More Than Champions
By Brittney Saline
MADRID — It was the first week of December, days before the USA Team would earn its second consecutive CrossFit Invitational victory, defeating the Canada Team by a 6-point margin after five events at the 2015 Reebok CrossFit Invitational.
Team members from the United States, Europe, Canada and the Pacific arrived one week prior to the competition, splitting their time between training, recovery and seeing the sights of Spain — most of them, anyway. While her teammates rested, snug in their beds, Camille Leblanc-Bazinet studied by the cold blue light of her computer screen before the sun rose each day.
“After (practice) I would be being pulled left and right to do some photo shoot, and then instead of (visiting) Spain after like everyone else, I was just going back to try to finish my schoolwork,” she said.
In her final semester at the University of Sherbrooke in Quebec, Canada, Leblanc-Bazinet was just months from finishing her bachelor’s degree in chemical engineering. In the days before the Invitational, she worked on her final project, designing a method to convert recycled plastics into carbon nanotubes.
She’s also the 2014 Reebok CrossFit Games champion, a CrossFit Level 1 Seminar Staff member, founder of CLB Fitness, ambassador for numerous sponsors and the newly minted director of programming for ICE NYC, a New York fitness center.
Fans, accustomed to the champ’s buoyant charisma, don’t always see the effort behind her winning smile.
“Most of the time I just feel really, really overwhelmed,” Leblanc-Bazinet said. “You need to be always happy and excited, and truly inside you just want to yell and punch walls because you need to finish your fucking project.”
There is life before and after the CrossFit Games, even for champions. Champions like Leblanc-Bazinet, Annie Thorisdottir and Katrin Davidsdottir, women renowned for moving large loads long distances, quickly, and less known for the years they spent studying chemistry, engineering and law. Each found CrossFit while pursuing other careers; each whose CrossFit career shaped her professional path forever.
“My Mind Gave Out”
Little Davidsdottir always wanted to be just like her grandfather. If he was in the room, she was there beside him. Once, she even tried to pee standing up. And as a lawyer and Iceland’s former ambassador to the United States, Denmark and England, he inspired in Davidsdottir a love for law since age 6.
“I wanted to be one of those people on ‘Law and Order’ or ‘CSI,’” she said.
In school, Davidsdottir was a math fiend, never scoring below 95 percent. At home, she loved to solve puzzles; she once used Pythagorean’s Theorem to decipher a complex math problem at the dinner table to impress a mathematician family friend. So when she enrolled at the University of Iceland in 2012, it seemed natural that she study engineering.
“It was practical,” she said. “Just because I did really well with anything with numbers, math or physics.”
But talent doesn’t always mean passion. Though she excelled, she bored of the program after just one year, switching to law for her second. She loved the lectures and class discussions, but essays and readings didn’t come as easily as calculations. She struggled to keep her grades up.
“I just had a really hard time sitting down and reading, it would just go in and out,” she said. “I think the idea of being a lawyer was way better than it actually was.”
As she labored over readings — 100 pages each night — she found her thoughts wandering to another passion: CrossFit. After more than 10 years of gymnastics, Davidsdottir began CrossFit at CrossFit BC in 2011. Three months into training, she knew she wanted to make it to the Games. Six months later, she took 30th place in the 2012 Reebok CrossFit Games, after less than a year of CrossFit.
Still, school came first. Born to academic parents — her father is a math professor and her mother has a master’s degree in English literature — school had always come first.
“If I really had to, it happened that I skipped (gymnastics) practice because I had to study,” Davidsdottir said.
But CrossFit’s priority increased with her fitness. After placing 24th at the Games in 2013, she joined CrossFit Reykjavik and added “coach” to her resume in 2014, leading three to four CrossFit classes per day in addition to four hours of school and her own training. No matter how high the homework piled, she fit in her evening training session.
“It escalated really, really quickly,” she said. “I wasn’t bad at school, but I would never skip training.”
It all unraveled at the Europe Regional in 2014, when a 24th-place finish in Event 5 sent Davidsdottir plummeting from first to seventh place on Day 2, a fall further than she would recover from on Day 3. She finished in sixth, missing Games qualification by three places.
“I was in my best shape ever at that point, and I think … I was definitely in shape to make it to the Games, it was more that my mind kind of gave out,” Davidsdottir said.
A Test of Conviction
Thorisdottir wanted to be a doctor.
