Prior to being crowned the Fittest Woman on Earth last year, relatively few people outside of Europe knew of Samantha Briggs—largely due to a knee injury that kept her out of competition in 2012.
But much like the phoenix that adorns her leg, the British firefighter rose from the ashes in 2013 to earn her place in CrossFit Games history, ensuring that ahead of the 2014 season everyone would know her name. With two-time winner Annie Thorisdottir returning from injury, Julie Foucher coming back from her studies, and training partner Lindsey Valenzuela fresh off her victory at the OC Throwdown, Samantha will have her fair share of challengers in her quest to repeat as the Fittest Woman on Earth. Yet as we have come to know, the passionate Brit is not one to shy away from a challenge.
In our interview the former duathlete and head coach of CrossFit Black Five shares her training methods, preparation for the European Regionals and how she plans to cope with her challengers this year.
With the Open a few weeks away and the Games season just around the corner, many athletes aren’t competing much during this time. Tell us why you chose to compete on back to back weekends, at the OC Throwdown and then at Wodapalooza Miami?
SB: I wanted to do the OC Throwdown to compete with Lindsey [Valenzuela]; we train together so it’s good for us to compete against each other. And I got the offer to compete at Wodapalooza with Team Progenex, so I thought it would be a good opportunity to see how I’d recover competing from one weekend to the next.
What changed for you after winning the Games last year?
SB: I have not gone back to work yet, that’s probably the biggest difference. More opportunities have opened up for me: I’ve been to Australia, I get to compete here in the US…more opportunities overall have become available.
Do you find you’ve become more recognizable due to this newfound fame?
SB: It’s funny you ask. At the airport while I was going through immigration, one of the immigration officers recognized me and told the officer who was attending me, ‘Do you realize who you’re attending…That’s the fittest woman in the world! Welcome back to the United States Ms. Briggs.’ (laughs)
As Games season nears, do you ever feel like you have a bulls-eye on your back?
SB: Coming back from winning last year, everyone is putting their all into wanting to beat me, but there’s a few of us out there that also have that tag on their back as well. I won’t name any names… (smiles).
General consensus is that competition will be fiercer than ever for the women this year, possibly more so than for the men, with Annie Thorisdottir and Julie Foucher coming back. Would you agree?
SB: You’ve got to consider Annie and Julie—Annie coming back from injury and Julie from her studies. I competed against Julie [at the OC Throwdown] and she’s looking good, she’s looking ready. I’ll be competing against Annie at the European Regionals so I’ll get to see what she’s like there. Videos of Annie show she’s coming back stronger and that’s a good thing for her—maybe not for others—and Lindsey obviously took second last year and won the OC Throwdown so I’d watch out for her as well.
A lot of athletes say they don’t compare themselves to other athletes during the Open, but they end up doing so because they can’t help it. Do you follow the standings?
SB: I try not to be bothered by it. I think I’ve got a good relationship with Lindsey. I like how we push each other, and together we get to see where the other is with their training. We don’t use it against each other; we use it to better each other. Obviously we see how other people are doing in competition and the Open is a good test of where you’re training’s at. Yet the Open tends to be completely different from Regionals, which is completely different from the Games. So you can never really count anybody out; it all depends on what Dave Castro throws at us on the given day.
Let’s talk about your athletic background before CrossFit; you played football and completed duathlons. Did that background prepare you for CrossFit?
SB: I played football, or soccer as you guys call it, for a long time. I used to do a lot of running so when I retired from football that’s when I took up triathlons and duathlons, and that helped prepare me immensely for the longer events. I’ve never sat in a rower for that long in my life but the mental aspect of going for a long duration kept me going. I think that was more of a mental test than a physical test. Referencing the Row Event of the 2013 CrossFit Games where athletes had to row 21,097 meters.
Do you still incorporate running and biking into your training?
SB: Yeah, I still like to take my bike out on active recovery days. I don’t do it too often now. I did my last competitive duathlon in September 2010, because I was finding it hard to gain strength while going long distances.
You’ve worked hard to build your strength since then. Do you still find that strength is one of those things you focus on most?
SB: It’s still something I’m working on. I’m now working with Laura Sweatt who teaches the Powerlifting certifications and she programs my strength training. I still need to work on strength, but there are also other areas that I still need to work on, so I still have a gymnastics coach, still do CrossFit. I’ve always had a pretty good engine but I keep trying to improve in every area and not let my strengths become my weaknesses.
Is there ever a time you conserve your energy during a WOD that doesn’t favor you for a WOD that suits you better?
SB: Well, I don’t think you can afford to reserve yourself at any point, but on the Nancy workout at the 2013 Games for example, there was one person in front of me when I was coming into the final round and everyone was screaming for me to overtake her on the run and I was like, ‘No, no I’m fine,’ because I knew that she’d go unbroken on the overhead squats and my plan was to do it in two sets. I know that she’d have gotten ahead of me anyway. So for me to go out and push myself that little bit extra could have meant that I’d have nothing left in me for the next event. Whereas if I conserved my energy, I knew that I could hold on to second place and I was happy with that.
How often do you work on that part of CrossFit, the mental aspect?
SB: I think it comes into play every time you do a MetCon. Sometimes I’ll do workouts where I’m not allowed to game it. I just have to go all out to failure to try to test myself and to push my boundaries a little more. At competition, I then know what I have in me so that I can plan a workout if I need to without going to failure.
A knee injury in 2012 kept you from the 2012 Games. What good came out of getting injured?
