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In 2019, Noah Ohlsen was on track to become CrossFit's fittest man in the world. An event victory on the third day of the CrossFit Games saw Ohlsen donning the white leader's jersey—and, to the shock of then-three-times champion Mat Fraser—poised for victory in Madison, Wisconsin.
Finishing the weekend in second place, Ohlsen's tenure on the throne of fitness wasn't to last. Even after suffering a penalty earlier in the week, Fraser would go on to secure his fourth consecutive win at the CrossFit Games and, a year later, his fifth and final Games win before announcing his retirement. Having cast himself into fitness lore, a CrossFit Games without Mat Fraser is sure to be bittersweet: one on hand, the Games' greatest male athlete is no longer competing. On the other, the playing field has been leveled once more. It's a ripe opportunity for veteran athletes, especially Miami's Ohlsen, to shine through and claim a spot on the podium.
Fraser's departure wasn't the only wind of change for CrossFit in 2020. Eric Roza, the brand's new CEO, took the helm and, following the ban of mass-participation sports and crowded environments, a new and never-before-seen version of the CrossFit Games was put together in Aromas, California, a raw, gritty and (literally) down-to-earth take on the world's most masochistic sporting event where only five men and five women would compete to become CrossFit's fittest athletes in the world.
It would seem fair, then, to say that CrossFit's next chapter is ready to be written and Ohlsen, primed for his eighth run at the Games, is ready to flip the script after a turbulent year in the sport. "It was a whirlwind. So much had happened, between the pandemic, social justice and issues in our sport, I tried to find consistency wherever I could," explains Ohlsen, talking to Men's Health UK. "Some of that came through my fitness, being able to work out wherever I could and whenever I could, no matter what was going on. It took a little while to adapt and adjust, but I found ways to make sure that it was consistent in my life. Not just for my mental and physical health, but it's my job."
Much like other fitness-conscious men and women around the world, the coronavirus pandemic forced Ohlsen to adapt his fitness routine and programming to what he had available. Armed with a squat rack, a barbell, two dumbbells and a few weight plates, "I was able to set up a home gym and I trained in my driveway for almost a year," he says. "That led up to the 2020 Games and, since then, things have gone a little back to 'normal'. At some places in the [United] States, it feels like we're back to normal life."
It wasn't without its difficulties. With an ongoing global discourse on racial justice, barriers to preventative medicine and fluctuating rules on public health and safety, Ohlsen often lost focus as, he says, "the world felt like it was falling apart. People were sick and dying, but also up-in-arms about racial injustice. There were days where I would step outside in the driveway to train and, as I got moving, I would start crying. That was difficult to work through. My heart felt heavy through that."
A saving grace, Ohlsen admits, was knowing that "for the most part, everyone was doing something different to what they would have if this wasn't going on." And, when the conversation fast-forwards to October 2020's CrossFit Games in Aromas—a back-to-basics competition where fans and family were prohibited with no stadium environment in which to compete—Ohlsen assures himself, irrespective of the eventual outcome, that he was "grateful" for the opportunity when Roza and Castro "could have cancelled it altogether". It was a chance to remind himself to "be happy that you're here, enjoy this opportunity and make the most of it."
Competing against Mat Fraser, Justin Medeiros, Samuel Kwant and Jeffrey Adler, Ohlsen would go on to place fourth. "It was a challenging Games," he continues. "Mentally, physically and it didn't go my way in terms of performing as well as I had hoped—to at least have made the podium—but I gave it my all and I was proud of myself for making that far through a difficult season."
Ahead of the 2021 CrossFit Games, things have changed once again for Ohlsen. He's no longer training in his "sloped and slippery" driveway in Miami. Nor is he strapping Olympic rings to a nearby tree for muscle-ups and borrowing gear from like-minded CrossFit-types.
One such change was becoming fitness firebrand Gymshark's debut competitive CrossFit athlete. With Ohlsen, the 2021 Games will be the first time Gymshark has made it to the Games, rubbing shoulders with the likes of Nike, Reebok and NOBULL. "When I first thought of the idea of that relationship, it didn't seem like it made sense to me at first, as Gymshark wasn't in the CrossFit or functional fitness space," he explains. "I thought it was a bodybuilding, Globo-Gym brand. But, in our discussions, they explained how they wanted to be more than that. Our visions aligned on how people, community and fitness were important to us. Having the opportunity to help them build out new gear that fits the community in our sport is really cool."
Another was Ohlsen uprooting himself from his home—and his fiancé, at that—in Florida to Georgia, in order to be closer to his coach and the team at Alpharetta's Training Think Tank. "We felt like, for whatever reason, all the cards could line up, so we thought 'let's go all in and capitalize on the opportunity in front of us to finally win this thing'," he admits. "That's been a humungous change for me. I'm hoping that this sacrifice pays off and feels worth it with a good performance at the Games."
Whether he's talking about these new sponsorships, training at his Miami home in "100-degree" heat, or looking back on previous competitions, Ohlsen's affability—a trait rarely seen in athletes competing at his level in other sports—is blinding. It's refreshing, in fact, and perfectly summarized by his 'happy, but hungry' motto. "It can be applied to everything, not just sport, but it's about enjoying what you're doing, having passion and love for your job, hobby, or whatever you're pursuing," he explains of the phrase, which has even made its way onto his namesake grassroots clothing brand. "But, it's also about pursuing it strongly, passionately, and aggressively. Loving what you're doing, but not being satisfied."
It has, by his own admission, led to his longevity in the 'sport of fitness'. "If I were just to be grinding on my own and not enjoying what I was doing, I would have stopped doing it a long time ago. Because I've maintained a general sense of happiness through all of my relationships that I've had in this sport, it's meant I've been able to do it for over a decade."
It's the catalyst for his motivation, too. Despite almost continuous changes in CrossFit and its annual Games, Ohlsen's end goal remains untampered. "It's always stayed the same, and that's that I've wanted to earn the title of the Fittest Man on Earth and I've been training for almost 11 years to try to earn that. Every year, it seems, it's right there and it's so close for me. I always have wanted to achieve it so strongly, that if I were to give up before I have and stop competing, it would have felt like I wasted all of that time."
He's not exaggerating. Ohlsen, bedecked in the white-and-red leader's jersey, was commanding the men's individual competition midway through the 2019 Games, prepared to usurp Fraser from his now-established throne. "It's an amazing feeling," he recalls. "It's an affirmation that your hard work has been for a purpose and that purpose has been actualized. Hopefully, this is the year."
Despite his constant tenure in CrossFit's elite male category, Ohlsen bears many similarities to regular guys. Especially those who get the quasi-butterflies before a particularly hard workout. "To be honest, almost every workout makes me a bit nervous, because I know how deep I'm going to dig into it," he explains. "I don't think there's any day in my programming I pull up and say 'ah, that's going to be easy today'. I know I'm going to push myself as hard as I can. Every day is super tough for me. No matter the Games workout, it always gives me butterflies because of how intense it's going to be."
As for this year's CrossFit Games, Ohlsen is faced with a very real opportunity to make history after years of tectonic change. "I'm hopeful and excited that it's a possibility for me this year," he says. "I'm still in the fight."
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