“I was just always interested in how the human body worked,” she said, “and I wanted to work with people and try to help people.”
When she reached the Icelandic equivalent of high school — where students select schools and courses that lead toward a specific profession — she chose the path that would prepare her to study medicine one day. In the fall of 2009, she enrolled at the University of Reykjavik to study biochemistry, the first step toward medical school. Just two months earlier, she took 11th place in the 2009 CrossFit Games, where she famously earned her first muscle-up in the heat of competition.
From the fall of 2009 until the spring of 2011, Thorisdottir studied. The work was easy for her and she enjoyed her classes. But the lonely hours spent measuring solutions and waiting for reactions in the lab were less appealing.
“I prefer working with people,” she said.
She had other projects on her mind, as well. In the summer of 2010, she opened CrossFit Reykjavik, adding coaching and gym ownership to her workload. And after she took second place in the 2010 CrossFit Games, she thought perhaps CrossFit deserved the top spot in her life.
“I just really enjoyed training and I knew that … if it was even slightly possible for me to do that as a profession I wanted to,” she said. “And being so close to winning, I realized I stood a chance of actually winning.”
Thorisdottir balanced school, coaching and training for one year before taking a break from her studies after her spring semester in 2011. The plan was to win the 2011 Reebok CrossFit Games and then go back to school.
“My friends that don’t do CrossFit, they didn’t really understand my decision, but … at least they didn’t say it out loud to me that they thought it was stupid,” she said, laughing. “And I think after I won the Games (in) 2011, I kind of proved that it was the right decision for me to make.”
She hasn’t been back in the classroom since.
“It’s always just gone one more year and one more year,” she added. “And I’m still not 100 percent away from the idea of going to med school, but the longer I do this, obviously, the more unlikely it is that I’m gonna do that.”
For Thorisdottir herself, conviction that she’d made the right choice came in the form of a Facebook message she received after becoming the Fittest Woman on Earth in 2011, from a girl with an eating disorder.
“She wrote me a message saying how I had inspired her and influenced her into a healthier lifestyle,” Thorisdottir said. “And she felt like I had saved her life. And reading through that message, I just all of the sudden realized how much I was influencing people without even knowing it.”
The realization gave her a new sense of purpose for her life: being a positive role model for girls and women.
“It made me realize how much power and how much responsibility came with being in the front,” she said. “After that, I kind of started trying to just find out ways that I could help people and making sure I would always be a positive role model, and that’s the image I want to bring in for women. I’m not saying that everyone needs to be strong, but I would like healthy to be beautiful enough for women.”
Her conviction was tested two years later, when a back injury — a herniated disc — sidelined her from the 2013 Games season. Recovering her spirit was now just as important as rehabilitating her body. She had a choice: Let the injury consume her, or turn it into a platform for positivity.
“That was really hard for me,” Thorisdottir recounted. “I admit, I did give up multiple times.”
Finding Her Focus
When the 2014 Reebok CrossFit Games kicked off in Carson, California, in July, Davidsdottir went to Morocco. Her family planned a two-week vacation there without her; when she failed to qualify for the Games, her father bought another plane ticket.
Far from the competition lights, Davidsdottir lay on the beach, reflecting and reading. She buried herself in the pages of “Gold Rush” by Michael Johnson, four-time Olympic gold medalist who climbed back to the top after food poisoning led to his elimination in the 200-m semifinals in 1992.
Davidsdottir was encouraged by Johnson’s story.
“So, just like seeing that athletes don’t have a straight way to the top,” she said. “There are big ups and downs … a downfall just like that can make you push so much harder. It could break (me) or it could actually show me how much I wanted to be at the Games.”
Her failure also made her reassess how she spent her time, Davidsdottir said. Until that point, she had been a full-time student, CrossFit athlete and coach.
“And of course that’s like being in three jobs, so it was very hard, both physically and mentally,” she said. “I didn’t feel like I was peaking anywhere; I felt like I was spread very thin, I was like 60 percent in everything.”
Sixty percent wasn’t going to get her to her goal.
“I learned how bad I wanted to be the best,” she said. “To not only be a Games athlete, but when the time came and I am out there on the starting mat, I want to know that I am the best athlete I could possibly be.”
So when she returned to Iceland, she made space to be the best. She gave most of her CrossFit classes to other coaches and reduced her course load for the fall semester, ultimately putting school on an indefinite hiatus in January of 2015.
