CrossFitter Katrin Davidsdottir embodies the legendary Icelandic warrior
Chris Paul, Liz Cambage, Brooks Koepka and NFL stars such as Myles Garrett and the Eagles offensive line are featured in ESPN's 2019 Body Issue. To see interviews, pictures, videos and more, visit our full 2019 gallery.
THE ANNUAL CROSSFIT Games is a revival meeting for all the various tribes who worship at the altar of self-improvement through pain. Endless subcultures are on display: veterans raising awareness about PTSD and post-deployment reintegration, posers wearing MultiCam to the merch tent as if they might have to hide from the Taliban in the tank top aisle, butch lesbians and stroller moms, women with tattoos of wings on their shoulders and, of course, guys who didn't even bring a shirt. Those who do manage to cover their wondrous gifts rep every ideology you can imagine: gay pride shirts with rainbow barbells, "Jesus Saves Bro" shirts and, less obviously, a lot of Iceland gear. The Reebok store sells Iceland shirts, and so does the Rogue tent across the midway.
The women of the tiny island nation are disproportionally great at CrossFit. Iceland, with 340,000 people, has four women in the top 20 at the CrossFit Games. The United States, with 330 million people, has six.
It's a hot Sunday morning in August, and I'm in Madison, Wisconsin, for the 2019 competition's final day. As I get my bearings, a loud cheer rises from the swelling crowd around the Reebok tent.
"Annie," someone behind me says.
"That's Annie!" someone shouts, pointing.
Two-time champion Annie Thorisdottir led a revolution back home after her 2011 CrossFit Games victory. On the final day of this year's competition, with a disappointing 12th-place finish already assured, she is teaching a class to a small group lucky enough to have signed up. The crowd roars when she takes off her shirt to reveal her abs. When the workout ends, she signs autographs and poses for pictures. Her parents stand to the side, her dad smiling. Annie points to Thorir and Agnes and shouts.
"We made her!" Agnes shouts.
Everyone laughs, although her joke evokes the central question hovering over the Games: Where do these people come from, exactly? I'd met a friend for dinner the night before. He owns a CrossFit gym and is a retired Navy SEAL. We talked about the type of person who seeks this out. Most athletes endure the pain of training to get to some beautiful flow state. For these athletes, pain is the reward. People drawn to compete in these Games are all at least a little broken, he says: "You never know why they're here or who they're here for."
Just after leaving Annie's parents, I run into Odda Helgadottir, the mom of the best Icelandic CrossFitter in the world, Katrin Davidsdottir, who's a friend of Annie's and an inheritor of the tradition she created. Odda is standing in line for an acai bowl and carrying her daughter's laminated face on a stick. Katrin is also a two-time winner and is currently in fifth place.
We head inside the arena for the next two events. A video about Katrin plays on the huge screen: blond hair in a bouncy ponytail, a topo map of traps and glutes, an easy smile replaced with cold eyes. She talks about her daily obsession to be the best version of herself. When she takes the floor, her mom screams words of encouragement in Icelandic. Katrin struggled this morning in the open water swim, a mental hurdle. The most important muscle in CrossFit is the mind; she repeatedly failed to lift 80 kilos before doing more than that easily -- because the weights were measured in pounds, and so she didn't know. The athletes do two events back-to-back and Katrin wins both, climbing back into third place -- good enough for a coveted spot on the podium if she can finish strong in the one remaining event.
THIRTY-SIX DAYS earlier, the morning before she moved to Cape Cod for a month to train in monastic seclusion for the Games, Katrin uncaps a marker and writes her WOD on the board at her suburban Boston gym. That's an abbreviation for "Workout of the Day." I didn't know the phrase before meeting Katrin, who recently turned 26. In black ink, she wrote out six stations of pain, including the track work she did before coming into the gym. Her handwriting is so neat it hints at some turmoil swirling just beneath the surface. She draws a careful line, which looks straight to me but not to her. She erases and redraws it. This time she nods in satisfaction.
The bass on the huge stereo system hits low and hard in the sweat stink, playing prog rock and hair metal: No, his mind is not for rent ... she's my cherry pie. It's only my second visit to a CrossFit box and my first introduction to Katrin, who has more than 1.5 million Instagram followers and abdominal muscles like rumble strips on the highway. The abs have helped pay for not one but two Range Rovers. At the gym one day while she was showering, a woman dropped by to deliver something and asked to use the restroom. A few moments later, a fellow athlete realized what would happen to a civilian's basic understanding of their place in the food chain, not to mention their self-esteem, if they swung open a door to find Katrin stepping out of the shower with muscles rippling on top of muscles. She called across the gym, "Kat might be naked ... brief her!"
Katrin, like nearly all Icelandic women, is named for her father.
He is David. She is Davidsdottir.
She is trying once again to be the fittest woman on the planet. To best accomplish this, she lives in seclusion in this suburb, far from her friends and family in Iceland. Her coach, Ben Bergeron, and his family have become her second family; she moved here after failing to even qualify for the 2014 CrossFit Games and under his guidance won the event the next two years. She has finished in the top five every year since but hasn't been able to repeat that first-place success, which keeps her doubling and tripling down on the grind. Her hands bleed a lot. Sometimes she works her body so hard she loses peripheral vision or sees red and black dots.
No part of her life isn't scheduled in advance. Her sister, Hannah, is planning a wedding for next year. The proposed date is June 20 -- six weeks before the CrossFit Games.
"OK," Katrin told her. "It's your wedding. I'll be there, but I'll fly in and out."
"When can you have champagne and cake?" Hannah asked, and then she made a joke about taking the batteries out of Katrin's scale. Katrin carries a scale with her to restaurants to measure each component of a meal.
Her small group of friends at the gym understands. And inside her imagined monastery, she lives in a hermitage -- a woman from a small island who has created an even smaller one for herself, population: 1. All around her now, caterers are converting the gym for a birthday party for one of the longtime staffers. Everyone is planning what to wear -- debating gym gear versus "real-person clothes." Katrin wants to go home and recover. She skips the party.
LATER WE SIT at a nearby Whole Foods and mostly we laugh. She's funny. Her coach correctly described her laugh as sounding like confetti, and her dimples soften the rocks of her shoulders and arms. In the serious moments, she tells me the story of her family. Three years ago, she lost the most important person in her life, her grandmother Heba, whom she called Amma. It happened so quickly -- Amma went into the hospital feeling tired on a Monday and died of cancer four days later -- that Katrin still hasn't really processed the hole in her life or made sense of why the loss left her so adrift.
Amma floated through every season of life with grace. An ambassador's wife, she dressed in pearls and accompanied Queen Elizabeth on a royal visit to Iceland. She also screamed from the bleachers at her sons' sporting events so aggressively that they asked her to stop coming. Her letters of hope and inspiration to Katrin still serve as motivation. "I've had a couple of really vivid dreams, and I'll wake up and start to cry," Katrin says. "I wake up crying and don't want it to be over. When you stop and think about nature, I just feel there's so much power around us, and that's where I can feel her. When the birds are singing, I feel her a lot."
Her grandfather Helgi lives in Iceland and hears the birds sing every day. He is becoming a singing bird himself. This year is the first he won't attend the CrossFit Games. Yesterday, moving slow but still steady enough to cast, he caught two salmon in the glacial river that runs wide and cold below the family's summerhouse. His son-in-law sees him going down to the water where he's been going since his first memories and thinks, "It's no longer summer -- it's autumn turning to winter."
Katrin's people have been coming to that bend of water since 1934. It's their spiritual home. They are a family of achievers. Her grandfather's name is Helgi Agustsson, and he served as Iceland's premier diplomat for a generation, the ambassador to England, Denmark and the United States, in addition to managing the island's relationship with the U.S. military. During Iceland's Cod Wars with England in the 1970s -- when the Royal Navy and Icelandic Coast Guard faced off over fishing limits -- he fought for the nation in London, conducting a one-man media and diplomacy blitz. Katrin's grandpa stared down the English and won, and while the United Kingdom doesn't remember these minor skirmishes, Iceland never forgets.
"Oh my gosh," Katrin says with pride. "He handled the Cod Wars."
Sitting with me, she starts riffing on everything she wants to accomplish in her life. She's one of the best in the world at something and still finds herself consumed with what she might become.
"I really want to go to school," she says.
"I'd love to be a doctor," a few moments later.
She's rolling now. I'm a spectator.
"But when am I gonna be a doctor?"
She thinks about her athletic career. "How long do I want to do this? I want to have a family and kids. Am I gonna go to school until I'm 40 and then be a doctor?"
Lately she's been scheduling meetings to talk to experts in chemotherapy and oncology.
"I want to learn everything about blood and cancer."
Amma died from blood cancer.
She's studying chemo now because Amma didn't survive her first dose.
"It makes me so mad, and I want to fix it," she says.
A few seconds pass. "I love working with kids."
A few seconds pass. "I also want to work on TV."
Her mind is a theater of brilliance, yes, but also of chaos. It's clear her greatest strength is also her greatest weakness. She is capable of incredible dreams and often incapable of managing the mental tides that create those dreams. CrossFit, for now, silences the chaos. She's a person searching, for stillness, for perfection, for a better version of herself. Meditation is her latest attempt to find a quiet place, an Iceland of the mind. She glows when she talks about the island, and her family's summerhouse there, where her grandfather is currently staying and fishing and playing solitaire at the dining room table, listening to jazz. Outside, the tall trees rise up to protect the family from the harsh wind howling off the glaciers. She can feel her own history and the power of the island in the mountains and oceans, and in a white river with an old man standing on the bank and casting a line. When the fly hits the water, they are connected: Katrin and Helgi and the river and the fish and the volcano and the island itself. Her family baptized her with water from that river, bathing her in the past and a new future at the same time. "I have a million things I want to do, and sometimes I have to ... " Her voice trails off.
THAT NIGHT, AS Katrin packs for Cape Cod, I take a red-eye to a volcanic rock surrounded by the North Atlantic. Iceland rises uneasily atop two tectonic plates that separate by almost an inch a year, the planet actively ripping the island apart. If the fire from the volcanoes doesn't get you, then the ice of the ocean will: The arctic water will kill an unlucky overboard sailor in minutes. It's also dark for six months of the year, which is super great for the national mental health. Despite all this, or maybe because of it, the female CrossFit stars are proud to spread the gospel of strong Icelandic women, and of a culture that produces and encourages such strength. They compete in a workout they've named The Dottir, which is also the name of Katrin's new memoir. The name symbolically carries the wildness of their island and the unbreakable bonds of family that the island values.
Icelanders are famous for gender equality, I read on the plane. They elected the first female president in the world. Statutes limit the wage gap, and politicians cite some of the most liberal maternity leave, public child care and abortion laws on the planet. The CrossFit Dottirs often point to the Viking heritage of strong women as their inspiration; the famous Icelandic sagas are filled with them, as heroic and fierce as their husbands. I'd met Katrin and would soon meet Annie, along with both their moms, to ask how that history of public gender equality manifests in their lives, and in the lives of their fierce CrossFit daughters.
In the summer of 2011, Katrin was an 18-year-old former athlete searching for a sport -- after more than 10 years of gymnastics, she'd walked away -- and that's when Annie won the CrossFit Games for the first time. Her victory became an inheritance to pass on, as women all over Iceland started CrossFit. Katrin idolized Annie and began training with her. That 2011 win changed both their lives. Katrin started on the road toward her bubble. Annie's med school plans faded away and she opened a gym, CrossFit Reykjavik, which now has 1,500 members, including her mom and Katrin's grandfather, and a long waiting list of people desperate for whatever magic proximity to Annie brings.
Once I get to Iceland, I swing open the doors to CrossFit Reykjavik and enter the sleek lobby. Annie follows shortly after, coming through the front door in flight, flashing an electric smile and the confidence of a person inhabiting a space she loves and controls. Wearing workout clothes that show off her hard-earned body, she is both beautiful and powerful -- an ur-Icelandic ideal. Her gym feels light and airy. There is no macho vibe. During one of the breaks, Miley Cyrus' "Party in the USA" comes on. As the chorus approaches, everyone starts to hop up and down. They let the sound build, until, finally ... everyone throws their head back and ...
... "I PUT MY HAAAANDS UP!" they all sing together, nodding their heads "LIKE YEAH!" and moving their hips "LIKE YEAH!"
One of Annie's male partners laughs.
"So much testosterone!" he says.
ANNIE'S MOTHER, Agnes Vidarsdottir, comes up to CrossFit Reykjavik to explain how her daughter's success, and the success of Annie's friend Katrin, really began when the first boat motor arrived in Iceland.
The endless interrogation of light during an Icelandic summer leads to a peculiar mania in which the world beyond these shores doesn't even seem real, whether you're a visiting tourist or a local who can trace your family back seven or eight centuries, as most Icelanders can. Agnes and I find a table, and when I ask about the Dottirs, she doesn't talk about CrossFit but about that first motor, which arrived on these shores in 1902, and the almost medieval world of privation that existed before the 2-horsepower engine sputtered to life.
"It's such a short time since people had to suffer to just make it here," she says.
Iceland has a brutal past. The first people arrived in A.D. 874, fleeing a Norwegian king who must have been next-level nuts because for the next 1,030 years people lived -- barely -- in homes made of dirt and grass because there weren't a lot of trees. They tried to get crops to grow in volcanic rock and took small rowboats out into the ocean to get enough fish to salt and smoke and survive the winter. Intentionally rotten shark became a delicacy. Starvation and drowning were the leading causes of death. Developing a patriarchy was a luxury people didn't have. Farming families all worked, men and women alike. The equality Agnes describes so proudly isn't the result of a modern awakening. It's deeply hardwired.
"Icelandic men are not afraid of strong women," she says. "They want them to be strong."
This world spun uninterrupted for a thousand years. Then someone brought a motor.
Overnight the country leaped into a modern world. Suddenly the fishermen could catch more than they could eat. They could sell fish and have an economy.
This isn't ancient history. The nation didn't become fully independent until 1944. For the first six years of her life, Annie lived in a small coastal village with her grandparents, who knew well that old life.
"Her grandpa comes from very strong-minded farmers," Agnes explains. "He's 83 now, and he does 10 to 15 pullups easily. And he started this thing with the grandkids, a competition. They got money for each pullup they could do. Annie started doing pullups at 4 years old. She has two older brothers, and I always told her she could do the same they could, so she was very competitive toward them. She won the pullup competitions, of course."
As Agnes and I sit in the back room of the coffee shop, Annie comes in for a boost and runs into us. She waves and smiles. Her mom smiles back. Annie leaves tomorrow for training camp in Wisconsin, and this is the last time they'll see each other before the Games. Agnes wishes her luck and love.
Annie turns to me and grins and switches on her best American teenager accent.
"Crush those bitches," she says, and laughs.
SITTING OUTSIDE THE same café, Annie and Frederik Aegidius, her boyfriend and coach, go over their final packing lists. She's been moving away from traditional CrossFit toward a hybrid of styles they are inventing in real time. "She's been doing this at the very highest level for 10 years," Frederik says. "The body has taken a beating."
Annie shoots him a look of mock disgust.
"What do you mean?" she asks.
He laughs with her.
"If it would have continued the way we trained from 2010 to 2014," he says, "I would have given it another two seasons. Three, tops."
"My body would be f---ed," she says.
She's about to turn 30, and just as she trailblazed for Katrin at the beginning, now she knows things about the coming years that Katrin can't yet see. Many days, she and Frederik don't even do a quote-unquote CrossFit workout. They take bike advice from professional cyclists and weightlifting advice from professional lifters and so on. "That's been a very important change," she says. "That it's OK not to be doing CrossFit workouts full intensity all the time."
The biggest change, though, came in her head. In 2015, Annie suffered heatstroke trying to complete a workout named for Navy SEAL Michael Murphy, a Medal of Honor winner killed in action. Doctors worried she'd damaged her kidneys, and after two and a half liters of IV fluid to combat severe dehydration, she tried to continue but ultimately quit. For a full year, she refused to deal with the fear that built up. Her mental state got so bad her mother refused to ever attend another CrossFit Games if she didn't seek professional help.
Annie sighs remembering the ultimatum.
"There was a decent amount of crying and drama," she says.
Her ability to look past the sport is something she wants for her friend.
"I love it when Katrin is here so we get to train together," she says.
Someday Katrin might move back from her safe Boston cocoon. Her friends and family joke that what she wants most in life is a boyfriend Frederik likes. Annie senses a peace when her friend comes back across the Atlantic to visit. "I do think she benefits a lot from coming home," she says. "Because it's so easy to get caught up in just CrossFit."
"Of course it matters," Frederik says, "but it's not everything."
"You have to remember it's not everything," Annie says. She has a pregnancy clause in one of her sponsorship contracts. She and Frederik are thinking of starting a family. Her friends wonder if this might be her last Games as a solo competitor. She's managed to throttle back her myopic intensity while not impacting her fitness.
"That's what gets the hardest," she says. "When you start isolating yourself. I did that at a certain time. I just wanted to train, and when I was not training, I wanted to be at home recovering. I didn't want to meet friends or family."
Her mother's intervention shifted something. She doesn't even weigh all her food now! "If we are going out to dinner with our family," she says, "I'm not bringing my scale."
"Katrin's not there yet," I say.
"No," they both say.
KATRIN'S MOM, Odda Helgadottir, took my email request seriously and spent the days before my arrival talking it over with family and co-workers, really trying to come up with an answer about how the culture of their country and family created her daughter.
We meet at a Reykjavik restaurant called Snaps.
We sit at the bar.
"I love the question," she says right at the start. "It got me thinking about so much stuff. I was really young when I had her."
Odda is irreverent, thoughtful and smart, her pixie cut gray but still punk rock enough to evoke her wilder days in London, when her dad was the ambassador and her mother a socialite hostess, when she ran with the invisible and forgotten in Leicester Square. She still goes to shows and still tries to get to the front row. She's a pit girl even now: opinionated, loud, the daughter of a man who always told her she could do anything. As a kid, she traded her bike with the basket for a BMX. Her mom would be mortified and her dad giddy when she'd insult the politics of powerful guests. "I think my dad was probably a born feminist," she says. "My mother raised me to be a feminist-if I could just be a little more girlie."
As a teenager, she says, she rebelled against her parents' status and prestige. She ran with a rough crowd. Then, at barely 15, she got pregnant.
Odda remembers two things about her father during that time, moments she'll never forget. The first was a phone conversation she overheard. Her boarding school wanted to kick her out, and he called the headmaster and demanded to know what rule she'd broken. With the same intensity he fought the English he fought for her.
As she heard him blistering this guy on the phone, she remembered what had been briefly obscured by rebellion: Her father believed in her.
The second came during the ultrasound. Her pregnancy had caused a stir, what-will-the-neighbors-think hand-wringing. Then the family saw Katrin for the first time. The next day, Helgi went out on his own and picked out a silver pram, which he proudly brought home. Her parents never said another discouraging or disapproving word about her or her pregnancy.
Even with the support at home, she felt like everyone who saw her with Katrin assumed she couldn't possibly raise a child and that this child would pay some future cost for a clueless, overmatched mom. So she started with the books, and after she'd read them all, she said that she and her little girl would match and better every milestone set for babies. "I really wanted to prove a point," Odda says. "If the book said she should know five words by the time she's 1, let's make that five plus a couple. I had that oddball balance between being young and stupid and being out to prove something."
Her doctors gave her weight targets that Katrin should hit.
"I turned Katrin's weight gain between checkups into a competition," she says.
She took 15-month-old Katrin backpacking around Thailand with her. At 2, Katrin started helping with the dishes. Odda got her a stool and put her to work.
At 12, Katrin came home at the end of a school year.
"Where's your report card?" her mom asked.
"I didn't get it."
Katrin balled it up and flung it at her mom. The report card had an A-minus.
"That A-minus makes it really ugly," she said.
Odda explained that an A-minus was a good grade. Katrin looked at her with disgust on her face and said, "Maybe for you it is."
Katrin remains intense to parent. She's one of the best in the world at her sport, and even that isn't enough. "Katrin's talking about what to do post-CrossFit," Odda says. "At some point, she said something that stuck out. All her friends are finishing their degrees, finishing their master's, and she feels left behind."
Odda stopped her and asked, "Sorry?"
"They've all done something with their lives."
Odda tried to talk logic.
"Can she hear that?" I ask.
"We're working on it," she says.
So now Odda finds herself fighting the very traits she instilled. She pushes Katrin to enjoy life instead of dominating it. A few years ago, she told her that the standards she was holding herself to were too hard on others. She sees Katrin laughing at herself now more than she did. She doesn't internalize every mistake and criticism. But still her mother worries about her perfectionism -- and worries it's her fault. "I probably grew up with a chip on my shoulder, and she came along really early and, now that I think about it, it was probably a little us against the world," she says. "I'm not sure all of it was positive. If I had a time machine, I'd go back and ease up a little bit."
