The Oldest Rookie: Behind the Scenes at the 2019 CrossFit Games

Written By Dave Hardie  |  CrossFit Masters 

The Backstory:  

I first started CrossFit in 2013 at a great gym in New York - CrossFit Bedford Hills. Then in 2016, I moved to South Carolina, turning 60 before the 2018 season. At this point I knew that it was my best opportunity to reach the CrossFit Games.  

Unfortunately, that year I missed making the top 20 athletes by three spots. Entering 2019, it did not look good: I was a year older, the field was cut to 10 athletes, and I was coming off of rotator cuff surgery and a 6-month rehab.

Still, I decided to give it a shot and worked very hard through the Age Group Online Qualifier. I ended up in 16th place, so I then changed my focus to the Granite Games at the end of May. That event was a ton of fun and I ended up winning the division against a bunch of great guys who quickly became friends.

Granite Games

Dave at the 2019 Granite Games

A couple of days after getting home from Minnesota, I got an unexpected email from CrossFit – I had qualified for the Games! Their video review had changed a lot of scores, and I ended up in 11th place.  When Don King declined his invitation, I was officially in as Madison’s oldest rookie!        

The next two months became a whirlwind of training and enjoying the journey. For the first time in my life I worked with a yoke, did burpees over a wall, used a C2 bike, etc. I visited some new gyms and met a bunch of new people.

Meanwhile, my fellow members at CrossFit Beaufort (about 90 minutes south of Charleston) were terrific. They designed a Team Hardie t-shirt to show their support, selling 92 of them… plus a matching infant onesie. We concluded my pre-Games journey with a special WOD a few days before I left.

My top three goals for the 2019 CrossFit Games: 

  1. enjoy the journey
  2. give it my best effort
  3. stay healthy.

Tuesday, July 30

Marissa and I flew to Madison. From above, the city appeared incredibly green. We were also struck by the lakes – apparently there are four – and every one seems to have a dock. The city itself is big enough to be interesting but small enough for the Games to make a real impact. For example, virtually every restaurant had some special CrossFit Games menu items. There were also very visible signs the Games were in town, including welcoming billboards at the airport and the Reebok Fit Barge on Lake Monona.

We arrived late morning, moving up our arrival by a day so we could enjoy the full experience without feeling rushed. We stayed at the Clarion Suites - which is important because it is right there by the Alliant Energy Center. The location made it easy to get some real rest, and eliminated any transit hassles.

Lunch was downtown on the square, looking at the state capital. And when Dan Bailey – a Games legend – sat down at the next table, I chatted him up about his move to Columbus and Rogue.

Later that afternoon we dropped in at CrossFit Big Dane to train. I worked on some technique stuff, and they had a platform for Marissa’s weightlifting. It is a terrific box with a ton of space - with open gym all day long.

Wednesday, July 31

The day started with another training session at CrossFit Big Dane, this time with my coach CJ DePalma of WODprep, who I had been doing 1-on-1 coaching with for almost a year at that point. This was also when I met Ben Dziwiulski of WODprep, who I had been corresponding with since 2015, and Carlos Bown, a photographer and social media wizard.

That afternoon it was time to register. All of us in the 60+ division – male and female – lined up and met individually with a staffer to go through the week’s key information. Then it was on to a table where I recorded my name so the public address announcer could pronounce it properly. That’s not a big challenge with Hardie, but it was significant for some of the athletes from 115 countries...

Getting outfitted by Reebok was an absolute blast. We went in one by one to get a box with something like five shirts and five pairs of shorts, plus sweatpants and tights and a beautiful white hoodie with my name and the American flag. The shirts all had my name on them, and the shorts all had my 610 number. I tried everything on and had the fit evaluated by Reebok’s design person. In my case, I needed a different size of shorts, so they just threw the originals away and printed new ones with my number.

After the uniforms were perfect, we moved to the shoe section. A guy from Reebok worked with me to pick out a pair of Nano 9‘s, a pair of lifters, a pair of turf shoes, and a pair of running shoes. Luckily, I had a pretty good idea of sizing because I had been wearing Nanos the past couple of months.

Next we moved to the sock section, where the best surprise was a guy from Junk with four different headbands — two with my name printed on them. Everyone from my gym knows I always wear a Junk headband, so this was a real treat.