“It was really hard because I do love being in school,” she said. “But then I just kind of decided that right now is the time for me to be an athlete. My body is not going to wait for me to be a top athlete. That can only happen right now, but school is always going to be there.”
As often as she can, Davidsdottir also travels to Boston to work with her coach, CrossFit New England’s Ben Bergeron, sometimes for up to six weeks at a time.
“There’s no school, there’s no coaching, so it’s very very focused,” she said. “That showed me that if I focus 110 percent on this, how good of an athlete I can be.”
She entered the 2015 season with a sharpened and quieted mind.
“My biggest advantage in this past year was my mentality of things,” she said. “It’s so easy to get caught up in what the other girls are posting on Instagram, like what numbers did they hit, what times did they hit? But it’s like if you’re worrying about that, none of that is gonna improve you. You need to be focusing on yourself, how can you get better, and that will give you your best result.”
She credits her mentality with her victory in July.
“I wasn’t putting myself against the other girls,” she said. “I wasn’t going to decide how hard I was going to go based on how hard others were going … just so that in every single workout it would be the best result that I could get and it would be not based on anyone else.”
For now, Davidsdottir is taking things “one year at a time.” She plans to go back to school one day, and when she does, she said it will probably be for sports psychology, a field in which she could pass on the lessons she’s learned to other athletes going through tumultuous times.
“When you’ve been an athlete yourself, when you’ve gone through the emotions and the feelings and the setbacks and the successes, I think you can help them way more,” she said. “It’s something I think I would really enjoy.”
A Purpose In Pain
An injured back was the first thing to break Thorisdottir’s smile.
“I had a hard time every once in awhile trusting my body and believing that it would be able to become the same again,” she said. “It’s hard to keep up spirit while you are in constant pain and afraid of getting hurt again.”
Everywhere she looked, she found only stories of surgery; scarce was information on how to rehabilitate without going under the knife. So she became her own experiment, seeing dozens of physiologists and other specialists before finding a chiropractor and osteopath whose weekly ART and Graston therapies helped rebuild her back.
As Thorisdottir’s strength returned, so did her ambition. She set out to help other injured athletes regain their own health, publicly documenting her recovery with a video series and responding to each of the myriad messages she received from people with their own injuries.
“I tell them that all injuries can be different and I can’t promise them anything, but I can tell them what I did,” she said. “Most importantly to be patient, find someone that is good that can work on them … (and) try to show them that it’s possible to get back on your feet. It’s a lot of hard work, but you can get back there without a surgery.”
As Thorisdottir rehabilitated her body, she also trained her mind. Longing to regain her love for training and her positive outlook, she met with Icelandic sports psychologist, Haukur Ingi, who taught her visualization techniques to regain her confidence.
Like Davidsdottir, she also poured herself into books, crediting titles like “Mind Gym” by Gary Mack and “10-Minute Toughness” by Jason Selk with teaching her “the positives of training and just trying to be happy and see the good things in life,” she said. “Because we’re really good at always finding the negatives. The same thing goes for just in normal life as in training.”
Thorisdottir stressed the importance of mental confidence and positive thinking on the competition floor.
“At the Games, for example, we’re all so similar,” she said. “We’re all in a good shape, we’re all gonna be strong and fast … but when it comes down to it, it’s who’s gonna be able to perform at their best come competition day. Where you have to work for it is when the training gets hard. Anyone who does CrossFit, especially at the competitive level, you come down on yourself pretty hard. There, I think the positivity comes a lot into the picture: Once you start failing, being able to lift yourself up, not needing other people to lift yourself up is gonna make a huge difference.”
Since Thorisdottir’s return to competition — though heat stroke necessitated she withdraw from the Games last July, she took second place in 2014 — she’s gone public with her mission of positive thinking, speaking at CrossFit gyms in the United States and across Europe, as well as giving seminars at corporations and retirement homes. It’s something she plans to do more of once her CrossFit career has ebbed.
But for now, her goal is simple.
“I want to win the CrossFit Games one more time,” Thorisdottir said. “I believe I’ve never been in as good of shape as I was (last) year, but then I went out with a heat stroke, so I can’t really have that be my last year. So I have one more year where I want to win the Games, and then I’ll see what I do.”
The Brains and the Brawn
On the Monday after the 2015 CrossFit Invitational, Leblanc-Bazinet flew home to Colorado with her husband, CrossFit Level 1 Seminar Staff member Dave Lipson. On Tuesday, she took a final online. It’s nothing new for Leblanc-Bazinet, who frequently travels between school in Canada and her home in Colorado with Lipson, as her credits from the University of Sherbrooke are not easily transferable.
“She’s still getting pulled away to live in a very shitty dorm room in the middle of nowhere in Canada because she’s so determined to finish school,” Lipson said. “While other kids are going out and partying and they have all the time in the world to study, she’s now someone who’s known throughout the world and has all these responsibilities and endorsements and a husband and a house. It’s just constant stuff, even outside of training.”
Once, in a rare 15-minute window of unscheduled time, Leblanc-Bazinet sat in front of her blank television screen, gaping expectantly.
“I remember telling myself, ‘Am I supposed to turn it on?’” she said. “And in that moment, I just realized how much I was doing.”
Whenever possible, she works online, once taking a written exam under the watchful eye of Skype while working for a sponsor in Sweden.
“I had to take a written test like everyone else in my class but via Skype so the teacher can make sure I wasn’t cheating or anything,” she said.
Lipson, self-described as the practical one, often encourages Leblanc-Bazinet to “do right by her soul,” and make compromises for what she loves most. But for Leblanc-Bazinet, that’s everything.
“She’s always had her schedule completely packed over the brim with school and training,” Lipson said. “I think a lot of athletes give up on those pursuits … but Cam never wants to make a compromise for anything.”
“I don’t like feeling like there’s something in the back of my head that isn’t done,” Leblanc-Bazinet said. “It makes me feel like I’m quitting, and I really, really don’t like that. And I don’t want to finish my career in CrossFit and be like, ‘Oh, I’m gonna go back to school now,’ because guess what? No one does that. The people that are doing that (are) very rare, and I’m sure it’s super hard. I need to have a degree; I’m also passionate about what I study, and I want to finish it.”
For as long as she can remember, Leblanc-Bazinet has been fascinated by the physical world around her. As an athlete, she even researched how the human body assimilates protein and the process of making protein powders, so that she could choose the best one for herself.
“I was never the type of person to believe what people would tell me, so I’ve always wanted to understand things by myself,” she said. “I think that physics and chemistry was something that just explained everything that happened around me.”
She went into chemical engineering to save the world.
“I was sitting home and thinking about the things that I like,” she said, remembering the day she chose her field. “And the things that I like was helping people. I thought, ‘Our planet is dying; what can I do to fix it?’”
Becoming a CrossFit superstar was just something that happened along the way.
“I never wanted to be famous,” she said. “I only do things I like; I only do the things I have passion for. And I think the things you like and the things you have passion for never go with, ‘I want to be in the public eye.’”
Part of becoming unintentionally famous means dealing with trolls and haters.
“People could have such an opinion that was not even an opinion, it was just like spreading lies, things like, ‘Oh, a friend of mine met her and they say she’s a bitch,’” Leblanc-Bazinet reported. “All of the sudden, everyone (has) a friend who knows me, which is completely untrue, but whatever. Now it goes down my back like water.”
What eased the haters’ sting was realizing that her fame, while unasked for, presented her with an opportunity to do good. She could be a role model for young girls, not only for health and fitness, but for brains, too.
“I guess this thing of becoming famous, I took it and I tried to not make it about me but I tried to make a difference,” she said. “What really helped me to stick with my studies is when I started to see the influence I have on young girls and other people, they were like, ‘Wow it’s possible to do both.’ Why would I say to young girls to stay in school if they want to be a professional CrossFit athlete, but I can’t do it? So that really helped me to stick with it and be like, ‘Heck yeah, I’m gonna be a champion and I’m gonna do it with a fricking degree.’”
In mere months, Leblanc-Bazinet will fulfill that oath, graduating in the spring. Like Thorisdottir and Davidsdottir, she’s taking things one step at a time, but already is looking to use her platform to make a positive impact on the world, planning to use her budding company, CLB Inc., to fund humanitarian work down the road.
“My long, long life goal now would be to work for myself and do charity for kids, and use my chemical engineering degree to build and install water and recycling processing (plants) where we need it most,” she said.
“I really just want to do the thing that makes me happy, and one of the things that makes me the happiest is to see that I’m making a difference in people’s lives.”