Breaking Down Kara Saunders’ 10 Years of CrossFit Excellence

2022 marked Kara Saunders' 10th CrossFit season, and further punctuates why she'll go down as one of the best ever.

When Kara Saunders won the final event of the 2022 Rogue Invitational, there was plenty of history to take stock of. If this is indeed her last competitive season, and that is not confirmed, she would have won the final heat in her last event at the 2022 CrossFit Games, topping that off a few months later with an event win in what could be her final event ever at the Rogue Invitational.

The Australian athlete placed seventh in both of her 2022 performances, proving that she is still a force at the two most prestigious CrossFit competitions.  

Saunders has taken a back seat to the greatest woman CrossFitter of all time in recent years. Still, before anyone knew the name Tia-Clair Toomey, it was Saunders — also known as Kara Gordon and then Kara Webb throughout her career — who carried the mantle for women competitors hailing from Australia. And while there’s no official word on her future in CrossFit, here’s a breakdown of her incredible 10-year career.

Editor’s Note: This article is an op-ed. The views expressed herein and in the video are the author’s and don’t necessarily reflect the views of BarBend. Claims, assertions, opinions, and quotes have been sourced exclusively by the author.

Carrying the Mantle for Australia

By the time Toomey came onto the scene in 2015, Saunders had already won Regional titles in 2012 and 2013 and came second in 2014 by one point to Denae Brown in Australia.

At this point in her career, Saunders also competed at the CrossFit Games three times. She placed 19th in her rookie season in 2012, improved to 12th the following year, and was battling with eventual champion Camille Leblanc-Bazinet in 2014 until she withdrew on Sunday morning due to a neck injury.

A CrossFit Games Threat in 2015

Saunders likely would have been in contention for the 2015 CrossFit Games title as well if not for the unfortunate incident with heat stroke during Murph, which greatly affected her performance in the subsequent Snatch Speed Ladder event.

When you look at Saunders’ resume in similar events, it becomes obvious that her 21st-place finish in that event is an outlier relative to other similar tests:

Event (year) Saunders
Clean Ladder (2012) 10th
Clean and Jerk (2013) 4th
Overhead Squat (2014) 1st
Clean Speed Ladder (2014) 3rd
Snatch Speed Ladder (2015) 21st
Clean and Jerk (2015) 9th
Squat Clean Pyramid (2016) 1st
1-RM Snatch (2017) 1st
CrossFit Total (2018) 8th
Clean and Jerk (2018) 3rd

Her resume speaks for itself. She’s excellent with a barbell — not just for load, but also for speed. It happens at the Games all the time; a previous event affects how an athlete performs in a subsequent event. And in the case of 2015, it was a major blow for Saunders to take such an uncharacteristically low finish on an event she would excel at.

This is not meant to detract at all from the accomplishments of Katrin Davidsdottir, Tia-Clair Toomey, Sara Sigmundsdottir, or Samantha Briggs, the four women who beat Saunders in 2015. But when you dig into the numbers, you’ll see that the first-place Davidsdottir won with only 87 more points than Saunders, who finished fifth. That’s the second-smallest gap from first to fifth on the women’s side in any similarly scored season:

Year First-Place Points Fifth-Place Points Points Gap
2017 994 914 80
2015 790 703 87
2013 920 811 109
2011 842 730 112
2014 918 780 138
2012 1062 887 175
2016 984 804 180
2022 1158 904 254
2018 1154 866 288
2021 1435 995 440

This serves to emphasize how close Saunders has been to winning the Games on several occasions throughout her career.

Head-to-Head With Tia-Clair Toomey

After a slight step backward to seventh place at the 2016 CrossFit Games, Saunders battled it out with Toomey in 2017 in arguably the most famous championship bout in the sport’s history. Here’s the breakdown:

Event Toomey Saunders
Run Swim Run 1 10
Cyclocross 8 23
Amanda .45 2 6
Sprint O-Course 12 17
1-RM Snatch 2 1
Triple G Chipper 12 1
Assault Banger 14 2
Strongman’s Fear 7 8
Muscle-Up Clean Ladder 1 2
Heavy 17.5 2 1
Madison Triplet 3 9
2223 Intervals 14 4
Fibonacci Final 8 7
Average Event Finish 6.615384615 7
Head-to-Head Wins 7 6

Toomey got out to a great start that year, especially compared to Saunders. But beginning with the 1-Rep Max Snatch in event five, Saunders pulled off five out of six straight first- or second-place finishes to claw her way back into contention. It was a back-and-forth battle as Toomey got the best of her on the Madison Triplet, while Saunders fought back with the 2223 Intervals.

