Iceland Annie has taken the CrossFit world by storm. She’s earned the title Fittest Woman on Earth in both 2011 and 2012, all while sporting an ever-present smile. Almost as impressive, she placed 11th at the 2009 Games just two months after starting CrossFit. She’s been described as having a non-stop motor, an asset that made a third consecutive win at the 2013 Games a very likely possibility. Now, due to a herniated-disk that knocked her out of the Open and may prevent her from competing at the Games, that possibility remains to be seen.
In our two-part interview with Annie, as the Open started and after her most recent injury, she shares the details of her experiences over the last two years, her training, recovering from her injury, the lessons learned and what she looks forward to the most. We’re sharing this interview the way we experienced it: first, her thoughts as the Open began, then after the announcement of her back injury.
You’re competing in the Open after recovering from a back injury. How are you feeling?
AT: I’m a lot better. I initially thought I wasn’t going to be able to ever compete again, but the best doctors and the right people have been helping me out. I started moving around with a bit more weight in the middle of January, adding load on the bar. Now, my back actually feels pretty good. At least I know I’ll be able to compete at the Games, which is great. My goal of course is to win, but I’m making sure that I get back to 100%. I don’t want to get too caught up in the Open, because I want to make sure I get in the right amount of training time I need.
How did you injure your back?
AT: I was being greedy at the gym. After the 2012 Games, I put a lot of effort into getting my legs stronger, because I felt that was one of my weak points. My core just couldn’t keep up with it. I PR’d on my back squat, then went right into PR’ing on my deadlift and that’s when it happened. I focused on one part of my body without making sure my other parts were as strong and was being too greedy. I didn’t think about what I was doing. I went into the lift thinking about getting it, not thinking about good form. Unfortunately, it was just my fault.
How tough was the recovery process mentally?
AT: That was ridiculously hard. But thinking back, I got to know myself better as an athlete. It was difficult even getting out of the house. I had a hard time getting out of bed for a week. When I was able to go back to the gym, all I could do were pull-ups and bench press and I never used to do bench. Watching people go hard at the gym pretty much made me cry. It was difficult seeing other people train hard. I tried to go to the box when no one else was training. Also, having everyone ask me how I was feeling was tough, because I really didn’t want to tell them that I feel like shit. But I got to thinking about why I’m doing this, why I wanted to get back on track and continue competing. It got me thinking a lot. I definitely know that I’m on the right track as to what I want to do with my life. I thoroughly enjoy training. It’s funny that you don’t respect being injury-free until you’re injured. This is my first real injury.
During your recovery, did you focus on any other movements aside from bench that proved beneficial?
AT: Yeah, my technique. I worked a lot on technique. I was doing Snatches and Clean & Jerks at 30kg (60lbs) for a month and half. My technique has probably benefited a lot from that. Now that I’m able to able to add more load, my lifts feel the same or better. I also got to practice gymnastics movements that I otherwise wouldn’t have. The experience was good that way.
Games Season is here and you’re going for a third win in a row. You have a lot of eyes on you. How does it feel to be the athlete others want to beat? What do you think about your competition?
AT: I would say it’s better to be on top and have someone else catch up to you than you having to catch up to someone else, but I know my competitors are still close. There’s no workout during which I can relax, or want to relax. Last year was really stressful for me. I put a lot of pressure on myself. This year, I’m approaching it a bit differently. I still feel the pressure. I know what I want from myself. I want to win, but I’m also really grateful that I’m going to be able to compete. I realize my back injury might set me back but my goal is to get to 100% and be able to go as hard as I can at the Games. Hopefully that will be enough.
Do you complete Open workouts more than once?
AT: I said I wouldn’t last time, and I did two of them twice. This year I don’t intend to because I know that I need to recover. My goal isn’t to with the Open. My goal is to win the Games. I’m not going to ruin my training by repeating Open workouts. I’m going to restrain myself and just go hard when I do it.
Do you keep track of other competitors in the Open?
AT: I wasn’t going to look at the Leaderboard until the last day. Yet, we all go to the Games Site pretty often and you do look at the Leaderboard and see who’s on there. (laughs) I do look at it every once in a while.
Do you think some people purposely save their scores until Sunday?
AT: Of course, if you have a good score you don’t want to do the workout again, so you keep it a secret. But part of the fun is the posting.
Are there any differences between CrossFit in the US and CrossFit in Iceland?
AT: CrossFit in Iceland is big. Everyone knows what it is. We have an insane amount of boxes. Similar to the States, there are three or four boxes within 5-10 minutes from each other. I think they’re all doing really well because they’re all different. I would say there is a big difference between CrossFit in Iceland and CrossFit in the States. We [in Iceland] have more members at each box. It’s cheaper to do CrossFit in Iceland than it is in the States. More people have the opportunity to use CrossFit as their ‘gym’. In Europe it seems to be more like that.
Iceland doesn’t have a very large population, and you’re pretty well known. Has life changed any since becoming the Fittest Woman on Earth, twice?
AT: It’s definitely different because a lot of people recognize me, but it’s not uncomfortable in any way. No one goes crazy asking for autographs or anything. We’re so few that we all know each other. I will say one of the coolest things about this is that people got to know and started doing CrossFit. I really like that.
What’s your favorite type of workout?
AT: A long and heavy chipper, definitely.
Take us back, how did you find CrossFit?
AT: After quitting gymnastics, I needed to do something. I made it to the Dance Academy. I did some pole vaulting. After four years, I was looking for something new, something more challenging. So I found different competitions and one of them was a CrossFit competition. I knew a lot of the people doing them and I went for it, during my final exams and all. I showed up, competed and I won. By winning, I earned a spot at the 2009 CrossFit Games. I had two months to get to know CrossFit. I placed 11th that year. While at the Games I realized this is what I was looking for.
