She’s led previous lives as a collegiate gymnast and heptathlete. Now, she’s a certified all-star in this sport we call CrossFit. We sat down with Talayna Fortunato at the box she calls home, Real Fitness in Naples, FL. Coming off a third place finish at this year’s Games we realized something very quickly: she’s just getting started and only getting better!
How did you find CrossFit?
TF: I used to train at a traditional gym and was a class junkie, you name it, I did all the classes. I was the girl who did all the weird stuff. After this box [Real Fitness] opened, my friend Brad suggested I try it.
Describe your first experience.
TF: The first workout I did was Angie. Although now I know I wasn’t supposed to, we broke it up. I used the bands and did sets of 25 pull-ups unbroken. The next day my arm wouldn’t straighten; I strained both biceps. I’d also started a new job and couldn’t do much because my arms were huge from the swelling. But I came back the next day and just did something that didn’t require the use of my arms. I’ve been doing it ever since.
What was your athletic background before CrossFit?
TF: My mom put me in gymnastics when I was four. I’d been jumping off furniture and climbing on the roof since I was 18 months. (laughs) I did gymnastics all the way through college, with a one year break. I ran high school and college track. I did the heptathlon and a little bit of pole vault as well.
How was the transition from gymnastics to CrossFit?
TF: There are some clear similarities. One is the work ethic. For some people, working out for more than an hour is a big deal. Throughout my entire life, I’ve spent 3-4 hours a day at the gym. Now, I’m just going back to what’s normal for me.
What are some differences?
TF: There are some clear differences; for one, what you look like is different. In gymnastics, athletes are light and lean. In CrossFit, you don’t worry about ‘dieting’, you eat for performance. In gymnastics, you focus on controlled explosions and do the same routines over and over. In CrossFit, you want to PR. Each time you work to be faster, lift heavier…It’s always different.
You mentioned gymnasts being light and lean. We’ve heard about the eating disorders some current CF athletes have overcome from their time in gymnastics. Did you have those same hurdles?
TF: Coming from gymnastics, I did go through a few years where I could have been classified as having an ‘eating disorder’ given how strict and thin I was. I’ve still had problems with food a little since then, but when I started CrossFit, I started eating for performance and that started to heal the issues I had with weight.
It’s weird to gain weight. I’m back to my heaviest and I actually feel good about it because it’s a completely different body composition. I’ve gained about 3-4lbs since the Games, but my back squat’s gone up 15lbs. My pants are tighter now than they were in June, but I’m squatting more, so I’m okay with that. I’m finally getting my squat to where it should be. If I stop squatting, my pants will feel loose again. There’s a purpose for the change. It means that I’m that much closer to squat cleaning whatever my new goal is, and I prefer to think of it that way.
The women who placed top three at the Games all have a history of gymnastics. Do you think there’s some benefit to having that experience?
TF: Yep, it’s three things: work ethic, body awareness and core stability. Gymnastics gives you a huge head start on upper body strength. You get strong shoulders from doing handstands and the skill transfer helps. There’s also body awareness. Knowing where your body is in relation to a barbell is important when lifting.
Let’s talk about your journey to the Games. In 2011, you missed the trip to California when you placed fourth at the South East Regional. This year, you came in third place overall and it was your first year in the competition. How’d you do it?
TF: Well in 2010, my first year competing, At sectionals, I learned to Power Clean in the back parking lot. I had no clue what my max was. I also learned muscle-ups two weeks before those Regionals. Last year when I was preparing for Regionals, I started doing the workouts Brandon Phillips posted on his facebook page and I’d post my time on his page.
Turns out those were Outlaw workouts. Shortly after, [Coach] Rudy sent me a facebook friend request, but I had no idea who he was so I ignored it. (laughs) He looked creepy. I thought to myself, ‘I’m not going to friend this guy.’ Finally when BP [Brandon Phillips] said his coach was going to write me, I put two and two together and accepted the request. (laughs)
I took him up on his offer to coach me and now it’s been almost a year and a half since I’ve been training the Outlaw Way. When I started it was just a few weeks before the 2011 Regionals. There wasn’t enough time for me to really see benefits from the training. But now it’s completely different.
You’ve mentioned doing some running and triathlon type training for the 2012 Games.
TF: Well, we don’t run much in the Outlaw Way. I always add in a little on my own, but before the Games, I knew I was going to have to log some miles. A few weeks prior, I started running a mile in the morning and one at night. Before I knew it, I was logging 12 miles a week from my usual two to three. I also added triathlon training and did some interval work. For about 5-6 workouts, I did a 250m swim, 5 mile bike and 1 mile run, for 3 rounds. Practicing transitions and really pushing the run.
Did it affect your strength?
TF: It didn’t. I only did it for a month. I started close enough to the Games where it didn’t affect me. If I’d done it for longer, I’d definitely start breaking down muscle tissue. I knew I could get my endurance up quickly, but would have lost strength if I’d done that kind of training any longer.
As an athlete, what do you consider to be your strengths?
TF: My strengths are any high skilled movements—things that take athleticism. I think it’s why I was able to do the Obstacle Course [at the Games] so well. I have very strong shoulders compared to my legs, but we’re changing that. I also have a lot of core strength from gymnastics.
And your weaknesses?
TF: Front squats. It used to be my posterior chain; it’s hard keeping a flat back. I have some hypermobility in my low back from gymnastics making it hard for me to lock my back. It also used to be running but that’s not the case anymore.
How do you prepare yourself mentally?
TF: It depends on what we’re doing. If it’s lifting, I try to get to the heaviest I can. I’ll go to where I hit my max. I try to push it in my lifting, especially in the off season. For a max effort set of something, handstand push-ups, for example, I’ll try to go to failure. Some people will just go until ‘Oh, that was hard, I’m done.’ I really try to get in the mindset of going until one of the reps fails. If I just go until one of the reps that’s hard for me, I might find that I have one more in me.
