Jenny Davis stood in front of a plywood wall at the CrossFit Regional competition in Canton, MA, in May. Davis had to do a handstand, lower herself until her head touched the ground and push herself back up into the handstand. And then she did it again – 44 more times.
“Jenny Davis looks invincible,” whispered a spectator standing nearby.
Davis, a 29-year-old Southport resident, went into the New England games as the top seed and came out as the champion. “Gymnastic moves are hard for me, but I have gotten better this year,” said Davis, who qualified to compete in the Reebok CrossFit Games for the second consecutive year.
The Reebok CrossFit Games are trademarked as “the world’s premier test to find the Fittest on Earth.” CrossFit, an exercise format that combines Olympic weightlifting, aerobic conditioning, gymnastics and speed, has experienced tremendous growth. There are more than 3,000 CrossFit gyms, or boxes as the athletes refer to them, in the world. Last year, more than 29,000 people attempted to qualify for the Games. The top man and woman each received $250,000.
The Games will be held July 13-15th in Carson, CA, near Los Angeles. ESPN3 will stream the Games, and last year ESPN2 broadcast repeats of the Games.
Davis may head west as a regional champion but she is not the highest-ranked local competitor. Teammate Amy Mandelbaum is seeded first in the world in the Master Division, age 45-49. Mandelbaum , 45, of Westport, qualified for the CrossFit Games with a series of weekly competitions held in February and March.
Both Mandelbaum and Davis train with Ben Kelly, the owner of the Fairfield-based BK Athletics. Davis and Mandelbaum each came to CrossFit three years ago, but through different paths.
Davis, a Harvard graduate by way of New York City, played rugby in college. She knew weightlifters, and she wanted to learn Olympic-style lifts. “I loved it right away,” said Davis. Three years ago she trained with CrossFit Gotham, which did not have its own gym. “We had to carry weights from the coach’s apartment to a nearby park in the city,” she said.
Mandelbaum, born in Michigan and raised in Columbia, MD, also started CrossFit in the summer of 2009. “My friend, Julie Migliaccio, owns Evolution Fitness in Westport,” she said. “She and I would take classes all over, including going into New York. One day she called and said she found a CrossFit box and I had to try it.
“Ben Kelly saw something in me and invited me back,” (he also gave Mandelbaum her nickname – Pistol). “I went back and he invited me back again. He told me that I needed to do this. He could see something in me.” She went back again and again. “I did the ‘Murph’ workout. It involves running a mile, doing 100 pull-ups, 200 pushups, 300 squats and finishing with another mile run.”
The workout was grueling. Mandelbaum was hooked.
By the fall of 2009, both athletes trained exclusively at BK Athletics. Davis moved to Southport and started a postgraduate nursing program at Yale. In 2010, Davis and five teammates competed at the CrossFit Games, placing 12th overall in the team competition. Mandelbaum qualified for the team, but opted to stay home. “After those Games, I had to think about what I wanted to do,” she said. “Ben asked me to commit and I said yes.”
2011 brought changes for both athletes. Davis, a lover of team sports, realized she wanted to compete as an individual. She believed the CrossFit events were better suited to that. “It’s more challenging,” Davis said, “but it’s an expression of what an individual can do.” She finished 22nd in the world.
The Fairfield team, with Mandelbaum competing, finished fifth in the regionals and failed to qualify for the Games.
“I hit a low after that,” Mandelbaum said. “The goal of CrossFit is to go to the Games. Otherwise, you are just a gym.”
While Davis focused for the last year on improving on 22nd place, Mandelbaum prepared for her Master’s debut. Only a 44-year-old competitive athlete is happy about turning 45.
“It dawned on me that the playing field would be more level,” Mandelbaum said. “I wouldn’t be competing against women 15 years younger than I am. I decided I was going to do this. I explained to my family that I would have to eat differently, go away for some competitions. It was a big commitment.” Her husband, David, and children, Julia and Sam, remain supportive.
Davis and Mandelbaum don’t know the events they will face in the Games. That information is not released until the week of the competition. But both women are more than ready. The recently married Davis received her Master’s in Nursing and after the Games is moving to Maine to work as a family nurse practitioner. “I have less stress and anxiety this year,” she said. “I feel, ‘Let’s see what I can do’. I feel better mentally that this might be enjoyable rather than stressful.”
The number-one ranked Mandelbaum remains relatively anonymous in the CrossFit community. She is enjoying the quiet. “People know who Jenny is. I am flying under the radar,” Mandelbaum said. “No one knows who I am. I place the pressure on myself. I intend to win. I am not going there to fail. The podium is the goal.”
Follow them on Twitter; Coach Ben Kelly @bk_athletics and Amy @PistolBKA.