After that came a station where they took a fun picture for the wall collage. They called it a prom picture, so Marissa and I had it taken together.  We then moved on to get grips and a belt from Bear Komplex, an insulated water bottle, a pair of sunglasses, the list goes on….

The last stop was for a photographer to take some pictures for press purposes. Then of course - I rushed back to the hotel to post the obligatory photo of all the swag spread out on the bed...

Thursday, August 1

The morning was focused on the athlete ceremony. We all gathered in groups by country, with the USA contingent being the largest. They had us sit in the bleachers in the warm-up area, and I ended up right in front of Noah Ohlsen. I initiated a conversation and he was terrific – very interested in where Carl Giuffre and I were from, and very impressed that we were competing at a high level at 60+.

Which reminds me - people seemed to be much more impressed by those of us who are over 60 than athletes just a few years younger. I guess it is kind of a milestone age in people’s eyes.

Eventually we were led out to the stadium and entered as a huge group behind the flag bearer, Dani Speegle. As we came through the tunnel the crowd leaned down to get a high five as we passed – just like you might see at an NBA game. We felt like rock stars.

What a thrill it was to parade around the field with the stands full of cheering spectators! We ended up in the end zone, where I joined lots of athletes in pulling out my phone for a video of the crowd. Absolutely an unforgettable experience!

I spent a good bit of the afternoon watching the first individual event. It featured running, legless rope climbs, and snatches that were moderately heavy (for them). It was exactly the type of test needed to cut the field down to 75 athletes  I’m not sure it was the smartest thing for me to be out in the sun that long, but I kept reminding myself that I wanted to enjoy the whole Games experience.

Friday, August 2

We started the competition with an event relatively late in the morning. That’s because my age group did not do the row and burpee workout programmed for the younger divisions. With 500 meters of rowing and 30 bar-facing burpees, it would have been a lung burner… but a good event for me.

Our first event featured four rounds of two rope climbs, 10 front squats at 95 pounds, and 40 double unders. It was so much fun running onto the floor in front of those fans! I followed my plan in the workout, executing rope climbs better than ever (especially the descents). I did the squats unbroken and did not miss any double unders through the first three rounds. (I took a couple of planned breaks along the way to manage my heartrate.) The final round of double unders was a little more ragged, with two or three misses, but I still finished fourth - well behind three-time champ Dave Hippensteel.

Meanwhile, I was psyched when they announced the afternoon event. It was a 4,500M run with a rucksack. My division had three 1,500M laps: one with no ruck, one with a 20-pound ruck, and one with 30 pounds in the ruck. Running is my jam, so I was confident about doing well.

It was blazing hot on the field, and athletes from the earlier divisions looked beat after they finished.  Then again, they had to do an extra lap and their rucks went up to a 50-pound load. (Interestingly enough, men and women carried the same weights for the event.)

Our heat involved 60 athletes from three divisions: 14-15 male/female, 55-59 male/female, and of course 60+ male/female. It was a mass start, with faster athletes self-seeding themselves at the front. Mostly that meant the teenagers, but I positioned myself right behind them.

At the buzzer, we exited the stadium. I held a pace that was good but not crazy, and after about half a lap I trailed only three or four teenagers. I was clearly the first master to finish that lap, re-entering the stadium to pick up my ruck for the second lap. But no love from the PA person 🙁 

When I came back into the stadium to start my third lap, CJ yelled at me to slow down. Apparently I had a lead of over two minutes, and you don’t get extra points for winning big. That was good to hear, so I put the final 10 pounds in my ruck and kept going.  

I certainly slowed down that final lap, including stopping to grab a cup of water at the aid table. With maybe 400 meters left, a few guys caught me ... but I was relieved to see that they were in the 55-59 division.  I let them battle it out, cruising home to win by more than 1:50. Still no love from the PA person, by the way...  

Then the focus shifted to getting cooled down, including getting in an ice bath after we exited the stadium. It didn’t hit me then, but later I got a little emotional when I thought about it. I had won a workout at the CrossFit Games! That was way above my expectations coming in.

Saturday, August 3

Wow, were my quads sore when I woke up!  I guess running with a rucksack takes its toll. I went to the Airrosti folks for some soft tissue work, and they told me everyone was feeling the effect.

