10 Questions With Stephanie Chung, CrossFit Games Rookie

Podium during the 2018 CrossFit Games Meridian Regional event held June 1, 2, and 3 at the Caja Mágica, Madrid, Spain
Podium during the 2018 CrossFit Games Meridian Regional event held June 1, 2, and 3 at the Caja Mágica, Madrid, Spain

With the split of the Meridian Regional into a Europe and Meridian Regional this year, along with extra qualifying positions, it gave the opportunity for new athletes to showcase their talent. One of those athletes who will be making their first trip to Madison, Wisconsin, for the 2018 CrossFit Games is Stephanie Chung.

Chung took the 4th and final qualifying spot at the Meridian Regional. She actually tied Alessia Walchli in points, but advanced due to the tiebreaker of highest finish in an event (Chung won Event 5).

With less than a week to go before the start of the CrossFit Games, we caught up with Chung to learn more about the rookie from Abu Dhabi.

The Barbell Spin: You began CrossFit as a hobby in 2013 and have a pretty extensive background in gymnastics. Can you share why you started CrossFit and what made you want to compete at the highest level?

Stephanie Chung: In the summer before my senior year of college, I became bored with training alone at traditional gyms so my mom suggested that I try a class at the CrossFit box that had just opened in my town. There were so many new movements (it was my first time to ever pick up a barbell!) and it was HARD, so I was immediately hooked! I continued taking a couple of classes a week through the school year, then moved to Qatar after graduation to teach at Weill Cornell Medical School. I found myself with a lot of free time outside of work and sought out a CrossFit box to make friends. I met my coach and now fiancé Rob, who convinced me to start focusing more time on training. We spent LOTS of time improving my Olympic weightlifting technique and general movement efficiency! I’m highly motivated to improve and enjoy training with a goal, so I set my sights on qualifying for Regionals. I missed the cut in 2015 by one spot, but finally earned my place in 2016. Later that summer, Rob and I went to the Games as spectators and I witnessed how much more I could learn. The knowledge that there is always room to grow in this sport has motivated me to train hard every day in pursuit of the fittest version of myself.

TBBS: You have moved up the rankings since your first Open in 2014 and have competed at regionals since 2016. What do you attribute to your continued improvement year over year?

SC: At first, the improvements in the Open were due to enhanced physical abilities such as strength, stamina, and adapting to a certain volume of training. More recently, I’ve worked on honing my mental game and enjoying the process of becoming a fitter athlete and better person. This year in particular, I focused on my own performance rather than comparing myself to others. This meant minimal leaderboarding during the Open and zero leaderboard attention at Regionals.

TBBS: Who is your coach and what programming do you follow?

SC: I follow The Training Plan, coached remotely by Jami Tikkanen.

TBBS: Last year you moved from Qatar to Abu Dhabi. What is the CrossFit culture like in Northern Africa?

SC: CrossFit is growing quickly in the Middle East! It’s a great time to be here and witness the growth of an evolving community. Many boxes have expatriate coaches, so we all contribute aspects of CrossFit culture from our own countries. This creates a very unique community in the Middle East, which is still young and developing its identity. People are really eager to learn more about CrossFit, and many people come into our gyms without any experience in training or physical activity. I love that we have the opportunity to teach them about CrossFit and shape their lifelong fitness habits.

TBBS: At regionals, you might have had the most impressive comeback of any athlete, yet few really noticed it. What was your mindset after Day 1 and did you think you had a shot at getting back into contention?

SC: Thank you! I’d say that intentionally ignoring the leaderboard was the key to believing that I had a shot at the top spot after a rough Day 1. Going into the weekend, I knew that the first two events were not my strongest. My plan was to do my very best in the moment and then mentally move on. During competition, I selectively focus on what I can control rather than critiquing my performances in hindsight. I ignored the leaderboard after Day 1 so that I could control my own narrative, and told myself that Days 2 and 3 presented opportunities to showcase my best effort. I woke up feeling fresh for Saturday, and went to work.

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TBBS: Heading into Event 6 down 8 points from 4th place, what was your strategy to beat Alessia by enough to sneak into that final spot?

SC: My plan for Event 6, as it had been for the whole weekend, was to stay on my own pace. I didn’t know my leaderboard position, who was ahead of me, or how many points separated me from a qualifying position. However, I knew that I’d be proud of myself if I undoubtedly gave my best effort. I played my own game and executed the workout just as I had practiced in the gym.

TBBS: You ended up tying Alessia Walchli in points. You won the tiebreaker by winning Event 5. What was it like waiting to hear the final standings? Describe how it felt to hear your name called.

SC: Because I knew nothing about the leaderboard all weekend, I had know idea if I had done enough to qualify. The moments before the fourth place announcement were nerve wracking, tense, and uncertain. I was already crying with happiness for my training partner Eik, who took third place, and I was just trying to breathe deeply and compose myself. When the announcer called my name, a wave of disbelief washed over me. It was SO surreal to hear my name – I had imagined what it would feel like to qualify for the Games, but had only recently told anyone that it was a dream of mine. Once reality sunk in, I couldn’t take a smile off of my face for the rest of the night.

TBBS: How have you changed up your training for the CrossFit Games? What are your goals in Madison?

SC: I’ve definitely gotten out of the gym more, with more track and trail running sessions, swimming, biking, and moving odd-objects. I’ve been training in Fond du Lac, WI for several weeks with the other TTP athletes, and it has been really fun to take advantage of the outdoor offerings here. The volume has increased, the weights are heavier, and I’m practicing some irregular Games movements such as pegboard, strongman elements, and parallette handstand push ups. In Madison, my goal is to enjoy every minute and learn as much as I can from the experience! I want to leave knowing that I did my very best and came away as a better athlete.

TBBS: What types of events do you look forward to (i.e. what are your strengths)?

SC: Some of my favorite movements are snatch, overhead squats, jerks, bar muscle ups, handstand walks, and handstand push ups! It’s hard to generalize with workouts because I end up loving many different types of events. That being said, I really enjoy chippers with mixed modalities and anything that involves being upside down!

TBBS: What do you enjoy to do when you’re not in a CrossFit gym?

SC: My favorite thing to do in my free time is spending time with Rob and my friends! I also love to take advantage of the beautiful UAE weather and enjoy the sunshine at the pool or beach. Aside from relaxing, I also really love to learn through reading, listening to podcasts, and programming for personal training and nutrition clients.

You can follow Stephanie on Instagram @stephchung2 and keep an eye out for her next week in Madison!