This past Sunday, Mat Fraser, the defending Fittest Man on Earth, won the East Regionals, his last qualifier before the CrossFit Games in August. Though his margin of victory this year was a third of what it was in 2016 (35 points compared to 158), his position in the top three was never in question. However, Fraser failed to do the one thing expected of all elite athletes: he didn't make his win look effortless, and that may be the secret to his success.
Take, for example, Event Three, which opened with a 100-foot walking lunge with an 80-pound dumbbell overhead. It's a lopsided, awkward movement, and Fraser didn't make it look otherwise. At times, his steps went off-center or his foot landed at a strange angle. He didn't gracefully kiss the ground with his knee or space his steps so he just crossed the finish line. He didn't even lunge particularly quickly. When he started the next phase of the workout, the "chipper" portion, he was firmly in the middle of the pack.
During the 100 double-unders, though, Fraser's dominance began to show in subtle ways. Like every competitive athlete there, he blew through the jumps without stopping, but his were especially efficient: no single-under to start the set, his wrists generating all of the power, and each rep exactly like the one before. His face was also relaxed, which is how it stayed until the end of the workout.
After the double-unders, Fraser did two perfect sets of 25 wall-balls and moved onto the 15-foot rope climbs. Because the rope started five feet off the ground, the first pulls had to be legless, and again, Fraser's technique wasn't particularly graceful. On a few reps, he had trouble hooking his feet, and other competitors, especially those with longer arms, were able to ascend and descend more efficiently. But, what Fraser lacked in finesse he made up with in grit. His longest break between any of the ten reps was 12 seconds.
After the rope climbs, the workout finished in reverse order, and Fraser started the wall-balls in second place. While the leader missed a few shots, Fraser was flawless and moved into first place by the time he returned to the double-unders. Even though he made a few rare mistakes (catching his foot on the jumps, dropping the dumbbell on the walking lounges and having to retreat a few feet), his final time of 11:17 was 13 seconds ahead of the second-place finisher and forty seconds ahead of third.
During Event Three — and throughout the weekend — Fraser was relentlessly consistent, as were the two athletes below him on the leaderboard; all three placed in the top five for almost every event. Meanwhile, the other competitors were all over the map. For example, Cody Mooney, the fourth-place finisher, took 12th, 5th, 7th, 2nd, 15th, and 4th. For Fraser, this steadiness is partly due to his maniacal training, but it's also a product of a specific kind of mindset.
During the interview after Event Three, a commentator asked Fraser how Event Four (handstand walks, toes-to-bar, and kettlebell deadlifts) fit into his wheelhouse. Fraser's answer might seem like faux humility, but it's actually so revealing of his attitude that it should be tattooed on his back: "I don't love it. I don't hate it. They're movements I'm okay at."
Fraser has one goal — winning the CrossFit Games — and is willing to sacrifice any glory to achieve it. As he told Men's Health, "Should I be sulking if I have a bad event? No. I should pack up and move on to the next one. Should I still be on Cloud Nine because I had a good event? No. I should pack up and move on. I'm not putting in the work to have a big hoorah at Event Two at Regionals."
And, for the most part, Fraser doesn't hoorah. During the second round of wall-balls on Event Three, while he was still trailing the leader, Fraser took off his shirt and dropped into a squat. For fifteen seconds, he caught his breath.
"That's an athlete who knows himself," says Rob Orlando, a former Games competitor and current CrossFit commentator. "He knows his capacity, knows how close he is to redline, and knows how much time he needs before he stands back up."
Though Fraser ended up winning Event Three, that isn't usually the case. At the Games last year, Fraser, the man who became the Fittest Earth, won only one of fifteen, which explains why he doesn't usually look like the best athlete on the floor. Oftentimes, he isn't. His dominance is subtle, the kind that is most visible on the leaderboard after the final event.
Every year, the CrossFit Games get more difficult and more varied. Dave Castro, the event's director, loves to incorporate new apparatuses, like the pig and the pegboard. Whereas the other competitors are likely dreading the surprise, Fraser is unfazed.
He won't love it. He won't hate it. They're movements he's okay at.