ODDA OFFERS TO take me out to the summerhouse to fish with her father. A few days later, as we drive out of Reykjavik, she explains the summerhouse's role in their family and its mythology. "That place is just holy," she says. "There's only ever been one rule at the summerhouse. You're not allowed to argue. There aren't any bad memories. You're not allowed to take negativity there."
Katrin becomes Katy there, buried quietly in a book, not checking her phone. She's at peace there, unburdened by herself. The cabin is where Odda got married and where Katrin will be married one day and where next summer Hannah's wedding will take place. In the five days since I'd seen Katrin, Hannah had moved her ceremony by two months so her sister could attend and stay and drink champagne and have cake. For now, Katrin's career sets the family calendar.
Hannah has a 4-month-old daughter at home. It was the first birth in the family since Amma died. Now Odda sings the same Icelandic nursery rhymes to her granddaughter that Amma once sang to Katrin. It's funny what a baby does for a family. The strangest memories are rushing back. One story about bugs comes to Odda, for some reason. Spiders move around the summerhouse like they own the place, and one summer the family went on the offensive. After consultations and planning, they got jugs of pesticide designed specifically for spiders and went spraying in all the corners and dark, hidden places, "the nooks and crannies," as Odda puts it, and then settled back to enjoy a spider-free summer in paradise.
But they'd messed with the food chain. Without the arachnid nuclear deterrent, the flies emerged from their bunkers and reveled in their new freedom. A blanket of biting, buzzing bugs descended, driving the family indoors. The unintended consequences of trying to bend nature didn't stop there. Amma noticed first.
"Have you guys noticed the birds are gone?" she asked.
The family didn't know if they'd changed the habitat forever.
"What have we done?" they wondered to each other, dreaming all winter long of the songs coming down from the trees. They could only wait to come back the next year and see whether spiders once again crawled out from the nooks and crannies and ate the flies, which would open up the air for the ghostly music of the singing birds.
Odda follows the road out of town into the moonscape of rural Iceland.
"Next stop: summerhouse," she says.
A LONG PATH beneath the canopy of branches and leaves leads down to a clearing of grass and a flagpole with the Icelandic flag flapping in the breeze, the summerhouse tucked back among the trees. Helgi opens the door of the cabin and pours me a gin and tonic. His hair is white. He wears a fitted baseball cap with the measurements of the largest salmon he ever caught embroidered on the side -- 55 centimeters wide, 1.8 meters long, 30.6 pounds-the largest salmon caught in Iceland in 1973, he says.
"My boasting hat," he adds with a smile.
"La Vie en Rose" plays on his laptop, filling the warm, cozy cabin. He twirls his late wife across the dance floors of his mind. His English accent is hard to place, formed and broken and reset by his many moves around the world. He putters around the house and leads me to the deck.
We pull up chairs and sip our drinks.
He points to the stand of aspen.
Iceland is home to only three native trees, he says.
"The aspen, the rowan tree and the birch."
He is forever working into conversation things that elevate Iceland beyond its population and square mileage. John Ford based one of his movies on the Icelandic sagas, he says. One of Wagner's famous operas takes 80 percent of its lyrics from the sagas too. Neil Armstrong trained for the moon landing here. The first U.S. Marines deployed overseas in World War II landed in Iceland. Did you know that Katrin skipped a grade she was so advanced and made perfect scores in physics and chemistry? He sees her greatness as something more than a personal victory, as a load-bearing brick in his wall of Icelandic exceptionalism.
He's proud of her as a grandfather but also as a citizen.
The ice melts slowly in our glasses, the gin floral and bracing.
He wants to tell me a story.
"We established a commonwealth in 930," he begins, and when he says "we," he means everyone who has ever called this rock home, and it's clear he feels connected to all of those other operators of history because his job put the levers briefly in his hands.
His voice gets low. I lean in.
"We went through many very hard centuries," he says. He has lived those centuries in his mind, worked in capitals around the world to do right by the hardy men and women who survived them, who endured Danish trade monopolies and the black plague and frequent volcanic eruptions that killed people and cows, condemning the survivors to slow death by starvation. On these isolated farms, people looked for calories anywhere they might be found, even in the sagas that had been written by hand on animal skins, men and women forced to eat their own history.