Heading into the final, it could hardly have been closer. And in one of the most famous finishes in CrossFit Games history, Saunders narrowly beat Toomey across the line following a no-rep on the last step of an overhead lunge by Toomey. When the dust settled, Toomey had a two-point lead over Saunders and became the 2017 CrossFit Games champion (her first of six in a row). But for Saunders, this was now three out of four years in which she was maddeningly close to earning that title for herself.

Sanctional Era and Off-Season Competitions

Saunders has been competing long enough to see the CrossFit season and qualification process go through several iterations. She’s also been selective in her choices of where and when to participate in off-season events.

She’s never taken the long journey to Miami to compete at Wodapalooza, and has only competed once at the Dubai Fitness Championship (DFC). In her lone DFC appearance in 2017, she placed third behind two-time CrossFit Games champ Annie Thorisdottir (who won) and a young Laura Horvath who had broken through to podium in Dubai. Saunders managed to finish ahead of other legends in the sport like Samantha Briggs, Kristin Holte, and Kari Pearce.

Saunders did not participate in any Sanctionals during the 2018-2019 season when she was pregnant. But she did compete twice the following season (2019-2020) after giving birth and remarkably picked right back up where she left off. Though it wasn’t the strongest Sanctional field that year, Saunders competed and won the Australian CrossFit Championships in March of 2020, taking first in six of the 12 scored events and finishing fourth or better in 11 of the 12 workouts.

She also participated in the online version of the Rogue Invitational that season, a unique event in the sport’s history because athletes all over the world, regardless of the time of day, completed the workouts simultaneously (but blindly). For Saunders, this meant doing workouts in the middle of the night.

The field was small but impressive, and Saunders once again excelled. She took third behind Toomey and Sigmundsdottir and managed to beat Jamie Simmonds, Horvath, and a host of other top-level Games athletes.

Kara Saunders’ Return in 2020

When Saunders returned in 2020, the sport was significantly altered by the worldwide pandemic. Ultimately, a majority of the Games athletes, Saunders among them, had to compete in the only ever online version of the CrossFit Games.

Saunders did very well. However, like Holte and Amanda Barnhart, she came up a few points short of making the final five that year. She settled for an eighth-place finish online and set her sights on 2021.

The pandemic affected the landscape for Semifinals again in 2021. Toomey was competing in North America (where she was living at the time), and the door was open for Saunders to dominate the field at the Torian Pro in Brisbane, Australia. She won by nearly 100 points and seemed poised for another podium run at the Games. The excitement surrounding that possibility, however, was cut short due to illness, as she was forced to withdraw during the Games.

That brings us to 2022. Finally, Toomey was able to return to Australia to compete in Semifinals where the two titans went head to head. Toomey took a clean sweep, winning all the events and all the points, but Saunders had four seconds, a third, and a fifth, and certainly sent a message to the rest of the division around the world that Toomey wasn’t the only serious contender from down under.

Kara Saunders’ Career Achievements

With 10 years of competition now under her belt, here’s where Saunders stands in terms of some of her best career achievements:

  • 10 CrossFit Games qualifications in 11 years
  • Seven event wins at the CrossFit Games
    • 2014: Overhead Squat
    • 2015: Pier Paddle
    • 2016: Squat Clean Pyramid
    • 2017: 1 RM Snatch, Triple G Chipper, Heavy 17.5
    • 2018: Bicouplet 1
    • This places her fifth all-time behind Toomey, Thorisdottir, Davidsdottir, and Briggs.
  • Six top-10 finishes at the CrossFit Games
    • 2015: Fifth
    • 2016: Seventh
    • 2017: Second
    • 2018: Fourth
    • 2020: Eighth
    • 2022: Seventh
    • This places her fourth all-time behind Toomey (8), Thorisdottir (7), and Davidsdottir (7)
  • Six Regional/Semifinal wins; three second-place finishes 
    • First: 2012, 2013, 2015, 2016, 2017, 2021
    • Second: 2014, 2018, 2022
    • Those are nine of her 10 appearances, and with the exception of placing ninth in 2011, she’s never been anything other than first or second. 
  • Four top-three worldwide Open performances
    • Second place: 2015 and 2018
    • Third place: 2016 and 2021
  • Five appearances at the CrossFit Invitational from 2013 to 2017, which is tied for the most all-time with Rich Froning Jr.

A Decade of Excellence

Saunders’ elite athleticism has allowed her to seriously challenge for the title of Fittest Woman on Earth® three different times. And throughout all the ups and downs, she’s shown what a career of hard work and determination looks like.

If you haven’t had a chance to see Saunders in her prime, go back and watch some of the world-class performances mentioned above. She’s one of the best to ever do it, and there’s a lot one can all learn from how she competed during her career.

Featured Image: Patrick Clark / Athlete’s Eye Photography