What about during competition? How did you prepare mentally to compete at the CrossFit Games?
TF: At the Games, it was different. You know you have to pace yourself. On the sled push, for example, I couldn’t go 100% otherwise I wouldn’t have been able to walk back to the rope. I learned at the first Regionals I competed that you can’t go full force when there’s a 20 minute cap. You’re going to die. I’ve died before. It’s not pretty.
Do you practice any kind of self-talk to get yourself through a workout?
TF: Yeah, you can’t let yourself get to that place where you’re focused on the pain. I’ve tried to transcend that pain to “Why am I doing this workout? Is it to get to this point where it hurts so badly?” When you think about a workout’s true purpose, you can transcend the pain.
Speaking of transcending pain…We all watched that final Games Fran WOD and saw your drive to keep your 3rd place spot on the podium. You and Kristan Clever went rep-for-rep until the final set of nine pull-ups. What kept you on that bar?
TF: To be honest, I feel like I can do Fran unbroken no matter what I feel like. I knew I could, but I knew I was going to have to push the pace too. Kristan Clever has another gear in competition. So does Annie [Thorisdottir]. Things they can’t do in the gym, they’ll do in competition. I knew our times were comparable but [Kristan] was going to make me work for it. As far as staying on the bar…I have very good grip strength and big hands. I work with my hands all day as a therapist. I also grip the bar with my thumb around. I could have done 20 pull-ups if I had to.
As an elite athlete, where do you see the sport of CrossFit in 3-5 years?
TF: Some people love to watch golf. I don’t get it because I don’t play golf, but they like it because they play golf. If you’ve never golfed, you probably hate golf too. But other people watch football, basketball, sports they may not play every day. Yet I think CrossFit takes it to another level. If you do it, you get it. Fans love to watch the sport and I don’t think any fans are like CrossFit fans, even those crazy football fans with the face paint.
You’re also venturing into competing in weightlifting meets. How’s that different from CrossFit?
TF: Weightlifting is a lot like gymnastics. You’re not breathing hard. You don’t get a chance to get your nerves down. In a WOD, if you drop the first rep, it’s not a big deal. But if you miss your first lift in a meet, you’re all shaken up. When I competed at the Arnold last year, I missed my first two lifts. The lights are so bright, you can’t even see the judges. It was like being on beam again in gymnastics.
What’s a day in the life of Talayna like?
TF: I get up at the last minute that I can, usually around 7. I’ll feed my dog and go to work from 8am-5pm. After work, I workout for a few hours, go home, have dinner, go online and answer emails and get ready for the next day. On weekends though, I do think I party more than most crossfitters. I think because I didn’t party too much in college, I’m making up for some of it now. (laughs) Work hard, play hard, right?
You ventured into writing this last year. What made you start a blog?
TF: I started it because a friend of mine was writing one. His family mostly reads it, but they like to see it. I wanted to write. I have a journey with this. I didn’t know who was going to read it, but I tried to make it enjoyable. Throughout the year, I realized people were actually reading it when they started commenting on my posts.
This year was really hard. I broke a rib and at first I didn’t tell people until I blogged about it. I also had a bone spur in my ankle that didn’t let me front squat normally. I couldn’t even do a pistol after Regionals. I told people at the training camps, “It’ll be fine. It’ll go away.” People would just say, “Yeah, good luck with that.” Ten days before I left to California, I was running around the box when I realized there was zero pain in my ankle and the swelling had come down. I did a couple squats and that’s when I realized “This is meant to happen because I told people it would.”
If you could tell the community anything, what would it be?
TF: Thank you! Thank you for the support. I’m getting to travel this year with Outlaw camps. I’m going to get to go to Europe and Australia. I’m going to get to coach and just hang out with CrossFitters the rest of the time. They seem to think I’m a bigger deal than I think I am which is amazing. I get to do my dream job now. Thank you for that!
Our Facebook fans asked Talayna…
Kishore Nair: How many days a week do you work out? Are they continuous or are there rest days in between?
TF: I work out six days a week. The Outlaw Way does it 3 days on, 1 off, 2 on, 1 off. If I need a rest day in between, I’ll take it. For the Games, I didn’t start two-a-days until after Regionals, I just didn’t have time. To do two sessions a day now I’d have to give up on sleep and that’s more important. It would be ideal though if I could lift in the morning and WOD in the evening.
Abdulaziz Zakkout: What’s your diet like?
TF: Now, I’m a little more lax. I’ll drink. But before the Games, before a morning workout, I’d have hard boiled eggs and some sweet potato fries. After I’d have a banana and a recovery shake with some almond milk. If I wasn’t working out in the morning, I’d have some cottage cheese or Greek yogurt, with frozen berries. I’m not Paleo. I eat dairy. As a snack, some hard boiled eggs, a banana with peanut butter. I also eat Real Fit Foods offered here at my box. I get 8 meals a week consisting of meat and vegetables. Thanks to that I’m eating more meat than I ever have.
Michael Switzer: Do you follow a different diet while you’re competing?
TF: Not really. I enjoy the way I eat which is about 95% Paleo. I enjoy what I eat. I enjoy the way I feel. Though I may be more strict, I don’t feel the need to change my diet.
Every day at the Games, I ate oatmeal, walnuts, eggs and fruit. Oatmeal and eggs are my staple. I take aminos in my water. If I’ve worked out a lot and I know I won’t be able to eat right away, I’ll take a few scoops of Progenex. If I can have a meal right after, I’ll do that instead.
Watch Talayna do some work during Event 4 of the 2013 South East Regionals: