Heading into the CrossFit games, Mat Fraser was a man with a target on his back. Just how he likes it.
Every summer, top CrossFitters compete in “the Games,” a five-day, 14-event CrossFit challenge that’s like the decathlon, American Ninja Warrior, and World’s Strongest Man mashed into one ab-tastic sweatfest. Last year, the final event was called Aeneas because . . . well, Aeneas was a war hero, and presumably ripped. It involved five pegboard climbs, requiring you to hold a dowel in each hand and jab your way up a 2.4m board; 40 thrusters, front squats to overhead presses with a 40kg-barbell; and three 10m loaded yoke carries, in which you shoulder a crossbar attached to a base. Weight is added for each subsequent carry, starting at 192.5kg and going to 300kg. The event separates the very fit from the impossibly also separates the impossibly fit from Mathew Fraser.
Last year – as he was again this year – Fraser was out to retain bragging rights as the Fittest Man on Earth.
Sporting his trademark half grimace/half smile, the man is a grinder. You don’t sense that he’s moving quickly, but he ends up in front. During the yoke carry, the 170cm, 88kg Fraser, walking as smoothly as you can with 300kg, sailed into first. He won and banged his fist against his chest, energising thousands of fans at the Alliant Energy Centre in Madison, Wisconsin. And get this: Through 13 events, Fraser had already piled up 1062 points, 192 more than anyone else could score. He would have won the Games even if he’d started Aeneas by taking a selfie and finished dead last.
You may roll your eyes when you see that Fraser uses the tag #HWPO, for “Hard Work Pays Off,” on all his Instagram posts, but it’s self-motivation, not marketing ploy. “Every day, you have 100 points of energy,” the 29-year-old says. “I want to contribute as many of those points towards training as possible.” A mechanical engineering student who once worked in the aerospace industry, he has weaponised his whole life for performance: he recently moved from his hometown of Colchester, Vermont, to Cookeville, Tennessee, home of multiple elite CrossFitters. He trains at CrossFit Mayhem alongside Rich Froning Jr., 36, who won the Games four times, and women’s champ Aussie Tia-Clair Toomey. Lunch, like all his meals, is prepped by his fiancée, Sammy Moniz, who created an oatmeal-, chicken-, and steak-rich Instagram feed for fans, @feedingthefrasers. Fraser does another workout in his garage home gym, usually listening to Joe Rogan’s podcast.
The Games reward all-around fitness, so Fraser trains for everything. He can deadlift more than 225kg, run 1.6km in five minutes and 20 seconds, and row 42km in less than three hours. “Mat continues to refine his mechanics,” says Kelly Starrett, a physical therapist who regularly works with A-list athletes. “He’s like a shark . . . on rails . . . with laser beams.” Right now that energy is spent getting ready to defend his crown at this year’s Games (August 1 through 4). Tying Froning’s record of four wins would elevate Fraser to stunning stardom. When Froning won his first title in 2011, 26,000 people entered the Games; in 2018, 415,000 entered. What was once seen as an exercise fad now rules mainstream fitness. That Fraser is lifting CrossFit higher is shocking, since ten years ago, doctors told him his exercise would be limited to “light jogging.”
An athletic mutant, Fraser swam at age one, water-skied at two and climbed upstairs on his hands at five. He gravitated toward Olympic weightlifting at age 12 and after graduating high school, he went to the Team USA training centre in Colorado. His goal: the 2016 Rio Olympics. Then, in 2009, while training for the junior world championships, he heard a crack in his lower back while doing a clean. A few training sessions later, he heard another crack when performing a heavy squat. He competed anyway, finishing 15th. X-rays revealed he’d broken his LV5 vertebra in two places. Doctors told Fraser, then 19, his weightlifting days were over. But he found a surgeon willing to try an experimental operation. Fraser endured 18 months of rehab, four in a hips-tonipples cast. He eventually built his strength back, but his Olympic aspirations had waned. He enrolled at the University of Vermont.
Fraser joined a local CrossFit box to use its equipment. The gym owners encouraged him to join class workouts and convinced him to enter a CrossFit competition. He showed up wearing Nike AirMax 90s and won the event and $500. He bought a pair of CrossFit shoes – and was hooked. “The more I did CrossFit, the more I wanted to work on my weaknesses,” he says. By 2012, he was in the world championships. He finished second in the 2014 and 2015 Games, then won the next three years, pocketing more than $1 million in prize money. His sponsorships may bring in even more. (Hard work really pays off.)
Froning’s earlier success provides a template for Fraser. Froning turned his Games titles into a long-term deal with Reebok and his own gym and coaching business. But Fraser could do more. He already has deals with Nike, equipment maker Rogue Fitness and several performance brands. He has 1.5 million Instagram followers, more than Froning. But none of it seems to matter to Fraser. Remember the 100 points of energy. As Fraser puts it, “I don’t wanna half-ass two things. I wanna whole-ass one thing.” He doesn’t do pretty. He shaves his head because it’s “zero maintenance” and tells me he doesn’t care for six-pack abs, even as he sports an eight-pack.
Part of the Games’ draw is that regular people and elite athletes qualify the same way: by placing well in a month-long series of workouts dubbed the Open. Fraser does the same WODs you can do; he just does them better. The Open was once the Games’ key qualifier, but this year there’s a new format. CrossFit has added 15 independent, sanctioned events worldwide. Top placers earn Games berths. Fraser envisions these “sanctionals” becoming CrossFit’s take on the PGA Tour, in which each event has its own reputation.
Fraser is all at once superstar and regular person. It’s a tough balancing act. In 2017, the Games moved from ESPN to CBS Sports, which televises the finals and also livestreams them on social media, leading to more than 10 million viewers across all platforms. Fraser recently completed a USO tour with country singer Kellie Pickler, actor Milo Ventimiglia and snowboarder Shaun White. “Rich Froning Jr. and Mat Fraser have done very well in their sport,” says David Schwab, executive VP of celebrity talent agency Octagon, who’s struck deals with Michael Phelps and Kevin Durant. “But the guys who have gained greater relevance from niche sports have done so via cameos in movies and broader promotional work. Think John Cena.” Fraser, though, says he’s not concerned with crossing over. “I love being who I am right now.”
WHAT IS IT?
The most technically demanding move in CrossFit, the snatch has you lifting a loaded barbell from the ground to overhead, all in one motion.
“Keep your arms absolutely straight and locked out through the first part of the lift so all the power from your hips will
WHAT IS IT?
The muscle-up requires that you start hanging from a bar or rings then pull your entire torso above it, locking your arms out at the top.
“Do not try ring muscleups until you are very good at strict pull-ups. Learn pull-ups first, then muscleups will come.”
WHAT IS IT?
The cardio row machine mimics what it’s like to row a boat. A typical CrossFit workout has you row a set distance or number of calories.
“Start coiled close to the rower, then extend your legs, then your hips, then follow through with your arms. It will feel unnatural.”
THE ASSAULT AIRBIKE
WHAT IS IT?
This cardio crusher has your feet pedaling and your arms pulling against variable resistance, typically for a set number of calories.
“Embrace the pain and just go hard. Keep telling yourself the pain will leave in a little bit, because you’re never on there for long. There is no form.”