"People were cooking them to survive," he says. "Terrible times we went through."
Iceland's proximity to England made it valuable during World War II as a stopover for lend-lease material. The Marshall Plan flooded Reykjavik with cash, which Helgi says Iceland used to buy 36 fishing trawlers. These trawlers finally pulled people from poverty. English fishermen still roamed the seas near the coast between 1952 and 1976, so Iceland set fishing limits for foreign vessels: first 4 miles, then 12, then 50, then 200. Each time England protested and boycotted, but Iceland's strategic importance in the Cold War gave its diplomats -- including Helgi -- enough leverage to defeat its more powerful rivals. When Iceland broke off diplomatic relations briefly in 1976, Helgi wrote and delivered the note informing the British.
The 1960s and '70s were a patriotic time in Iceland, and as the people focused on the immediate history being made out in the Atlantic in the daily headlines, they also grew interested in their own ancient history -- and in the great literary manuscripts of the sagas. For centuries, the original copies of the sagas had been housed in a Danish university because of the same kind of cultural pillaging that brought so many Egyptian artifacts to London. Citizens began agitating for this literature to be returned, and in 1971, the first boat of sagas from Copenhagen arrived at the harbor. Thousands of people showed up at the docks to greet them.
Helgi connects the dots.
The Cod Wars birthed patriotism, which birthed a renewed interest in the sagas, which told of Icelandic heroes, many of whom were strong, fierce women who took no crap from any man. Four years after the first sagas arrived, 90 percent of the women in the country went on strike. Offices stopped running, and housewives stopped cleaning and cooking. So many dads had to try to sort dinner that the grocery stores ran out of sausages. A women's political party, the first of its kind in the world, was formed. A few years later, the world's first female president was elected. Thirty-five years after that, Katrin was named the fittest woman on the planet.
He looks up at the blue flag with the white and red cross.
The sun is high in the sky. The grill is hot, and it's time to cook some meat for dinner.
"Have you had Icelandic lamb?" he asks eagerly.
Around us are weaving spiders and a welcoming chorus of birds.
HELGI TAKES HIS plate and sits down at the picnic table outside. We all join him. This is the first time he's eaten here since his wife died. Something about remembering the history of Iceland -- his history, their history -- and talking proudly about Katrin, whom Amma adored, has made him hungry for memories he's been avoiding.
We laugh and pass a bottle of good Barolo. After dinner, he goes inside. Fly rods and bait casters wait above his head in the crossbeams of the ceiling.
"I'm salmon fishing tomorrow," he says. "Could life be better?"
He sighs, answering his own question.
He pulls out an old tabloid magazine that showed him and Amma dressed for some fancy affair, her in a white skirt and blouse looking statuesque. The headline calls her an "Icelandic Classic."
He lingers on the photograph.
"Here's her grandmother," he says softly.
He digs out an album of photos. Katrin, her face painted like a tiger. Sitting with Helgi in the secret garden in Hyde Park in London, wearing a full Tottenham kit. He has always believed in her. "The question remains," he says. "How will she continue? At some point she will change course. What course will she try? At one time she asked me, 'How do you become an ambassador?'"
We all sit down around the television. Helgi wants to watch their recently digitized home movies. More red wine is poured. An hour passes. On screen, Katrin isn't even a year old, on a vacation to Ireland, and Helgi quietly turns his thumbs in a circle, over and over again as he watches, a nervous tic. He grips his wineglass. Katrin is leading the adults around, and Helgi is pleased. He calls her Katy.
"And she has a mind of her own!" he says with joy. "She is in control!"
The videos capture normal, quiet days here at the summerhouse, all the kids in the hot tub, or Katrin and her sister turning cartwheels in the front yard, landing softly in the green grass. She's every age in these movies, a newborn to a young woman. She is always changing. The summerhouse looks exactly the same.
"This was a very important part of her life," Helgi says.
She's playing cards with Amma. Gin rummy with her grandparents helped pass many lazy days. Helgi digs underneath the table until he comes out with an old notebook. In it are the scores to decades-old card games, generations of card games. Katrin played with him and her brother Jack.
He flips pages -- "she won ... she won" -- until he returns the notebook to its home beneath the coffee table. The house is covered in reminders of Katrin's presence, and her absence, and the promise of her return, and of all the memories and feelings associated with a lifetime of coming, going and returning.
"I have so many things like this," he says.
We all smile at Katrin as a young girl with big high heels dangling off her feet.
"Amma's shoes," he says.
Katrin smiles at the camera, wearing a necklace and fashionable chunky earrings.
Helgi finally tears up.
"Amma is putting her jewelry on her, and she loves it. Oh, she loves this. She wants more, and Amma is getting her more."
He wipes his eyes.
Amma and Katrin spin together in circles, stomping their feet, and then Katrin stares up at her grandmother with a look of awe and devotion on her face. Amma wears a green and blue dress. Katrin stops and stares into the camera. She leans to the side, mock shy, cocks her head and smiles. I'm watching Katrin, but Helgi can't take his eyes off Amma.
THE NEXT MORNING, Helgi and I wake early and go about the familiar pre-fishing routine that strips away the years. We silently drink coffee while packing and checking gear. He hands me a rod affixed with a Danish bait caster, and I fiddle with the mechanism. I feel close to him in this silence, and I believe he feels close to me too. A river often brings intimacy. We ride down over dry land where wild water flowed when he first came here as a boy. He says the shrinking river makes him want to cry. We don't talk much.
I stand alongside the river and aim my fly for the silver riffle of current.
The first few casts land short.
"You must do better," he says.
I focus and soon feel tension on the end of the line. With a sharp but controlled snatch, I set the hook. The only other time I hooked a salmon like this, in Alaska, I lost it while moving downstream over slick rocks. Helgi rushes over and coaches me in a calm and patient voice until finally a big salmon flops out of the water onto the gravel bank. Together we lay it out on the cleaning table, dark gray fins with a shiny silver belly. We are both drunk with the euphoria of a day's first catch.
"Did you fish here with your grandfather?" I ask.
There's a pause.
He tells me he never knew his grandfather. A few moments pass. He's considering something. Then he continues.
He says he never knew his mother either. She died in childbirth.
His father asked his boss, a local baker, to watch Helgi for 10 days while he handled the logistics. That's the original dot. The baker and his wife became Helgi's parents. His real father gave him away.
He didn't have a family or a history, so he invented both. He wanted so badly to be part of something that with will and ambition he forced his way into the history of Iceland itself. That's how he stared down the English in the Cod Wars. That's how he became the man photographed with his beautiful wife in formal dress. Icelandic Classics.
He'd started his life an orphan with no past, but Amma saw a strong man with a limitless future. They journeyed together. It was their life, not his or hers, and without her, he's something of an orphan again. Except that isn't true. He's got his children and grandchildren -- their children and grandchildren -- and Katrin's ambition is further proof that the reinvented life he and his wife imagined won't die with them. It will go on and on, passed through time.
Helgi falls quiet as the water rushes past and the silver fish glitters in the sun.
He gathers his gear and returns to the river.
TWENTY-NINE DAYS later, Katrin fades in her final event. She finishes next to last, which drops her to fourth place and off the podium. Her thin smile as she leaves the arena floor is forced. The next evening, she walks into an independent bookstore in downtown Madison to read and sign copies of Dottir. A huge crowd has gathered, standing room only, with her publicist frantically trying to find more copies because the store had sold out already, 80 books gone before she even begins. The room is filled to capacity with the storm conjured by her butterfly wings, and the wings of Annie before her. Many in the crowd are women, fit and wearing Davidsdottir shirts. A little girl comes in with her dad. Her shirt says "Strong."
Katrin explains how proud she is to be a Dottir.
She tells her story again, and as always, I learn something new and understand her more. Turns out, Amma and Odda were the ones who first suggested she try CrossFit. They started all this, and for now, the wheel they set in motion will continue to turn. Katrin says she will improve in the coming year. She preaches to hungry ears about self-determination and the power of will.
Her parents wait in the back of the room.
Her mom tells me Katrin has a boyfriend, who matches up with none of the checklist she's used for so long as a shield from distraction -- for starters, this new boy is American -- and that she is leaving soon for a vacation in Italy. A vacation! Her family is shocked. When the talk ends, I go tell her goodbye as she sits down to sign books. I make a joke about the upcoming trip -- how proud we all are of her.
"Let's see if it happens first," she says.
On my way out, I see Odda and relay the conversation. She raises her eyebrows and smiles.
"Oh, she's going," she says.