Chasing Excellence

Ben Bergeron
Photographer: Sweat RX
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By Ben Bergeron
Photography by Christine Bald

Using the dramatic competition between the top contenders at the 2016 Reebok CrossFit Games® as a background, Ben explores the step-by-step process of achieving excellence and the unique set of positive character traits necessary for leveling up to world class. The mindset and methodology that has produced some of the greatest athletes in the world’s most grueling sport can work equally well for anyone who’s willing to commit totally to becoming better than the best.

Sunday, July 24, 2016
StubHub Center, Carson, Ca

After the field events, the athletes are swept straight from the soccer complex to the tennis court to be briefed on the next event. All eighty competitors le through the tunnel that connects the two structures. Everyone is moving slowly—their quads, hamstrings, and lower backs are lit up—and most are still covered in grass after collapsing to the ground after the Plow. The tennis court is close to 100 degrees; the athletes gather around Dave Castro wearing hats, bags of ice, or T-shirts on their heads.

The next event is cardio purgatory.

Event 14: Rope Chipper

For Time:
200m Ski Erg
50/40 Double-Unders
200m Row
50/40 Double-Unders
0.4-mile Assault Air Bike
50/40 Double-Unders
200 m Row
50/40 Double-Unders
200 m Ski Erg
90-ft. Sled Pull (men 310 lb. / women 220 lb.)

I meet up with Mat and Katrín as they exit the stadium after the briefing. As we walk back to the warm-up area, they confer about the workout. “I think you’re going to be able to go faster than you think you can,” Mat tells Katrín. “It’s ski erg, rower, bike,” he says. “We live on that shit.” They grin at each other conspiratorially. “And the sled pull is whatever,” Mat says. “Just get that pump for the finish line,” he jokes.

Now back in the warm-up area, Mat starts getting loose on the rower. He’s wearing the same outfit he’s been wearing since Day 2 of the competition—the white leader jersey and corresponding red shorts. At this point, they smell pretty bad. Reebok, the title sponsor of the Cross- Fit Games and official gear provider, was obviously not prepared for the same person to lead the entire week. Mat was issued his customized leader jersey on Wednesday and has been competing in it ever since. When Matt O’Keefe, Mat’s agent, asked why Mat could only be issued one jersey, a Reebok representative shrugged sheepishly. “We’ve never had this issue before.”

Add it to the list of records Mat has collected throughout the week. He has more top-ten finishes than any other competitor in Games history and, with two events to go, the largest lead in Games history. As he jogs down the stairs of the tennis stadium, he is 195 points ahead of second-place-ranked Ben Smith. Though Rope Chipper is not the final event of competition, Mat can seal his victory as the Fittest Man on Earth in this event as long as he doesn’t come in last place.

The men fan out and line up on their starting mats. Mat immediately rips off his pungent shirt. O’Keefe, sitting beside me, laughs. Good thing they also have leader shorts. The starting beep echoes through the tennis stadium, and Rope Chipper is underway. The men storm through the ski erg and arrive at the double-unders at the same time. These are far from standard-issue jump ropes—the handles weigh a pound each, and the cables are weighted—but it’s impossible to tell; all the competitors make it look far easier than it should.

Mat finishes his rest set of fifty, or at least he thinks he does, and puts his rope down. His judge, however, signals that he’s not done. I can practically hear Mat roll his eyes, but he picks up his rope and does one more rep, then sprints to the Assault Bike to join the rest of the pack. He’s the first one off the bike and advances to the second round of double-unders. He has the same miscommunication with his judge again—once again, he stops as if finished, then has to complete one more rep.

By the time Mat gets off the rower, he’s in the middle of the pack; as he advances to the final round of double-unders, half the field is five to seven seconds ahead of him. There is no miscommunication this time—he does his last fifty reps in two sets of twenty-five, then races after the leaders, who are already on the last ski erg. The final element of the workout is a 90-foot sled pull. Mat is still trailing the handful of leaders, but it couldn’t matter less; in less than a minute, he will win the CrossFit Games. But here he is, dragging his 310-pound sled like his life depends on it. He’s the fifth man in his heat to yank his sled across the line, good enough for tenth overall. When he steps on his finish mat, he has, by virtue of math, won the 2016 CrossFit Games.

