Last week, Andrew Hiller created a video titled, Don’t Start CrossFit Young. Hiller shared a then-and-now story about Little Hercules, a child who rose to fame because of his incredible physique at the age of eight. Little Hercules, or Richard Sandrak, had 8-pack abs and was completely ripped.
Fast forward 23 years and Sandrak is now longer full of muscle. In the video, Sandrak said he enjoyed lifting weights with his parents but ultimately got bored with it. He told Inside Edition, “No, I don’t lift weights. If anything it just got boring.”
Watching this got me thinking about the teenage division, specifically the 14-15 year-olds, at the CrossFit Games. Just this year, Haley Adams and Olivia Sulek, both former Teenage division champions, stepped away from competition right before the start of the 2023 CrossFit Open. It had me wondering…what is the longevity of these teen athletes within the sport of CrossFit? How many leave the sport after success early on?
So I went back to 2015, the start of the Teenage division at the CrossFit Games and tracked the teenage athletes who qualified for the Games as a 14-15 year-old from 2015 to 2019. I wanted to find out whether these athletes, who obviously were very talented at a young age, continued to compete or whether they moved on to other things over the years. For every Mal O’Brien or Dallin Pepper, there had to be plenty of others who have left the sport since they competed at the Games.
During the five years from 2015 to 2019, there were 60 boys and 58 girls who made their CrossFit Games debut in the 14-15 year-old division. As a side note, in 2017 and 2018, the Age Group divisions had 20 athletes at the Games. The other three years, it was limited to just 10 athletes, like it is today.
In looking through the list of athletes, some top athletes in 2023 got their start years ago in the teenage division. Athletes like Mal O’Brian, Emma Lawson, Angelo DiCicco, Dallin Pepper, James Sprague, Haley Adams, Tudor Magda, Devyn Kim, Emma Cary and Paige Powers all qualified for the CrossFit Games as a 14- or 15-year old.
However, those 10 athletes I just listed make up a quarter of those teen athletes who still signed up for the 2023 CrossFit Open. That’s right, out of the 118 teen athletes only 40, or 34%, were still signing up for the CrossFit Open this past year.
Of those 40 who are still competing in the Open, 23 have competed every year since their Games debut. The other 17 skipped at least one year, many of those were from 2020, but others seemed to skip a year or two following their graduation to the Open division.
It was common to see an athlete age out of the teenage divisions, compete in the Open one year and then step away from the sport. Many times that athlete struggled against the best in the world and did not qualify for the next stage of competition.
While it’s unclear the reason for why each athlete stopped competing after a situation like this, a conclusion could be drawn that these high-level athletes in the teen division had a tough time dealing with no longer being elite. Not every athlete seamlessly moves from the 16-17 year-old division and qualifies for the Games the next year like Mal O’Brien or Haley Adams.
On the other side of those athletes who have competed every year are those who only competed once or twice. Of the 118 athletes, only eight stopped competing after their first Games appearance (note: I did not count Open appearances before their rookie Games debut). Another 16 competed just one more time after making it to the Games.
In total, over half of the athletes, 55%, signed up for the Open four or less times.
Of the 20 athletes from the inaugural 2015 teen division at the Games, only one athlete has competed in all nine CrossFit Opens. Filippa Ferm (Sweden) has competed every year since 2015 and has had success in the elite division. In her first year in the Open division, she made it to the CrossFit Games on the CrossFit Fabriken team. She has since qualified for individual Quarterfinals in 2021 and 2022.
This past year, she was on CrossFit Fabriken Vasterbro A-Team. If you recall that team name, she was teammates with Oscar Tyrberg who went into cardiac arrest during the first workout of the Team Quarterfinals.
Boys vs Girls
The girls field has seemed to make the transition to the elite field a little easier than the boys side. Of course, with Mal O’Brien, Emma Lawson, Haley Adams and Emma Cary it makes sense. The men’s field only has Dallin Pepper, Tudor Magda and Riley Martin who have made it to the CrossFit Games as an individual. Of course, Angelo DiCicco has been to the Games on a team and James Sprague is knocking on the door for his first Games appearance in the elite division.
So one might the the teenage girls stick with the sport through the years. But if you did, you would be wrong. Actually, there really isn’t much of a difference when comparing the longevity between the boys and girls. 35% of the boys and 33% of the girls were still competing in 2023. On top of that, the percentage of all potential years competed (that is, 100% would be if every athlete competed in every Open following their Games debut) was almost the same…58% for the boys versus 61% for the girls.
While it does appear a bit easier for the elite teenage girls to continue among the best in the world, the rest who aren’t making it to the Games as an individual are still competing in similar numbers compared to the boys.
All of this left me with a couple takeaways and lingering questions.
For the takeaways, approximately 1/3 of 14-15 year-old Games athletes are still competing after 5+ years. To me, the number is both surprising and not. On one hand these teenagers are some of the fittest athletes in the world and they got there by doing CrossFit. So for 2/3 them to stop competing, or at least signing up for the Open, is surprising. However, following their teenage years, they are most likely going to college and age up to a much more competitive field. Both of which would point to those athletes doing something else after half a decade or more.
The other notable takeaway for me is that there appears to be a gap for most athletes following the 16-17 year-old division. Excluding the elite of the elite, most struggle against the best in the world in the years immediately following their teenage division success. Should CrossFit consider another age group division for those athletes who have potential but are just not ready to be competitive at the ages of 18-22? It’s a reason why the recent Crown competition featured an older range for the teen athletes whereby athletes up to 21 years old could compete.
As for questions, I also wonder if having the teenage divisions at the CrossFit Games is a good thing. Haley Adams spoke to the pressures she felt growing up as an elite CrossFit athlete in which those eventually took its toll on her. Based on her recent Instagram posts it appears that stepping away from competition has been a good thing for her. As for Olivia Sulek, she found a different calling and walked away from competitive CrossFit right before the start of the season.
In 2023, when all of the divisions within CrossFit grew in participation, the teenage divisions did not. When many athletes like Rich Froning call on kids to participate in many sports and not narrow in on competitive CrossFit, could Rich be right? Would the overall sport of CrossFit be better off if it did not turn the CrossFit methodology into a sport for teenagers as young as 13 or 14 (Wodapalooza has a 13-15 year-old teenage division)?
Tune in to our YouTube channel this Wednesday, April 26, at 7:30 pm as Tyler Watkins and John Young discuss this and other current topics in the CrossFit space.