Cape Town Wrap Up: The Big Picture

Date Published: Feb 04, 2019
Written By Brian Friend

It feels like a long time ago that the athletes in South Africa were loaded on a bus and shuttled to Stellenberg High School in Bellville for the opening events of Fittest in Cape Town 2019. Since then they’ve taken on a brutal hill sprint in the mountains overlooking Clifton Beach, where later in the same day they battled against each other, and the ocean, on paddle boards in a beach event. Finally, competitors gathered at Green Point Athletics Stadium where the final six events awaited them. The competition for individuals spanned four days and ten events. For the teams it was a three day, twelve scored event affair in which nearly ninety teams, most of them South African, celebrated fitness by challenging themselves in a competitive setting.

Fittest in Cape Town has been around since 2011, in its second year they introduced the Community Series (the team competition), and now, in its ninth year they are one of fifteen Sanctioned events. With that distinction they have the honor of sending one man, one woman, and one team to the CrossFit Games via the Sanctional invitation process. We’ve now had four of the fifteen Sanctionals for this season, and with each one we get the opportunity to see different communities, different cultures, and different ideologies express themselves through their events. Each one seeking to find candidates who are among the Fittest on Earth.

Sled Dogs and Cowboys

Katrin Davidsdottir and Sean Sweeney were the respective individual champions for the women and men’s fields, but their paths to the top were quite different.

Katrin was the unanimous favorite in the women’s field coming into this event. In the last four years she’s never finished worse than fifth at the CrossFit Games, and of course she’s won it twice. She is among a group of four or five women who have really established themselves as a step above when it comes to final standings at the Games in recent years, and none of those other women were in the field in Cape Town. It was a calculated move by Katrin and her team: come to Cape Town, secure an invitation to the Games, and earn the opportunity to have six months to prepare to reclaim the title of Fittest on Earth, and in so doing become the first three-time Women’s Champion.

After day one of competition, Katrin perhaps found herself in an unexpected place on the leaderboard. She’s had excellent finishes in recent years on obstacle course events at the CrossFit Games, 5th on Sprint O Course in 2017, and 3rd last year on The Battleground event. However, after two obstacle course events in Cape Town, she found herself in 5th place in a field of only fifteen athletes.

On day two, Katrin looked more of herself, she conquered the hill and the ocean, winning both events. However, two other women also started asserting themselves, and by the end of the day, despite having the overall lead, Katrin was very aware of the threats that were Mia Akerlund and Alessandra Pichelli.

If that threat was present after day two, it was very real in her mind by the end of day three. Akerlund and Pichelli had closed the gap even more. Katrin’s lead with one day to go was only 6 points over Mia and 10 points over Alessandra. Her grit and determination were being tested and fans were anxious to see how she would respond on the final day.

What those fans witnessed, was the champion they’d come to see. She took control of the Sprint Murph event from the word “Go” and sent a message to her challengers...and not just those there in Cape Town with her. The way she closed out the final day in Cape Town, two dominant event wins and a 5th place finish on the final, which featured her least favorite movement, legless rope climbs, was more important to her than just winning this Sanctioned event. It sends a message to the other elite women around the world: I’m still here, I’m still fighting, and I will be ready.

For Mr. Sweeney the expectations from those watching were not as high. He’s never won the CrossFit Games. In fact, he’s never even finished in the top 20 of the Games field. And, two weeks before competing in Cape Town, he didn’t crack the top 20 in the elite men’s field at Wodapalooza.

Putting his own past performances aside, the men’s field in Cape Town was full of well known names, Games athletes, and even a Sanctional winner, who were all standing in Sweeney’s way. Cole Sager, who has multiple top ten Games finishes was the pick by many to win. South Africa’s finest, Jason Smith, was in the field. James Newbury, fresh off a win at the Australian CrossFit Championship, had made the trip. And long time fan favorite anytime he shows up, Lucas Parker, was making his return to elite competition.

Sweeney had consistent finishes through the first two days of competition and found himself right in the thick of things; tied for first with Denmark’s Andre Houdet, one point ahead of third place Streat Hoerner. That’s right, two more competitors announcing their presence, and intent, to win this very tight and crowded race for the men’s title.

Day three was all about Cole Sager. He took two second place finishes and a fourth, which was good enough to put himself out in front. And yet, lurking 6 points behind him was the ever-consistent Sweeney who had still yet to have an event finish lower than eighth or higher than third. It turns out, he was saving his best for last. Sweeney didn’t win any events on the final day, but he took second on two of them, and crossed the finish line of the final knowing it was he, the “CrossFit Cowboy”, who had earned the invitation to the 2019 CrossFit Games by being the fittest man in Cape Town this week.