Mat’s attitude on the floor, victory all but assured, is the pinnacle of competitive excellence: I will maximize my minutes by thinking, acting, training, and competing with excellence, regardless of circumstances. Mat had already won (he was never going to finish last in Rope Chipper) but didn’t let the scoreboard in influence his performance. He competed as though Ben Smith was twenty points behind him, not two hundred.

As if to illustrate this point, he comes storming out of the tennis stadium after the event. He strides up to me and O’Keefe, shaking his head. “The guy was counting out loud and saying fifty!” Mat says, throwing his hands in the air. “He was counting a rep ahead, so I was stopping because he said ‘fifty,’ and I thought I was done!” It takes both me and O’Keefe a second to realize what he’s so fired up about—the miscommunication with his judge during the double-unders. O’Keefe asks what the head judge said when he came over. “He came over and said my rep count was correct,” Mat says, rolling his eyes. “I know it’s correct! But the judge kept saying ‘fifty’ too early!”

As we walk, I try to hide my smile. Mat has been trying to win the CrossFit Games for three years. And now, with his victory a mathematical certainty, he’s pissed off because he didn’t win by a larger margin. It reminds me of the 2012 college football national championship, when Alabama trounced Notre Dame in a 42–14 beatdown.

With just more than seven minutes remaining in the fourth quarter, with Alabama holding a commanding lead, quarterback AJ McCarron and center Barrett Jones got their pre-snap signals crossed. As a result, Alabama earned a delay-of-game penalty. McCarron and Jones exchanged heated words, and then something strange happened: the center forcefully shoved the quarterback.

To almost everyone watching, the scene was perplexing. Alabama was up twenty-eight points, facing a meaningless second-and-six with a national title all but assured; practically any other team would have been celebrating. But premature celebrating is not what Alabama does. They are disciples of Coach Nick Saban’s process, and the process is about doing your job to the best of your ability, right now, regardless of circumstance. McCarron and Jones were so detached from results and so committed to performing at their maximum potential that they got into a shoving match on national TV.

Alabama coach Nick Saban loved it, for all the same reasons I love Mat’s attitude during Rope Chipper. Mat has already won the CrossFit Games, and he’s still out on the floor hustling after every point. He doesn’t care that he has a 195-point lead with only two events left—he’s still out there trying to be the best.

If you can compete with excellence when you’re way ahead, you can do it when you’re way behind. Like everything else, excellence is a habit.

Nick Saban’s Crimson Tide is one of the best examples of competitive excellence I can think of. I tell this story and show video clips to my CrossFit Games athletes, as well as athletes that attend training camps at my gym, to reinforce what competitive excellence looks like in practice—unwavering commitment to the process, regardless of what’s going on around you.

Competitive excellence is not a switch you can just flip on game day. You can’t train on autopilot and compete with purpose. In order to perform at the highest level in competition, you have to prepare that way every single day. When Mat goes to the gym, he doesn’t show up just to get the programmed training in. He comes to compete. He trains like he’s possessed. The gym is where and when he builds his competitive edge, and you can see the result of that mindset every time he takes the floor in competition. Mat is able to compete with excellence because he trains with excellence, day in and day out.

The principle of competitive excellence applies to everyone, not just CrossFit Games athletes. Regardless of your chosen profession, being the best means taking advantage of every opportunity that each day brings. Success is not achieved by an occasional heroic response, but with focused and sustained action. Excellence can only be achieved today—not yesterday or tomorrow—because they don’t exist in the present moment. It’s the not-so-hidden secret to extraordinary success: clarify what you really want, then work as hard as you can for as long as it takes.


CrossFit trainer Ben Bergeron has helped build the world’s fittest athletes, but he’s not like other coaches. He believes that greatness is not for the elite few; that winning is a result, not a goal; and that character, not talent, is what makes a true champion. His powerful philosophy can help anybody excel at all aspects of life.

By Chasing Excellence, you’ll discover how extraordinary it’s possible for you to be.

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