Our morning event started with a 90-foot sandbag carry at 140 pounds, followed by 30 calories on the air bike and then a 30-foot handstand walk. I felt good warming up, although my handstand walks were not on point. (Wednesday I did two 10-foot sections in just five attempts, but here I was struggling to get 5 feet.) Still, I certainly hoped to finish the event within the 5:00 time cap.

Once again, it was a huge thrill going onto the competition floor in the Age Group Pavilion. (We competed there and at North Park, which is the football stadium.) The crowds for masters aren’t big, but they feel big when all packed into the smaller venue.

When the event started, the sandbag carry wasn’t too tough, although of course some of the bigger guys moved it faster than I did. I got on the bike and got started on the 30 calories. It was quite a shock when I soon heard the announcer say that Dan Brannagan’s judge had her hand up, meaning he had only 5 calories to go. I was way behind him - he finished when I was at only 16 or 17 calories.  (Later other guys told me a similar story.)

Nonetheless, I knew the event was really about handstand walks.

Speaking of handstand walks, Gord McKinnon went unbroken to win the event. Personally, my execution was disappointing. I got three of the 5-foot reps before time expired, with a number of fails and even a hard fall or two. I ended up tied for ninth, losing the tiebreaker to Paul Perna. In retrospect, I had to be pleased that my handstand walks were better than just a few months ago.  

In the middle of the day, world record holder CJ Cummings came up from Beaufort to do a weightlifting exhibition for Reebok. It was great to see him and coach Ray Jones, who has provided so much helpful feedback on my lifts. I watched with Teddy Binette, a fine masters weightlifter who used to own CrossFit Beaufort. 

We were back on the field Saturday afternoon for event 4, a chipper. It included a 400M run, 20 handstand push-ups, 20 dumbbell thrusters, 20 box step overs, 20 cleans at 155#, and then all the way back down to the run.

The cleans were an intimidating element for me. They were just a few pounds under my body weight, and difficulty cleaning 155 kept me from qualifying for the 2018 Games. But my weightlifting has gotten much better, and 155 felt pretty comfortable in warmup. I knew I would move slower through the 20 reps than most of the guys, but I would get through them.

We started the event by running out of the stadium for a 400M lap. I pretty quickly passed the guys in the lanes ahead of me, and ultimately caught 7 or 8 of the women. It turned out I was the first person to get to handstand push-ups.

I worked through those 20 pretty efficiently, with no big sets but also without coming close to failure. The dumbbell thrusters were a bit more challenging than I expected, so I broke them into a couple of sets. The box step overs were just a bump in the road — we were not required to jump up, so all of us looked like we were doing some sort of Jane Fonda routine.

Then came the cleans. Mine were pretty solid, although I was doing singles much slower than the really strong competitors. I tried to keep it steady, and frankly I would have made the Games in 2018 if I had been moving the weight equally well back then.

The remaining challenge was the handstand push-ups, which pretty quickly deteriorated into sets of one or two. I was certainly happy to finally finish them and get started on the final 400 meter run.

Just as I neared the finish line, they blew the horn because of lightning in the area. There was 6:00 left before the time cap, but they had to make a call for the safety of athletes and spectators.  It did not affect my placement compared to other competitors, but I hate that the record will forever show I was capped rather than finishing the workout. 

Overall, the day was big fun again, even if not as successful on the leaderboard.  Basically, both events featured overhead moves where I have improved... but not enough to stick with the best in the world.

Sunday, August 4

Sunday we had three workouts back-to-back-to-back. First we had 5:00 to establish a 2-rep max overhead squat. After 2:00 of rest, we had 8:00 to do a workout of 27 moderately heavy snatches and 18 bar muscle ups. After 1:00 of rest, our final workout was 8:00 to do 36 light snatches and 36 chest-to-bar pullups. It was going to be a crazy 27:00 to wrap up the week.

I felt good warming up, both with overhead squats and snatches. In fact, CJ and I decided then to start with an overhead squat 10 pounds higher than we had originally planned. But I was most happy that bar muscle ups felt smooth, because they have been hit-or-miss for me over the past few months. 