Second Place Invite?

The 2019 CrossFit Games rulebook was released last month, and though it has taken some effort to dissect, the rules are becoming clear. Specifically with regards to the Sanctioned events, they are written so that each Sanctional will have a man, women, and team receive an invitation, even if the winner of the competition qualifies for the Games via an alternate route.

In the case of Sean Sweeney, it’s likely his invitation will remain with him because it is unlikely that he’ll qualify through the Open. That means second place in Cape Town, Cole Sager, has to reevaluate his season given his result in South Africa. It may come as a surprise for someone to learn that an athlete who’s had as much success at the CrossFit Games as Cole has, hasn’t ever finished in the top 20 of the worldwide Open. His best finish was 28th in 2015, since then he’s been unable to crack the top 40. Of course he will do the Open, and perhaps he’ll rise to the occasion and earn a qualification, but if he’s unable to, then you can expect Cole to start zeroing in on one of Sanctioned events this spring. It’s often been a challenge for him to get to the Games, having to overcome an initial bad event at Regionals multiple times, but we know how good he can be once he’s there. His will be a journey worth following throughout the rest of the season.

For the women, however, the invitation will more than likely be passed down. Although Katrin has never done well enough in the Open to be the National champion in Iceland, for the last four years she has placed in the top 20 in the Open. If that trend continues then her qualification through the Open would supercede her Sanctional win, and the invitation would pass to the second place finisher from Fittest in Cape Town.

The race for second place in the women’s field was between Mia Akerlund, who for years now has competed as an athlete out of the United Arab Emirates, but who will have to register for the Open with her Swedish passport this year, and Alessandra Pichelli, who has historically competed as a Canadian athlete, but has been registering for Sanctional events so far using her Italian passport. When the final scores were calculated, Mia and Alessandra had tied with 802 points. Pichelli had one event win over the four days of competition, but Mia had three and therefore edged her out for second place via the tiebreak rules. It’s not a certainty, but it seems probably at this point that Mia Akerlund will be earning her first ever trip to the CrossFit Games as an individual, and her first return trip there since competing with CrossFit Fabriken in 2015.

Affiliate Cup?

Most had anticipated the changes in the team competition that were introduced this year, but with that change means the end of the long-loved Affiliate Cup at the CrossFit Games. Everyone who has been to a CrossFit affiliate knows the inherent sense of camaraderie that exists there. In many cases the relationships forged in the gym develop into lifelong friendships, but nothing unites gym members like taking the leap and competing in a CrossFit competition. It doesn’t matter how big, or how small, just going out there, together, and leaving it all on the floor brings people together.

It’s fun, and incredibly entertaining, to watch super teams comprised of Games athletes in elite competition. But events like the Community Series at Fittest in Cape Town remind us of what the big picture of CrossFit is all about; being fit and healthy together, pushing ourselves, challenging ourselves, creating better version of ourselves. Huge shout out to every team and team member in our Community Series this year. You guys inspire us all.

It was fitting therefore that Vondelgym, an affiliate gym out of the Netherlands, won the competition. Nienke Van Overveld, Jeremy Reijnders, Sigrid Koolhaas, and Sven Verheul have received an invitation to the CrossFit Games this year as a result of their team championship at Fittest in Cape Town. It’s nice to know this early in the season that at least one affiliate team will still be represented in the exclusive team competition we’ll see in Madison this summer.

A Lekker Experience For Everyone

Those following along online may have noticed athletes posting on social media throwing around the Afrikaans word lekker when describing their experience in Cape Town. South Africans speak English, but their language is also influenced by the ethnic groups in their country. It goes without question that Fittest in Cape Town is an opportunity for the CrossFit gyms across South Africa to come together once a year. This year, though, athletes from around the world came for the competition, and got to experience both the culture and beautiful country of South Africa.

Hikes up Table Mountain, swimming with the sharks, and safaris that brought them within feet of a some of the most exotic animals on the planet were among the ways athletes experienced South Africa. Stunning sunsets, majestic rainbows, tribal dancing, and extensive espresso tours highlighted many of their trips. The word many of them choose to describe their experiences: lekker, which is best translated as superb or fantastic. Although I didn’t have the privilege of being there live for the event, based on my experience tuning in to the live feed for four days and following along via social media, I must say that everything about Fittest in Cape Town 2019, was superb indeed.

Photos courtesy of Louise Farrel, Kelly Trindade and Dylan Griffiths.