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Muscle-up. Say it, and it just sounds hard. Learn what it is -- an athlete must move from a hanging position below a set of gymnastics rings to a supported position above the rings, with straight arms -- and it sounds even harder. Try it -- do a pull-up to get your chest level with the rings, roll your torso through the rings into a dip position and then push your arms straight, and do this all about 10 feet off the ground -- and your suspicions about its difficulty will be confirmed.
The muscle-up is one of the most challenging movements CrossFit athletes are expected to perform, and it strikes fear into the hearts of even the best of them. Iceland's Annie Thorisdottir won the 2011 CrossFit Games last July, then became an international star; you've seen her, with her trademark golden ponytail and Reebok high socks, flipping tires and squatting sandbags with Chad Ochocinco in that Reebok ZigTech commercial. Now, Thorisdottir is the odds-on favorite for the 2012 games, which will take place in Los Angeles this weekend. And her journey to the top of her sport began with a single muscle-up.
Thorisdottir, whose last name appropriately translates to "Thor's daughter" -- as in the hammer-wielding Norse god of thunder and lightning -- arrived at the 2009 CrossFit Games in Aromas, Calif., with just two months of CrossFit experience. She had been taking and teaching boot camp classes at home in Reykjavik when a friend suggested she enter the Iceland CrossFit regional on a lark. She did, and she won, qualifying her for the games. In Aromas, the raw strength and body control Thorisdottir had acquired over her years as a competitive gymnast and pole vaulter had her in second place heading into the last of eight workouts. But in the middle of that final workout, competitors were required to complete 10 muscle-ups. Thorisdottir had never done even one.
"We calculated that all I had to do was finish the final workout within the time limit, and I could keep second place," Thorisdottir recalled. "But I had never even tried a muscle-up before. I was insanely scared. I've never been that nervous in my life."
In the two hours leading up to the final workout, Thorisdottir practiced backstage as dozens of CrossFit coaches and athletes tried to teach her the technique she needed to conquer both the rings and her fear. She entered the arena for her workout and, buoyed by the support of her family and several thousand screaming fans who had fallen in love with "Iceland Annie," completed a single muscle-up, her first. "It wasn't pretty," Thorisdottir said. "But at least I got it." But because she didn't complete the workout, Thorisdottir dropped to 11th place. Still, it was an amazing finish for a young woman -- she was 19 at the time -- so new to CrossFit.
How much of a natural athlete is Thorisdottir? The weekend after the 2009 CrossFit Games, she entered the 55-kilometer (34-mile) off-road Laugavegur Ultra Marathon in Iceland on a dare, having done no previous running-specific training. "They said no one could do it without practicing only running," Thorisdottir said. "If you're fit, and CrossFit makes you fit, you can do it. I don't like when people tell me I can't do something, so I signed up and went for it." She finished 28th out of 75 women in 7:14:35.
A year later, Thorisdottir finished second at the 2010 CrossFit Games, but muscle-ups were still her Achilles' heel. Enter San Francisco-based coach Carl Paoli, who is an expert in all things gymnastics. "I wanted Annie to understand the muscle-up was just a way of getting over an obstacle," he said. "As a pole vaulter and a gymnast, that's what she did best. She got over obstacles. She had 99 percent of the movement already down, we just had to get her to transfer the skills she already had to the rings."
Thorisdottir hasn't suffered for lack of skill in too many elements of CrossFit. At 5-foot-7 and 147 pounds, the 22-year-old can clean-and-jerk 205 pounds, snatch 156 pounds, deadlift 363 pounds and back squat 253 pounds, all numbers that put her among the top three to five CrossFit women in the world. She can do handstand push-ups, butterfly pull-ups, burpees, pistols, double-unders and rope climbs to her heart's content. She can run, swim and row with the world's elite. But her coaches and competition agree on one thing: Her biggest strength in the CrossFit arena is her ability to fight and keep moving. "Annie's biggest asset is her engine," said American CrossFit Games competitor Lindsey Smith. "She can go and go and maintain a pace without ever breaking down. When she competes, it looks mechanical. She moves very efficiently and can maintain that efficiency, even as workouts become longer and more and more difficult."
Thorisdottir said her stamina is greatly improved by training with men, who push her to push herself harder. In Iceland, she works out twice a day with a group that includes her boyfriend, Denmark's Frederik Aegidius, who won the men's European regional and will also be competing at the 2012 CrossFit Games. "We're really similar in most workouts, except he has a lot more weight on the bar," Thorisdottir said. "Men are usually faster at running and rowing, so they force me to go a bit. It's good to chase people, or to not let people catch up with me."
At the 2011 CrossFit Games last July, Thorisdottir ended up way out in front. She even conquered those pesky muscle-ups, which inevitably showed up in the first workout on the second day of competition. She completed 20 muscle-ups with relative ease, along with the rest of her workouts, and earned the title of Fittest Woman on Earth.
But like any athlete, Thorisdottir left the 2011 games with a long list of things to improve both mentally and physically. In the past 12 months, she has worked on everything from leg strength and snatch technique to controlling the hyperextension of her back and not being quite so critical of herself. And, of course, she's been working on linking those muscle-ups so they flow one after the other.
"Now, I enjoy having muscle-ups in a workout," Thorisdottir said. "But that moment in 2009 was the most difficult moment of my CrossFit career. It had never happened to me that I wasn't able to do something, and that feeling of not being able to finish stuck with me. That moment is always there, and it motivates me."
And right now, Thorisdottir is motivated to become the CrossFit Games' first repeat champion.