When we took the field mid-afternoon, it was brutally hot again. (Who knew you went to Madison to work on your tan?)  At the start buzzer, I took 125 pounds for my first two overhead squats … and promptly dropped the second rep. I stayed composed, re-racked the bar, and did the weight. I increased to 140 pounds and hit those two pretty smoothly. My final attempt was at 150 pounds, and I was pleased to get it successfully. I was near the bottom of my group, which ended in a three-way tie at 185 for Carl Giuffre, Mike Brown, and Dan Brannagan. Still, it was my heaviest OHS since shoulder surgery.

After changing shoes during the brief 2:00 rest, we moved to snatches and bar muscle ups. My 115# snatches were slow and steady singles, so I was among the last guys to get to the rig. I jumped up for my first muscle up … and it was probably the smoothest, prettiest one I have done in a long time.  Sweet! I added another rep before dropping, but then CJ yelled that I should do singles. (It was the right call because we did not want to risk a bunch of misses.)  

I worked through the nine reps, did nine more snatches, six more muscle ups, and then ran to the bar for two last snatches before the horn blew. I finished in 8th place, but I liked the effort and execution.  Paul Perna won by about 10 seconds.

After just 1:00 minute of rest we started the last workout. This involved higher reps of easier movements – the snatches were at 75 pounds and the rig work involved chest-to-bar pull-ups.  I cycled well through the first 15 snatches, breaking once. Or at least I thought I was breaking just once. After the judge sent me back to the big Zeus rig after 12 reps, he called me back because 15 reps were required. At first I didn’t understand what he was saying – my brain was fried and I had some trouble understanding his accent. But the mistake was on me – every athlete is responsible for knowing the workout.

Anyway, the chest-to-bar pullups were again fairly steady but not big sets. Same story for round two at 12 reps, and I was seven reps short of finishing the final round when the horn sounded. It was not a great result – I finished 9th – but I felt okay about the effort and the execution. Gord McKinnon got his second event win on this one.

It was weird leaving the field. I was happy the work was over, but also very sad that it was over.

We spent some time in the staging area while scores were tabulated. This was another good opportunity to talk with the guys as we decompressed. Then the three podium finishers took their drug tests and received their medals in a ceremony on the field. I went up to the stands to cheer for Paul Perna, Gord McKinnon, and Dan Brannagan. They performed really well throughout the competition.

As I walked back to the warm-up area for the last time, I couldn’t help but think about my dad. He died about 15 months ago, and I missed being able to give him a celebratory hug. When I returned to the hotel, I got emotional as I told Marissa about it. No doubt my physical exhaustion amped up my emotions too.

That night we had a celebratory dinner downtown with the WODprep guys. I had not touched alcohol for two months, so I indulged in a couple of delicious tequila concoctions. It was a good way to end the week.

Monday, August 5

We traveled back from Madison to Beaufort, arriving in the early evening.  It was great to get home, but the event had flown by. It was going to be tough to return to reality.

Brushes With Fame

When you’re at the Games, you see all the sport’s big names as you’re walking around or in the warm-up area. They are all obviously very fit, but generally they are shorter than you might realize. (For example, Mat Fraser is only 5’7”.)  

I will also say that most of the top athletes are engaging and down-to-earth, so I had conversations with some of my favorites:

  • Noah Ohlsen – I mentioned talking with him in the stands before the opening ceremony. I also saw him signing autographs for fans, and he engaged our group in conversation as we returned from a workout. He is really a good ambassador for the sport.
  • Chandler Smith – Chandler was sitting with Noah that day in the stands. They are obviously good friends, and Chandler is a rising star.  
  • Tia Toomey – She dominated the women’s competition, but I like that she asked me how the ruck event went. I said it was good, missing a golden opportunity to tell her I won by a wide margin.
  • Kari Pierce – Kari and I happened to walk back from the opening ceremony together. I told her how much I like her online video tips, and I asked how her ab program is selling. She was delightful.
  • Travis Mayer – Travis is one of my favorite CrossFit athletes, so I spoke with him for a couple of minutes in the warmup area. I reminded him that we had talked at the Granite Games before we both won, and he said he remembered that. (Was he just blowing smoke?) Anyway, we wished each other the best for the Games.
  • Michele Letendre – Michele is a former Games athlete who now coaches Patrick Vellner and others. She lives in Montréal, so we talked about restaurants there while walking back to the hotel. I look forward to following up on her recommendations when Marissa is at the masters world weightlifting championship later this month.
  • Ben Bergeron – Ben is one of top coaches, and he owns CF New England and CompTrain.  He was on the phone in the hotel hallway, so I just gave him a fist bump and thanked him for all he does.

