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Photo: Birkir Ásgeirsson

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Meet: Annie Thorisdottir

She's been involved in the sport from the very beginning and has been named “fittest woman on earth” twice, but Annie Thorisdottir isn’t finished yet. She would like a family and children, but first she wants to make history.

"Fullsterkurcan be translated as ‘full strength’. The saying is used about the largest rock Icelandic fishermen attempted to lift. It weighed 154kg and you proved you were worth your place by lifting it.”

The CrossFit Games are the sport’s answer to the World Cup, and in 2015 the participants were scheduled to tackle an exercise called Murph. They started by going for a run in the baking California sun, followed by 100 pull-ups, 200 push-ups and 300 knee bends, before crossing the finishing line – all the while wearing a vest containing 6kg of weights.

Photo: Birkir Ásgeirsson

There was barely any shade at the StubHub Center arena and when Thorisdottir arrived, she was barely herself, suffering, as it turned out, with heatstroke. She was put on an intravenous drip and it took 1.5 liters of water to rehydrate her body. 

Things hardly got better for her the following year either
“I hadn’t processed my heatstroke, didn’t want to talk about it and was afraid it was going to happen again. The worst feeling you can have as an athlete is to leave the arena knowing you could have done better. Which is how I felt in 2016. I was in good condition but my head wasn’t in the right place,” says the Icelander.

In 2016, her compatriots Katrín Davíðsdóttir and Sara Sigmundsdóttir finished first and third respectively. Annie Thorisdottir meanwhile, came in 13th, an unheard of position for someone who’s been at the top for almost 10 years. In 2017, she started working with psychologist Phil Mansfield and she finally returned to the podium. Last year, she came fifth and as she prepared for this year’s Games, from 29 July to 4 August in Madison, she was heavily focusing on the mental side. Winning calls for a great deal of training and suffering along the way.

“The pain never goes away, but you can build up a tolerance to it. When things start to feel bad in the middle of a workout, this motivates me to continue. That’s when you get better and reap the rewards of the training. Up to that point, you’ve only been working with what you’ve done before. I’d rather push myself a bit more in training than over-reach in a competition.

The sport of cross-fit is still in its early days and the first games were held on a farm in California in 2007, with a prize pot of just $500. In 2018 though, over $300,000 were at stake. Since Thorisdottir made her debut in 2009, she and her two high ranking compatriots Daviðsdottir and Sigmundsdottir have achieved ten podium places between them, including five wins.  In the US, “Dottir” has pretty much become synonymous with strength. 

‘In our culture, we don’t look down on strong, independent women.

“It’s very tight on the women’s side, not least here in Iceland. Katrín and I are very close, even outside sport. It’s good for us to train together as we push each other to become even better. I want her to do well, but I’ll do all I can to beat her. We have so much respect for each other and if anyone were to beat me, I hope it would be her. The same goes for Sara. My dream is that all three end up on the podium,” she says with a gleam in her eye and smiles, “But with me at the top, obviously.”

Thorisdottir fought her way back from injury to return to the top of the podium last year.

Sport and strength are strong traditions in Iceland, a country with just 340,000 inhabitants. This small population hasn’t prevented the national handball team from winning Olympic bronze in 2008, the national soccer team reaching 18th in the FIFA rankings in 2018, or Hafþór Júlíus Björnsson becoming the world’s strongest man and achieving global fame as Gregor “The Mountain” Clegane in the TV series Game of Thrones. Women have excelled everywhere in Iceland too, not least in politics, where, in 1980, Vigdís Finnbogadóttir became Europe’s first female president.

“In our culture, we don’t look down on strong, independent women. Sport gives us self-confidence and greater self-esteem. The girls here are incredibly strong. And the men support this,” says Thorisdottir.

She points to a group in the middle of an exercise session at Crossfit Reykjavik. It’s pretty much a 50/50 split with, if anything a slight balance in favor of females. We meet two by the reception, Lilja Ósk Guðmundsdóttir and Álfrún Tinna Guðnadottir.

“Everyone is involved in several different sports in Iceland. When we see what Annie Thorisdottir has achieved, this motivates us to train. We think that if she can do it, so can we. We want to be strong,” the pair say.

Photo: Birkir Ásgeirsson

They’re backed by Brynjar Ari Magnússon, one of the country’s leading athletes in his age group for boys, who feels that the mentality of the Icelandic people is a major factor. “We’re descendants of fishermen and farmers in a climate that can be tough and dark for much of the year. It’s not that long since they were living in turf houses,” he says. No wonder the growth of Crossfit fits in so easily here.

“I think the body focus is changing in a positive direction, from skinny to healthy. There’s a big difference between being slim and being slim with muscles. We can see what you can do with your body, not what it looks like,” says Thorisdottir, who wants to make a stand about values more than simply lifting heavy weights.

‘I think body focus is changing in a positive direction, from skinny to healthy. There’s a big difference between being slim and being slim with muscles’

“We’re living longer and longer. We don’t want to spend these years simply sitting in a chair, we want to live them. Being active, doing things with your children, experiencing things. We can do all these things if we eat healthily, exercise and sleep well,” she says.

Having said that, she appreciates that not everyone is like her. As a top level athlete, you need to balance a great many things.

“I’m definitely not normal and I am a fanatic, but as a professional athlete, that’s the way I have to be. I live an egotistical lifestyle, but I do make sure I enjoy life. Live, enjoy, eat candy on Saturdays but only on that day, so you can live a healthy lifestyle the rest of the week. Treat yourself. That’s important, but choose quality.”

Photo: Birkir Ásgeirsson

In 2013, Thorisdottir injured her back lifting weights. It was a long road back and for the first few days, she even needed help going to the bathroom. That experience made her realize you can’t take anything for granted. Consequently, she tends to take things now one year at a time. At the same time, she says she’s amazed that she has been able to keep going for so long. The 29-year old doesn’t know how long her career will last, but two things are certain.

“I can feel that I am gradually getting better and that’s why I continue competing. I really want to be the first woman to win the Games three times. As long as I’m enjoying myself so much I don’t want that to be taken away from me. But I definitely want to have a family in the future. We’re going to have children one day,” she says and nods in the direction of her partner, Frederik Aegidius, who is Danish and has come 15th in the Games as his personal best. 

Having a child as top female athlete has been very much in focus recently with sponsors not wishing to support athletes during pregnancy. Thorisdottir acknowledges how challenging this can be. “It would have been simpler if Frederik could have children,” she says. “Women don’t lose sponsors money when they’re pregnant. Half of the people who follow us are female, and most of them want to have children at some point. They want to see how athletes deal with it. Everyone wants to be strong and healthy after a pregnancy, and it’s important that someone can show them the way. Sponsors should be queuing up to support top athletes who are having a child.”

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