By Melanie Wong
Looking at Natalie McLain, blonde and petite, you wouldn’t think the girl could wield a barbell with the best of them, or beat most men in a pull-up contest.
Well, looks can be deceiving.
In fact, the 26-year-old fitness trainer at Avon’s CrossFit Venture gym, who stands barely 5 foot 2 inches tall and weighs in at 115 pounds, can deadlift more than twice her weight and crank out pushups like a boot camp cadet. She will head to Castle Rock, Colo., this weekend to compete in the ultimate gym competition against roughly 60 other CrossFit athletes from the southwestern United States. They will square off in various events, such as handstand pushups, weight lifting, pull-ups and jump roping, for a chance to compete at the international competition, the CrossFit Games in California at the beginning of July.
Not familiar with CrossFit? The wildly popular fitness program combines elements of weight lifting, climbing, throwing, gymnastics, cardio and body-weight exercises into short, intense workouts. It has attracted a following that includes everyone from housewives to law enforcement. While the majority of CrossFit participants simply do the workouts as part of their regular regimen, some, like McLain, have taken CrossFit to the competition level.
From scientist to athlete
Ironically, McLain says she never was a “gym rat” and always preferred the outdoors to working out inside. She was introduced to CrossFit while living in Grand Junction a few years ago. She had always been active and was an avid rock climber, but she was looking for a way to get in shape for her wedding.
“I tried it out and just loved how hard it was, the challenge and that it’s competitive,” McLain says. “You’re always trying to beat your own time or someone else’s time.”
McLain was working as a hydrologic technician for the U.S. Geological Survey at the time, but ended up devoting more and more time to her workouts.
“I found myself wanting to go to the gym as much as possible, and I was planning my life around CrossFit,” she says. “Soon I wanted to own a gym.”
McLain and her husband, Seth, joined up with a few other partners and opened the Avon location in August of last year.
“To me, this is the best place,” McLain says of the valley. “I love the area and the community, and it’s such a Mecca for athletes.”
While McLain never imagined that she would have ended up being a CrossFit proprietor, she’s not surprised at all that she has embraced the intensity of CrossFit competition.
“I’ve always been competitive in everything – skateboarding, skiing, whatever – I’ve always wanted to win,” she says, laughing.
Aiming for the Games
This is McLain’s first season competing as an individual, and she has high hopes for her results. Last year, she qualified for the CrossFit regional contest as part of a team, but ended up spraining her ankle a week before the competition. This season, she’s enlisted the help of a coach and is on a training schedule in the gym five days a week for two to three hours each day. Being small, she can’t lift as much as taller, bulkier women, but she’s worked on her technique to minimize that disadvantage.
The CrossFit competitive season begins with the “open competition” in February and March – McLain and nearly 60,000 participants around the world completed five workouts on video, which were then monitored by a certified trainer. Based on total reps or workload done in a set number of minutes, 60 individuals from 17 different regions internationally were chosen to compete in regional competitions from May 4 to 6.
At regionals, the top three men and top three women from each region will move onto the international CrossFit Games. The winner of the games, crowned the “fittest man and woman on earth,” takes home a $250,000 prize and a sponsorship package.
McLain says she has her sights set on the international stage. Making the elite cut to go to regionals was already a feat – in fact, during the open competition, she ranked third among all the individual women in one of the exercises – but she knows that the southwest region she’ll be competing in is reputed to be one of the toughest.
Once at regionals, McLain will have to compete in a series of rounds. The competition events are often combinations of exercises, and competitors are scored based on whether they complete the assigned reps in a given amount of time, with point penalties for what they don’t complete. For example, athletes might perform a set of deadlifts, then run to a wall and complete handstand pushups. In another event, they sprint 2,000 meters on a rowing machine, do 50 one-legged squats, and finish with an upper-body weight-lifting exercise.
“It’s for everyone”
The workouts are hardcore, for sure, but McLain and other trainers insist the program is made for everyone.
While not training for competition, McLain trains the many locals who have gotten hooked to the program. The workouts are relatively short and exercises can be modified for beginners – the Avon gym has participants as young as 10 and as old as 70. Make no mistake, though, you had better be ready to work once you step through those doors.
McLain says the best part about training others is seeing the progress of participants.
“I like to see people getting excited about being strong. It’s helping someone get their first pull-up, and they get so excited,” McLain says. “That’s what gets people coming back in. It makes you walk out the door standing a little taller and holding your head a bit higher.”