Other notables I saw but did not talk with: Rich Froning, Mat Fraser, Camille Leblanc-Bazinet, Sam Briggs, Jacob Heppner, Pat Vellner, Brent Fikowski, Ben Smith, Katrin Davidsdottier (whom Marissa says looks flawless), Sarah Sigmundsdottir, Brooke Wells, and Rory McKernan.

Basically, the only person I really missed seeing was Chris Hinshaw. He is the aerobic coach to stars like Tia and Mat, and I’ve been told for years that we look alike. Thus I wanted a picture with him… especially after I heard a guy tell his girlfriend that I was Chris.

CrossFit Games 2019: Things To Do

The Games are truly a festival of fitness. The food vendors were great, even if I developed an addiction to acai bowls. The vendor pavilion featured almost all the companies that are important to CrossFitters. There were even multiple options for getting in a workout, including with some of the big names after they were eliminated from the competition. Trust me, you won’t be bored.

CrossFit Games Video Coverage

It was a shame there was no official streaming of masters events. Thus, many thanks to WODprep for stepping up to put most of them on Facebook … with no chance to plan and without the right equipment. 

It was also great that others streamed events personally – I know Marissa became an expert on Instagram Live. I think folks back home enjoyed being able to follow the action to some degree - and hopefully there will be even better solutions next year.

Kudos To Volunteers

The Games could not exist without an army of volunteers. There are those you see, like the judges and the folks who organize or change equipment between heats. What you don’t see are the folks in Athlete Control, who made sure we got where we needed to be on time and wearing the right stuff.  (As an example, they were charged with taping over the branding on gear that had not been issued to us.)  

Trust me, there are countless others behind the scenes. They all love being at the Games, and it shows.

As a final quick story, the 30 or so masters judges sat together in the bleachers to our right when we had briefings to explain upcoming workouts. They stayed seated as we filed out, clapping as we walked by. Like I said, we felt like rock stars.

The Guys (CrossFit Games 2019 Masters 60+)

In alphabetical order, the 60+ division included:

Dan Brannagan, Mike Brown, Tom De Nolf, Carl Giuffre, Hilmar Hardarson, me, Dave Hippensteel, Gord MacKinnon, Paul Perna, and Ken Wellner.  

They were all good, interesting guys who happened to be great athletes. The camaraderie was remarkable, and I agree with a buddy that it was impossible to root against any of them.  

The Big Finish

The CrossFit Games absolutely exceeded my expectations – it was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity that I will never forget. While I would like to have finished higher, that’s true of everyone who doesn’t win. The other guys were generally stronger, and my gymnastics stamina should have been better...

But I think I’m okay being the 9th fittest old dude on the planet.  

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  • Enjoyed reading your journey at the Crossfit Games, felt proud of you for representing masters 60+ group, hell yeah!! Congratulations!!

  • Great article, Dave! It was an amazing insight into the games from an athlete that I can relate to. I am 55, made the online qualifier this year at 34th (55+), injured my shoulder just enough to not to do any of the workouts [my 13 yr old son, Zane, also qualified, did the online qualifier and finished in the top 100). I love your insights and candor. I missed seeing the coverage of the age division so I am happy to catch up through your link at least for some 🙂

    I would love if you inserted the WODs you did in the area you spoke of them as it would really help to bring some perspective.

    I also trained with CJ exclusively for a year so we have alot in common.

    Congrats on awesomeness and being an inspiration to many.

    Lane “Dawg” Bowers

  • Really appreciate you telling the story of what most of us can only dream of doing.
    As for the lack of coverage of the Masters’ events, I bet we have enough professional and talented folks on this site who would volunteer to cover next year’s Masters events and stream them on Facebook! It would also give many of us an opportunity to attend the games, albeit in a different capacity than you!
    Well done!

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