madison, Cindy informs us as she taps Carmen's details into the digital rental contract. Carmen and I glance at each other with raised eyebrows, who is going to ask? I bite. “Why can’t a Kia go to Madison?” “Tik Tok honey,” Cindy replies kindly. A quick Google and we discover the strange news that young people in Madison are vandalizing Kias as part of a TikTok trend. We get upgraded, another reason to like social media we joke.
The ride from Chicago to Madison is smooth, and filled with road snacks that we have chosen from an enormous supermarket. The Walmart has a bewilderingly large range of savory and sweet things. Cheese stuffed pretzels? Yep. Turkey jerky? Yep. Sourpatch sweets? Yep. Bring it all on.
We come across the Alliant Energy Center without warning. It’s just there in front of you as you drive into Madison. One minute you are putting a fake cheese pretzel into your mouth, the next you are cheering, crying and getting goosebumps all at once. The NoBull CrossFit Games sign sits proudly at the front, with banners with some familiar faces on them. We’re here. It’s on.
We are staying in a waterfront hotel, the elevator has been customized with images on them; photos of Tia, Mal, Justin and Brooke split in two as the doors open. Carmen and I meet our roommate Jessica, the physical therapist who is taking care of Jacqueline for the week. We quickly dump our bags and get back on the road to CrossFit Big Dane where Head Coach of The Progrm, John Singleton, has a gig. He’s coaching a class. Big Dane has been taken over for the week by GOWOD, the mobility app which has become very popular with the CrossFit community and athletes. It’s a big gym, and when we arrive we see Emma McQuaid and Sam Briggs working out together. Inside Matt O'Keefe from HWPO is hanging out, and Carmen quickly strikes up a conversation with him. I'm impressed by her swagger. Kicking off as she means to go on. The gym fills up for the class, and I swing into action as well, happy to get my camera out and get snapping. It feels good to be doing the thing we are here for.
It’s time to collect my media pass. I walk through the check in atrium and find the table. I show my ID and wait to be told that “No, they didn’t have my name on the list”, or “No, there is no room for me at the event”, or “No, sorry, you’re just not good enough to be here”. But although my imposter syndrome is raging away inside my chest, the very sweet woman in charge of the list finds my name and quickly and neatly snaps the blue media pass onto my wrist. “Come back for the meeting at 5pm, we will show you around.” I nod mutely. I might have to cry. It’s actually happening, in the words of Moritz Fiebig, when he qualified at Lowlands, “It’s possible guys.”
The media room is full. Lines of desks all facing forward are filled with press photographers, videographers, journalists, bloggers and vloggers. There’s the Latino area of the room, the Chalk Up desk, the Buttery Bros spot, the HWPO zone, the Mayhem table, already claimed for the duration. It’s kind of intimidating, how do you fit in? What do you say to break the ice? Having worked in the pit of many, many gigs, I don’t have a problem with holding my ground when I need a shot, but you don’t normally spend five long days with the people that you are shooting alongside. Perhaps I will have made some friends by the end of the weekend. None of them know who I am, but I follow many of them on Instagram, more familiar faces.
The meeting begins, Justin Bergh, GM of the CrossFit Games makes a short speech. He’s quite tall and clean cut, I’ve met him before, I like him, he’s a good guy. “We want you to have the freedom to tell the many stories of The Games, and we want to help you to do that. You have to help us to do that.” There are some rules which are explained to us by our two main contacts for the weekend, Leia Baez and Laura Rice. They are all smiles but there’s a steeliness behind the eye as well, I imagine that the piss may be somewhat taken on occasion and they need to have the firmness and seniority to say no. They are the gatekeepers to the Colliseum, to the swimming event, and to whatever else may be ahead of us for the weekend. “My name is Laura,” a blonde woman addresses us, “I am part of the CrossFit Games Media Team and we are here to take care of you. But there are some things which you must not do. We know it’s a long weekend for many of you, but please remember to behave yourselves when you are in the pit. You are on camera when you are there. So, make sure you wear your shirt! Even if it gets hot, no one is to be topless. And no eating or drinking in there either, so no beer and NO burgers! Believe me, it’s happened before.” The group shuffles about a little, okay no burgers. Check. Leia picks up the thread, “And even though we know that you want YOUR athlete to win, you are NOT to cheer or shout for them or coach them in the pit. You are on camera, don't forget. We see you cheering and …” The consequences are left to our imagination. Little do I know how close I am going to get to that on Saturday night when Jacquie lifts a 240lb sandbag onto her shoulders, and I can’t hold in my cries of amazement at her strength.
The identical sunglasses of the judges glint like bluebottle flies as they jog in file on to the North Park. Everywhere I look are the faces of my YouTube obsession, no more FOMO for me, this is the real deal. Head Judge and CrossFit legend Chuck Carson looks at his watch, gives the nod to start, points his fingers to the sky, and BOOM! We’re off. 40 women wearing cycling helmets charge down the field towards the Rogue rig. The NoBull CrossFit Games 2022 has begun.
You can listen to the Europe is Coming podcast here https://theprogrm.com/podcast/ or wherever you get your podcast.
To see Vicki's photos from The Games click here https://www.instagram.com/vicmcleod/
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