SB: I had to sit back and focus on some of my weaknesses. There was a long time where I couldn’t do anything with my legs, so I had to focus on gymnastics. Then coming back from the injury, I had to work on my mechanics and make sure that my movement patterns were more efficient and that my technique was better.
In your opinion what effect does efficiency and technique have on performance?
SB: I think it makes a big difference. If you’re not efficient with the movements, you’re going to be fatiguing your muscles more than other people. It’s going to be harder for you to recover and by the end of the first day you’re going to be a lot more tired than some of the other athletes that have been more efficient with the movements.
What’s the one movement that gives you a hard time?
SB: Overhead squats, I don’t like them. I’ve got really tight shoulders so it’s just a really uncomfortable position. I work a lot on mobility and have to spend a lot of time warming up my shoulders for overhead squats.
What’s your advice for athletes who don’t take the time to stretch and mobilize?
SB: If you want to get better, mobility needs to get factored into your warm-up, definitely! Don’t wait until you’re injured.
Let’s talk about you as a coach. What has it been like to own your own box?
SB: Well, six friends own the box together. We’ve got a good group going and a great atmosphere. Last year during the Open it was fantastic to see how many people participated. Our gym probably doubled in membership during that time. I’m looking forward to seeing what happens this year and just seeing people get involved. It’ll be a fun time.
In training last year, you shared that Lindsey Valenzuela became your training partner. You even moved in with her, her husband and her dogs for some time. Tell us about that friendship.
SB: (laughs) We’ve developed a good friendship. She refers to me as her older sister. I’ve only got a young brother so it’s nice to have a younger sister as well. I pick on her all the time. She’s quite funny.
What do you enjoy about the US?
SB: The weather is obviously a lot nicer. There’s a lot of rain in the UK, especially in the winter, and it gets very cold. Sometimes it’s hard to warm up. Maybe I can have the best of both worlds, live in the UK in the summer and the US in the winter.
Looking at Europe, do you think the existing region should be split into more regions?
SB: I don’t know. You can say that about a lot of other places, if you look at other regions covering a big geographic area. You have to take into account the caliber of athletes that are there. For example, in the Central East for the guys, you’ve got Rich [Froning], Graham [Holmberg] and guys that are fighting for the top three places. In SoCal for the women, you have Lindsey [Valenzuela], Kris [Clever], Becca Voight, Val [Voboril], all of them have been Games athletes and they’re fighting for the top three spots. There are quite a lot of regions that are going to be in the same boat.
Tell us about the CrossFit Invitational…
SB: We were definitely the underdogs.
How, if at all, did knowing you were the underdogs help you prepare?
SB: You always have a chance. We knew that on paper Team USA had better statistics. We just tried to have fun. We allocated training time and trained together as a group and then enjoyed the hotel pool and hung out and bonded as a team. Going in as underdogs, our attitude was ‘Let’s go in and have fun!’ Our tactics going in were just to take as many points as we could from them, and that ended up working for us. Our tactics in the final event gave us those few extra points. It came down to the final event, whoever won that event would have won the event, so it’s not like we dominated the entire competition.
You mentioned one of the biggest changes since winning the title of Fittest Woman was not going back to work. Do you see yourself going back to being a firefighter?
SB: My position is currently on hold. I still haven’t made the decision. I love being a firefighter, but I’m doing this at the moment and if I can train full-time, obviously that’s a better option for me. I think about how long I will be able to compete at this level and whether I would want to go back to being a full-time coach or if I would like to go back to being a firefighter. We’ll see what the future holds.
How long do you think you can compete at this level?
SB: I’m 32 this year, so I’ve probably got a couple more years left in me and then I’ll think of going team or something like that.
So, you would consider going team?
SB: That’d be in the future. The rule on the team is the way you train, so who knows where I’ll be then. I could potentially have a good team from my gym or I could potentially be training elsewhere. Never say never, right? I love being in the UK, but I also like being out here [in the US].
What’s something we don’t know about Sam Briggs?
SB: I get asked this all the time… (laughs) One of the things not many people know is that I used to play the cello. That was a long time ago and the cello was bigger than me. I used to hate it when I’d have to walk to school with it.
What’s your advice for athletes coming into the Open?
SB: Have fun. If you’re not having fun, why are you doing it…
What are you looking forward to most from the Games this year?
SB: Just seeing what new things get thrown out. I think it was exciting to have the new movements and new equipment being used.
Facebook Fans Asked Sam:
David Darsey: Do your tattoos mean anything?
SB: Coming back from injury right before the Games I got the outline of the phoenix, rising from the ashes. I got it filled in after the Games. The big one on my thigh is a fallen angel, who’s come down to Earth to look after me. And on my stomach is a symbol for fire and my fire service number.
Amanda Patrice Davalos: What is, in your opinion, the optimal way of recovering?
SB: Sleep. And, make sure that you get enough food. I don’t think people eat enough really, or eat good food. I make sure to have recovery shakes and fish oil. After a workout, I like to jump on a rower or Airdyne and go really slow with really high resistance to flush lactic acid out of the body. I think that really helps.
Joni Sisky: What does your diet consist of?
SB: I just try to eat clean. It’s pretty much Paleo, but I still have some dairy and occasionally I’ll have oatmeal. I don’t Zone. I did in 2011 and I learned portion sizes and I feel with the amount of volume that we do, if I’m hungry I just eat. I don’t like to be hungry.
Becky Smith Chambers: What do you eat when no one’s looking?
SB: I like cookies. White chocolate raspberry cookies are my favorite.