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CrossFit has exploded in popularity in the past couple years, due in large part to the CrossFit Games. The international fitness competition will likely have over 100,000 participants this year, up from 70,000 last year. After picking up sponsorship from Reebok the games were televised nationally on ESPN last year, and top CrossFit Games athletes will appear on the upcoming season of The Biggest Loser.
Cortese says CrossFit has really brought the "secret" of Olympic lifting out of the gym and into the limelight. "A huge part of CrossFit is the Olympic lifts. Before that, you'd never see bumper plates in commerical gyms." In the past four years, USA Weightlifting, the governing body of the sport in this country, has seen an increase in members, some estimates putting the boost as high as 30 percent (a spokesperson at the organization did not have exact figures).
CrossFit is one of the few franchise gyms that focuses on the sport as part of overall fitness, and Sapir has doubled the number of Olympic lifting classes she offers. Competitors in the CrossFit Games focus on Olympic lifting, she says, since "that's the weak link in their performance, because it's the hardest thing they do."
So it's not necessarily about strength, and it's not entirely about flexibility. But it's more than just technique. It's about mental toughness. "The more you think, it kind of backfires on you a bit," says Cortese. "The best lifters are the ones who just go up to the bar and do it."
Flynn agrees. "This is really a mental sport," she says. "You push yourself to keep going. You tell yourself you can do it."
- BACKBREAKER Freddie Myles assists USC decathalon athlete Jemal Williams, 19, with a lift in Petaluma.
Woodacre resident Tamara Holland, 51, has been lifting for a year. Olympic lifting is "very humbling," she says. But the strength and confidence she gains from the sport is worth it. Like most lifters, she doesn't look like someone to be afraid of in a dark alley, but make no mistake: she's sizing up everyone around her.
"It's really fun looking around, knowing I can deadlift people," she says.
WHITE LIGHT, WHITE HEAT
With every muscle pulled tight, I deadlift nearly my own weight and bump the bar against my thighs, propelling it straight up with enough force to give myself time to get underneath and catch it on my collarbone. Balancing for a second, I stand to complete the front squat and a successful clean of 100 kilograms. Air is a precious commodity now, and I should wait to catch my breath. But adrenaline is fading fast. I gasp and toss the weight above my head with all remaining strength. Simultaneously throwing my legs into a lunge while pushing myself under the bar to lock out my arms, my feet land with the loud thwack of my wood-heeled shoes on the platform. My arms lock enough to ensure the weight doesn't fall, and I stand up, feet together, to see white lights staring me in the face.
Two hundred and twenty pounds. Just like that, I am still alive in this competition.