Annie Thorisdottir could lead the Icelandic Women to an Unprecidented Sweep at the CrossFit Games
The 2016 CrossFit Games could see Icelandic Women sweep the podium. Why is Iceland such a powerhouse, and can Annie Thorisdottir, twice the fittest woman on earth, regain her place on top?
CrossFit Reykjavik, one of the world's biggest and most famous CrossFit gyms, is not easy to find. It occupies a basement warehouse in central Reykjavik tucked into the corner of a vast shopping/logistics area, where two large roads make a cloverleaf. To get to the gym, you must come from the far end of the parking lot, past the big box stores and the pizza joint and the cafe and the furniture store and the other warehouses, and then head down a large outdoor staircase. Once underground, the scene abruptly changes from one of potholed blacktop and industrial grit to the more sanitized chrome and concrete industrial look ubiquitous to CrossFit "boxes," as they're called by the devoted, around the world.
When I visited recently, I found the inside blissfully warm and wind-free. The sounds of blenders churning up protein shakes, along with muffled grunts and the clanking of barbells, filled the air. Just inside, there is a large desk and a couch-filled waiting nook, beyond which is a glass wall. I watched from this window as a class of about twenty people did burpees and pullups. A coach strolled the floor, critiquing technique and offering encouragement. Behind the group, farther into the cavernous space, another workout was taking place, in an area segregated from the rest of the gym by lifting equipment and support beams—a kind of fishbowl within a fishbowl. The two men in the space each wore black t-shirts with the word "Dottir" on the back. They were joined by a woman. She was tall and wide and reddish-blond, and wore a sports bra and workout tights. Her six pack, even from this distance, was almost comically defined, like that of a life-sized 1980s action figure. The woman was Annie Thorisdottir, two-time CrossFit world champion, and CrossFit Reykjavik is her gym.
Annie and her two coaches—Jami Tikkanen and her boyfriend Frederik Aegidius—looked to be fine-tuning her squat technique as she entered the final preparations for what might be the biggest week of her life. From July 22nd through the 24th, Annie will once again compete against 40 of the world's best female athletes for the title of Fittest Woman on Earth, which she has held twice before, in 2011 and 2012. In 2013, Annie missed the Games due to an injured back. In 2014, still not fully recovered, she took second. Last year, she left the tournament early after suffering heat stroke during a mid-day event in the oven-like Southern California summer conditions.
If things go right, 2016 will be her redemption. But last year, in her absence, the field changed. To complete her comeback, Annie will have to defeat her toughest opponents yet: Ragnheiður Sara Sigmundsdottir and Katrin Tanja Davidsdottir, both of whom hail from Iceland. Last year, Sara took third in her CrossFit Games debut while Katrin won. Another Icelandic woman, Thuridur Erla Helgadottir, also qualified for the Games, but she is not a podium favorite. None of them were even competing when Annie won her first title. This year, it seems probable that Icelandic women will sweep the podium. In what order, nobody knows.
The question, then, isn't so much whether Annie can again become the Fittest Women on Earth, but whether she's even the fittest woman in Iceland.
Elite CrossFit athletes are not yet household names, but that might soon change. As the CrossFit-style workout—a mix of Olympic-style weightlifting, gymnastics, and interval training—has gone from fad to mainstream, the growth of CrossFit as a sport has begun to look decidedly less fringe. In 2011, ESPN began live broadcasts of the CrossFit Games, giving the nascent sport increased visibility. That same year, Reebok and CrossFit signed a 10-year sponsorship deal. The shoe company bankrolls the now $2.2 million prize pool—which male and female athletes share equally.
The competitive side of CrossFit has also done a good job of tapping into its now-enormous base. Today, there are more than 11,000 gyms worldwide. Every spring, each gym member has the opportunity to participate in a global tournament, known as "the Open." Unaffiliated athletes who work out at home can also participate. Everyone taking part does the same workout, timed, and if possible, with the same weight. In 2016, 324,307 CrossFitters participated. The best went on to regional competitions, and the top five from the eight regions qualified for the Games. (Full disclosure: I am a member of a CrossFit affiliate but have never participated in the Open or any other CrossFit competition.)
Regardless of how the four Icelandic women do, this summer will probably see their profiles rise like never before, because the world recently discovered Iceland as a sporting nation. In July, the Icelandic men's national soccer team played in its first ever European Championship. The team made a deep, improbable run, scoring in all of its matches and defeating England before going out in the quarterfinals to eventual finalist, and home team, France.
It was a remarkable achievement, not least because Iceland was the smallest nation to ever take part in a major men's tournament. Before the tournament began, journalists from around the world—myself included—descended on the Iceland to tell the story of how? The short version was this: Icelanders built infrastructure so players could play year-round and put educated coaches to work at those facilities, training the nation's youth.
There's a problem with that story, though. It left out half of Iceland's population.
It may have been the Icelandic men's first trip to the European Championships, but by the time the men took the field last month, the Icelandic women had already been to the Euros—twice. In other sports, they're even more dominant, perhaps none more so than in CrossFit.
When it comes to Iceland's female CrossFitters, the story of how? is not as simple—or at least not as obvious—as the one about the men at the Euros. The answer isn't coaching or infrastructure. If there is an answer at all, it lies in the demographics, and in Iceland's approach to gender equality, where, much like its women CrossFitters, the nation is often ranked number one in the world.
One of the more amazing tidbits about Iceland's CrossFit dominance is that there wasn't a single CrossFit gym in all of Iceland until 2008, when a man named Evert Víglundsson traveled to the United States to get his coaching license and then opened a gym in his Reykjavik garage.
Evert is 44, with short, silver hair, chiseled features, and the physique of a competitive bodybuilder, which he was in his 20s. "It's a crazy world," he told me, remembering his days as a bodybuilder. "It's a sport that's based on someone's opinion of how you look."
Evert longed for something that was more objectively competitive but also required the full-body workout he'd become accustomed to during his long gym sessions. For years, Evert couldn't really find anything. He tried various fitness and workout fads, and around 2000, he and a friend opened a business training people in boot camp-style workouts. "If you can imagine a drill sergeant and private soldiers from a movie, " Evert said, describing his boot camp, "where [the drill sergeant] just stands over you and screams at you, makes you do a lot of pushups and a lot of squats and a lot of running and jumping, carrying your friends—something like that."
Evert first met Annie at one of these boot camp sessions back in 2002 or 2003—neither can remember exactly. "Straight on you saw she had something others didn't," Evert recalled. "She has more endurance, more willpower. She never quit."
At the time, Annie was a competitive ballroom dancer and pole vaulter. Her dream was to pole vault in the Olympics, and her coach was Icelandic Olympian Thórey Edda Elísdóttir. When she quit dancing to focus on pole vaulting, she began feeling as though pole vaulting alone wasn't giving her a good enough workout. She went looking for something else, and she found Evert.
Because Annie was so busy, she was constantly late. "I think she made it a thing to show up late, because you got punished," remembered Evert, who would make Annie, when late, do 100 burpees or 100 push ups before joining the rest of the group, or wear a weight vest throughout the workout. (The following day, I asked Annie if she was late on purpose. "No," she said with a laugh, before conceding that the extra work "got me a lot better.")
By 2009, Evert had established his at-home CrossFit box, called CrossFit Iceland (Evert and a business partner opened CrossFit Reykjavik later in 2009.) Evert had begun transitioning away from bootcamp. That same year, he put together Iceland's first CrossFit Championship. It was small. Evert thinks maybe 50 people were doing CrossFit in the whole country back then. He asked Annie to participate.
"I had my oral math exam the same day," Annie said. "I was graduating from school. It was not really working, I had never done CrossFit. I was like, 'we'll see.'"
Annie ended up going right from the test to the competition, taking cat naps between events. "We had kettlebell swings, we had deadlifts, we had clean and jerks—stuff I just taught her on the spot, how to move the bar," remembered Evert, "because in the boot camp setting there are no weights. Just body weight movements. And she won. It was crazy. She won."
Today, everyone in Iceland knows the name Annie Thorisdottir. Her renown is probably the single greatest factor in CrossFit's explosive growth in the country. Iceland's Capital Region, which has a population of around 200,000, has six CrossFit gyms today. Annie became a part-owner of CrossFit Reykjavik after her success at the Games, and her gym alone has nearly 1,500 members. Incredibly, both Annie and Evert believe demand in Iceland is still rising.
With a total population of just 330,000 people, it's not uncommon to hear a joke in Iceland about how everybody knows everybody. The funny part is that they're just barely exaggerating. During the Euro Cup, Icelandic defender Kári Árnason estimated that he knew "at least 50 percent of the people in the crowd." The population is so small that there's a dating app that tells users if the person they've just met—say, late night at one of Reykjavik's famous bars—is a close relative or not. (Fourth cousin or greater is apparently the rule.)
Viewed from the outside, such a small place can seem uncomfortably insular. But Iceland's demographics have their advantages. The small population lends itself to a collective ethos that simply doesn't exist in bigger countries, and when it comes to sports, knowing everybody is undoubtedly a good thing, leading to a kind of intimate competition and belief in one's own success.
Anna Hulda Ólafsdóttir, another one of CrossFit Reykjavik's elite athletes, is a good example. Anna holds a number of Iceland's Olympic lifting records, in addition to a PhD in industrial engineering, and has been to the CrossFit Games numerous times, although she competes with CrossFit Reykjavik's team rather than as an individual, like Annie. The two women have known one another since they were girls, when they competed together on Iceland's national gymnastics team.
"When she won [the Games], I think a lot of people related like I did," Anna said. "I was like, 'If she can do it, I can.' I mean, I know her. I knew how fit she was when she was younger."
"I think there is probably a lot of people who feel this," Anna continued.
Another place Iceland's small population is an advantage is in the country's quest for gender equality. A 2011 report by the World Economic Forum ranked Iceland number one in the world when it comes to gender equality, a category where Iceland has lead the way, globally, for some time. In 1975, Icelandic women across the country famously went on strike, demanding more equitability in Icelandic society. Five years later, Iceland elected the world's first female head of state.
When I asked Kristín Ástgeirsdóttir, the director of Iceland's Center for Gender Equality, if she thought Iceland's high gender equality might in some way account for the country's impressive output of female athletes, she told me she was "fairly sure that it hangs together. For the last 50 years, women have been encouraged to educate themselves, to take part in the labour market, to be free, to run their own lives, and so on. And maybe, for the last 10-20 years we've been focusing more on sport, because there were not many women in sport. The stereotype was the sport made women too muscular or not feminine enough, but now Icelandic women don't give a damn."
Kristin's point about female body image was prescient. Female CrossFitters are often praised for challenging the popular concept of the feminine beauty. Annie told me journalists regularly ask her about female body image, and specifically whether men find her intimidating. The implication is that, by excelling at a sport that requires large muscles, she's in some way taking an almost political stance. She said she never really thought about it until 2011, when she first won the games.
"I've had a six pack since I was eight years old," Annie said. "I don't think it's because I'm that much stronger. I'm just built that way. There was a period where I was like, I need to get rid of this thing, because I don't like it when I wear dresses. But I'm not willing to get less fit. If I had to pick either one [fitting the popular feminine norm or being muscular], I would always pick getting fitter. I would always pick feeling better."
"I feel like the perception is changing a little bit," she continued. "Not that being strong is the new beautiful, but being healthy is the new beautiful. Taking care of yourself."
Taking care of yourself has in many ways been the theme of Annie's last year. The disappointment of her heatstroke still seems close to the surface. She had been in the best shape of her life, but failed to complete the Games through no fault of her own.
"I want to go again," she said. "I want to win. Obviously that's my goal. But most importantly I want to be satisfied with the weekend at the end of the weekend. I'm going to go in again in the best shape of my life, and hopefully there won't be fails. I will be able to show the world what I can do."
With last year's "fail" clearly on the mind, Annie went to California early and has spent the last several weeks training in the California heat, hoping to acclimate to the weather and avoid another heat stroke.
She's going in with a plan, in other words, but after this Games things seem far less clear. At some point, Annie wants to compete on a team with Frederick, an experienced CrossFit Games athlete in his own right, but it would be impossible to compete as an individual and on a team at the same Games, so she'd have to choose one or the other.
"We'll see," she said. "I'm definitely not tired of this yet."
Part of the continued the draw, no doubt, are the other Icelandic women. "They're really solid," Annie told me before she and Fredrick headed to the spa and then prepared for their afternoon training. "I'm not just looking at the world. I actually need to think about the Icelandic girls as well, which is pretty sick.
"I won the games in 2011. If I can do it, why can't they?"