A lot has changed since 2009. Someone who doesn’t do CrossFit isn’t expected to make it to the Games. How has the sport changed?
AT: I think it’s a tough question. Weights are definitely heavier, and the intensity is higher. It’s like sprinting in the Olympics, times always get better. As athletes get more experience, we do get better. From being at the farm in 2009 to going to the Home Depot Center is a big change. People have realized how fun and amazing the sport is.
How often do you train?
AT: I train five days a week, two times a day for 2-2 ½ hours a day. During one session I work on strength, technique and on the minute work. The other session is more technique and a met-con and sometimes there’s a bit of weight in there. As far as rest, one of the rest days is for active recovery, where I stretch and do light barbell work. I take the other day completely off.
Tell us about your coach. How important is it to have a coach?
AT: I got a coach after the 2010 Regionals. I think it’s really important if you want to compete at the highest level. It’s hard to program for yourself. I might be able to program for other people, but programming for yourself is difficult. If you write something down, you might change it when you get to the gym, if you’re not in the mood to do that workout. If I coached myself, I’d skip the boring workouts and change them to something I enjoy more, which means that I wouldn’t work as much on my weaknesses.
Weaknesses…What are Annie Thorisdottir’s weaknesses or those movements you don’t like?
AT: Back since 2009 and 2010, muscle-ups make me nervous. Although I performed them well in 2011 and 2012, they’re still a mental challenge. I would also say I need to work on my running. I get pretty good at it, but I don’t enjoy working on it as much. Ocean swimming is something I want to work on, but I do not want to work on it here in Iceland. (laughs) There are so many things I want to get better at, but I wouldn’t say they’re weaknesses.
How do you incorporate training with a busy schedule such as yours?
AT: I always make sure training is my #1 priority. I might not be able to do two-a-days when I travel, but I at least get in one longer session. It makes a difference that my boyfriend also does CrossFit. We train together. If I’m tired after traveling, he pushes me to go to the gym and vice versa. We make sure we get the work done that we need to get done. We’re both really competitive. So that helps.
Who is your biggest threat for 2013?
AT: I don’t know. You never know. All the women are so talented, but there may also be someone unknown. Yeah…we’ll see when the time comes.
Do you think there are any Individual Men front runners?
AT: I don’t know. I think both competitions are going to be really exciting to watch. I know that Rich [Froning] is extremely good, so I do believe that he’s going to win again. From training with him and getting to know him better, he’s a really strong competitor. Josh Bridges is going to come back really strong. I’m hoping that Mikko [Salo] will go great. Ben Smith is always good. He’s always been one of my favorites.
Last year the triathlon was the wild card. What are you expecting this year?
AT: I don’t know. I just hope that Dave [Castro] is not going to kill us at some point. I know I need to work more on my running. I haven’t done it yet, but I will when spring comes. It’s still way too cold here and I don’t really like running on treadmills indoors, so I’ll work on my running when I believe the weather is good enough. I think the workouts I’m doing now are also improving my cardio.
Is anything other than 1st place a disappointment for you?
AT: “No, definitely not. It would be a disappointment not to perform as well as I know than I can. But if other people are better than me, I can’t be disappointed because I can’t expect more from myself. I am doing the best I can right now. If other people do better, then it’s life. I hope what I’m doing is going to be enough. I do really want to win the Games again, but I can’t be disappointed if someone else is better.”
What’s your life like outside of CrossFit?
AT: That’s hard to answer because my life revolves around CrossFit. I travel a lot, but I do enjoy my evenings. I always want to have my evenings off, which doesn’t happen a lot because I coach in the evenings. I like to relax, watching good TV or movies. I love animated movies. ‘Despicable Me’ is by far my favorite movie.
Where do you see the future of CrossFit?
AT: I believe that it’s going to keep growing. In the Open, it’s not just people who want to compete in the Games, but people who want to compete against others in the world, who want to track their progress from last year to this year. CrossFit is a competitive sport for grown-ups. As long as we make sure that coaches are doing a good job at their gyms, and taking care of their athletes, it’s only going to get better.
We followed up with Annie shortly after she announced she would not complete the Open.
How did it happen?
AT: I was squatting with really tired legs. I made the weight even lighter to do some reps, but I lost focus and lost my back. It all happened so fast. I fell to my knees. I couldn’t move and all I could think was, ‘This did not just happen again.
Mentally, how have you been dealing with the injury?
AT: I cried for about 2-3 days. Then it was time to face reality, there was nothing I could do to go back and change it. I can only do all I can to heal as fast as possible but still as well as possible. This is my back, a body part I intend on using for the rest of my life. It’s my number one priority! Of course I was disappointed and frustrated with myself but I can also look at this as a learning experience. During hard times, it’s important to focus on the things you can change instead of what you should have or could have done differently.
Do you feel you had fully recovered from your first back injury or did the Open push you to come back sooner than you hoped?
AT: My recovery was going great. I was being careful. The Open is definitely not to blame. Unfortunately, I did not listen to my body.
Is there an estimated recovery time?
AT: I don’t know yet.
If you were invited to compete at the Games, would you want to?
AT: I don’t know. I want to be healthy first, and then worry about competing. I will be at the Home Depot Center in July and time will tell if I will be wearing my number 12 or not. I hope it’s the latter. I’ve been looking forward to it since the Games ended last year!
What takeaways from this experience would you share with your fans?
AT: Train hard. Train smart. Listen to your body. I’d like to thank everyone who’s been in touch since this happened. It has been a big help emotionally to get through this.
Want to learn a little more about Annie? Check out this great video from CrossFit HQ on the 2x champ: