Every year, the CrossFit Games tests the fitness and mettle of some of the most impressive athletes on earth. For the last 14 years, athletes of all shapes and sizes and from varying backgrounds have gathered to face the unknown and the unknowable — and each year, these worlds colliding makes for some epic matchups.
With the 2021 CrossFit Games well underway — the finale of which takes place from July 27 through August 1 in Madison, WI — there’s not a better time to relive some of the most intense and fiery throwdowns in years past. Below, we detail some of the most rewatchable moments of the CrossFit Games, from nail-biting finishes to mind-blowing feats of fitness.
2009: Khalipa vs. Spealler in The Sandbag Sprint
Simple but devastating, the 2009 Sandbag Sprint is an event that athletes still reference whenever the CrossFit Ranch comes up in conversation. The task was: sprint roughly 170 meters uphill while carrying two 35-pound sandbags.
Heat six, in particular, was memorable: Reigning champ and big-muscled Jason Khalipa seemed to have this one in the bag. However, as Khalipa trudged up the hill with big steps, the small-and-mighty Chris Spealler surprised him and second-place Brandon Phillips at the end with the “grunt work” engine he’d later become known for. Spealler would split the middle and edge them both out at the end by a couple of seconds to take the heat.
Note: Heat six begins at the 22:05 mark in the video below. Watch a little past the finish for some fun post-sprint chatter.
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2012: Elisabeth Akinwale vs. the Sledgehammer in Double Banger
Every year there seems to be a new implement at the CrossFit Games. In 2012, it was a sledgehammer and metal blocks that athletes had to hammer down three tracks set at varying heights, preceded by 50 double-unders. It was an odd sight watching arguably some of the strongest men and women on earth struggle to move their weights barely centimeters at a time. But Elisabeth Akinwale flexed her brain as one of the few athletes to harness the power of physics in this event.
Rather than choking up on the hammer and using brute force to whack it into the weight, she let the weight of the hammer pick up speed as she swung it rapidly and methodically, providing maximum force for each exertion. Akinwale would take the event handily, nearly 40 seconds ahead of eventual 2012 Games winner Annie Thorisdottir.
2014: Bridges vs. Froning in Push Pull
In his last CrossFit Games as an individual, Rich Froning came into this event sitting in fifth place overall in the closest men’s field the Games had seen, led by then-rookie Mat Fraser. It was Josh Bridges who did everything in his power to hold Froning off for one more event.
In a ladder of ascending deficit handstand push-ups and increasingly heavy sled pulls, Bridges, Froning, and Fraser traded off the lead in the five-minute event, and it came down to the last sled pull between Froning and Bridges, both doing it seated with gargantuan pulls. Bridges used his entire five-foot-five frame to get every inch possible, yanking the rope to the ground with him with each pull. It would be enough to best Froning by two seconds. Fraser finished in sixth place. (Of course, Froning would go on to win out the final three events to receive his final individual crown.)
2016: Fraser vs. Smith in Suicide Sprints
2016 was Mat Fraser’s breakout year after coming in second to Ben Smith the year prior, and this was the event where he made a statement. After placing in the middle to lower part of the men’s pack in earlier heats, it seemed nonstructural cardio was a chink in his armor. In the final heat, Marcus Filly had the field in the first couple lengths, but Smith overtook him in the final turn.
Then, seemingly out of nowhere, Fraser found his afterburners and beat out Smith to take the event after hanging with the pack for most of the event.
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2016: Cameraman Marston Sawyers vs. the Entire Men’s Final Heat in Suicide Sprints
Watch the above video again — specifically the bottom of the screen at the 36-second mark.
That’s the moment that Marston Sawyers — now one half of the Buttery Bros — made a name for himself as “that camera guy who just outsprinted the men’s field in the final heat.” Granted, Sawyers didn’t have the fatigue of sprinting the first few field lengths (much less competing in the events prior), but it takes a fit human to keep up with Mat Fraser at any level of fatigue. And Sawyers — who must’ve double-scooped his pre-workout that day — did it hauling a camera kit. We hope someone got this guy a protein shake.
2017: Saunders vs. Toomey in Fibonacci Final
This was one of the most iconic finishes in CrossFit. Tia-Clair Toomey-Orr, who had finished behind Katrín Davíðsdóttir the previous two years, was quite literally inches from clenching her first Games win, six points ahead of fellow Aussie, Kara Saunders (who competed as Kara Webb at the time). The Fibonacci Final ended with 89 feet worth of 35-pound double overhead kettlebell lunges, and Toomey did most of it, trading the lead with Saunders.
On the final stretch, steps ahead of Saunders, Toomey-Orr couldn’t lock out her arms during a lunge and received a no-rep penalty, giving Saunders time to catch up. Saunders ended up edging her out by a tenth of a second, and for the next few minutes, the CrossFit world held its breath as scorekeepers and judges factored in how placements in previous heats would separate the two leading ladies. Toomey, of course, took the crown and has run with it ever since.
2017: CrossFit Mayhem vs. Wasatch CrossFit in Burpee Litter
The Games had its first year in Madison, WI in 2017, and received a midwest welcome with hay bale events. The burpee litter was a fun event to watch (though it couldn’t have been comfortable to compete in). Wearing body armor, team members took turns being carried on a “litter” run before finishing the event with 18 hay bale burpees.
When teams finished their last burpees, there were three lengths of hay bale hurdles to sprint over to get to the finish line. With no clear heat leader throughout most of the event, it was in the final seconds that CrossFit Wasatch started throwing themselves over hay bales first on their way to the finish line, with Mayhem on their heels.
If you rewatch the video, you can almost see the light bulb go off in CrossFit Mayhem Captain Rich Froning’s head, as he realized just the team member with the chip timer needed to beat Wasatch, not the entire team — and he had it. Froning threw himself over the last couple of hay bales as his team members trailed and hit the finish mat just ahead of Wasatch to take second in the very itchy event.
2018: Horvath vs. Davíðsdóttir in Two-Stroke Pull
This event seemed written for “sled dog” and two-time Games winner Katrin Davíðsdóttir, who’s known for putting her head down and getting the work done. Oh, and there was a sled pull. The workout included five rounds of a 300-meter run, 15 calories on the Assault bike, and a 44-foot sled pull.
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Davíðsdóttir had the lead to herself for the first three rounds, but the field started gaining on her in the fourth round. Davíðsdóttir was first off the assault bikes and jogged to her sled, with Horvath right behind her. Horvath picked up her rope first and grabbed her rope with a hand-over-hand approach, and left Davíðsdóttir in the dust for the last round.
The rookie from Hungary was nameless no more and would go on to take another event win and place second overall at her first CrossFit Games.
2019: Toomey-Orr vs. Barnhart in The Clean Ladder
This entire event was pretty epic, on both the men’s and women’s sides. It’s not often at the CrossFit Games we get to slow down and watch the athletes attack one lift at a time. The cleans opened at 215 pounds for the top 10 women.
Starting at 240 pounds, Toomey-Orr and Amanda Barnhart had out lifted the other competitors, lifting head-to-head at five-pound jumps for the next six lifts. Toomey — also an Olympic weightlifter who represented Australia in the 2016 Olympic Games and won the 2018 Commonwealth Games — would eventually take the event after successfully cleaning the 265-pound barbell Barnhart missed.
2020: Medeiros vs. Fraser…vs. Castro in the Ranch Loop
In the fifth event of the pared-down 2020 CrossFit Games final stage, athletes took off on what they thought would be about a 1.5-mile run. Run is putting it lightly, as the athletes were met with a 55-percent grade hill that had them walking with hands on their knees and, at some points, practically crawling.
Four-time Games champ Mat Fraser (who retired in February of 2021) kept the lead for most of the run, but 21-year-old rookie Justin Medeiros had him close, taking the lead on the downhill portion momentarily. Fraser pushed past him just before the finish line… or what they thought was the finish line. CrossFit Games Director Dave Castro informed them they were only halfway done with the event and instructed them to turn around and run the course in reverse. After some choice words and gestures were exchanged, both men headed back up the hill. Fraser would take the event, with Medeiros finishing second.
Featured image: Courtesy of CrossFit