Mat Fraser's CrossFit Legacy
When Fraser first started CrossFit in 2012, he was an almost instant success. A former Olympic weightlifter, he could already snatch 300 pounds, a weight that was almost unheard of at the time and which still puts him in a category nearly of his own.
His first season, he almost qualified for the Games, the sport’s flagship competition, and when he did make it there the following year, he took second. After another silver medal in 2015, he started the longest winning streak in CrossFit history. His margins of victory were often so great that he was uncatchable by the last—or second-to-last—event. But it was rarely his dominance in any one event that accounted for his success.
Instead, it was his nearly inhuman consistency, especially in exercises that were totally unfamiliar until he started CrossFit, like trail running, rowing, and swimming.
“Mat was a strength athlete that focused on endurance while also continuing to get stronger,” says Chris Hinshaw, his longtime aerobic trainer and a coach for 40 CrossFit Games podium finishers. “He is an athletic anomaly who made the impossible possible. In the process, he redefined fitness.”
In 2018, when Fraser began training with Tia Clair Toomey, the women’s champion, the momentum of both athletes was unstoppable. “A rising tide lifts all boats,” says Shane Orr, Toomey’s husband and the pair’s full-time CrossFit coach. “Mat has forced the sport to grow in all aspects, and now we have new heights for athletic performance.”
The duo easily won their respective divisions in the 2020 Games and even completed the final workout side-by-side, holding hands as they crossed the finish line. Despite holding back a bit to keep pace with Toomey during that workout, Fraser still beat every other man in that event—and nine of the 11 others.
So what comes next for the man who’s become synonymous with the idea that hard work pays off?
“I don’t plan on opening my own affiliate,” he wrote in his retirement note, “but I’m about to start construction on a home gym, which you’ll see plenty of on the YouTube channel Sammy and I are launching soon. Other than that, I look forward to experiencing the season as a fan, just like the rest of you.”
What's Next for CrossFit
And what about the sport he leaves behind?
“There’s definitely a question as to who inherits the kingdom,” says Pat Vellner, the silver medalist at the 2018 Games and a longtime friend and competitor of Fraser’s. “And I’m going to be gunning for that top spot.” But Vellner will have plenty of company.
Some of the top contenders include Noah Ohlsen, Brent Fikowski, and Björgvin K. Guðmundsson. All of them have been on the podium before, but none more than once since 2018, and their experience in the sport may be transforming into a disadvantage, says Vellner. “A lot of us are the same age,” he says. “We’re in our thirties now, so you might have to start looking and the up-and-coming guys.”
There are a few who have turned heads, especially Jeff Adler (26 years old), Sam Kwant (24), and Justin Medeiros (21), all of whom finished in the top five at last year’s Games. But predicting any frontrunner is further complicated by the uncertainty around this year’s competition schedule.
Though the structure of the CrossFit season has changed nearly every year, 2021 is still a radical shake-up. The first stage, the Open, will start the second week in March but only last three weeks, as opposed to the normal five. After that, 10 percent of the athletes will advance to the next phase, which is more than ever before by roughly two orders of magnitude.
From those Quarterfinals, between 30 and 120 athletes will move on to the Semifinals, depending on their region, and the top finishers then go directly to the Games. Those on the cusp will be given another opportunity at a “Last-Chance Qualifier” at the end of June.
The season has never been as crowded with competitions, and avoiding injuries will likely be as important for success as overall conditioning. But no matter who stands at the top of the podium, it will be in the shadow cast by Mat Fraser. “In my dream scenario, I would have beaten Mat to take first place,” says Vellner. “But with him stepping down, I'll take the next best option.”