Ingrid Kantola hearts CrossFit

"CrossFit is a great sport for athletes who haven't reached their potential," said Ingrid Kantola, trying to explain the appeal of this increasingly popular form of fitness that also touts itself as "the most inclusive competition in the world."

Kantola speaks from experience: As a top collegiate pole-vaulter at UCLA, her Olympic dream fell, literally, a foot and a half short during the trials in Eugene, Ore., in the summer of 2008.

"I gave it everything I had," Kantola said. "It was an awesome experience. I loved the pole vault, I loved competing, I loved my coaches and being on the UCLA team."

But when all was said and done, she knew it was time to move on.

The summer after she graduated from UCLA, Kantola signed up for a handful of 5Ks, determined to keep fit while trying to find another outlet for her physical talents. She was, truthfully, bored with the road races, but a little lost about what else to do.

"Then my neighbor told my about CrossFit, and said I should check it out, that I'd really like it," Kantola, now 26, said. "So I went on their website and kind of explored some of the workouts they suggested. I started doing it on my own and really enjoyed it -- there was such a variety in the workouts that I never got bored."

A few months later, she came across a posting on the website about an upcoming CrossFit regional competition.

"I hadn't even realized this was something people competed in," Kantola said. "I just thought it was a type of workout."

The competitions are held over three days, with athletes performing two or three different types of workouts each day. An overall score is determined based on speed, endurance and strength. The workouts chosen for Kantola's competition were ones she felt confident in.

"I'm not so good at running or rowing, but anything with squats or muscle-ups are good for me," she said, adding that her strength training from years of pole-vaulting works to her advantage in CrossFit.

Kantola entered her first competition with just four months of experience and no coach to show her the ropes. She placed an impressive ninth, and knew at that moment she's found her new sport.

"It attracts people who love to work out and who are disciplined in the gym, but haven't necessarily shined in their individual sports," she said. "For me, it has improved my overall sense of satisfaction with my athletic performance. I am constantly trying to do better than the day before and always trying to improve my level of fitness."

Unlike in most sports, where you might hit a plateau and feel stuck, in CrossFit there is always a different workout to try and another test to put your body through. "You become a very well-rounded person," Kantola added.

Serious health scare

In the spring of 2010, Kantola's progression in CrossFit came to an abrupt halt. She had just swept the events at the SoCal sectional competition when she began to feel sick. She thought she had the flu, but her symptoms kept getting worse. When she finally saw her doctor, it was discovered that Kantola had a bacterial heart infection and needed urgent open-heart surgery.

"I was terribly sick -- I had congestive heart failure," Kantola said. "All of a sudden, I went from focusing on how far I could push my body in these workouts to hoping I was strong enough to beat this thing."

That was two years ago. The road back has been challenging but surprisingly smooth for Kantola. The remarkable fitness level achieved through daily CrossFit workouts helped her bounce back from surgery far faster than a typical patient. Last year, she placed sixth at regionals, operating at about 60 percent of her strength. This year, she's going for broke.

"In 2011, I was just happy to be able to get there and compete," she said. "It was a sign that I was healthy again. This time, my goal is top three -- what you need in order to make it to the Games in July."

The CrossFit Games, the sport's equivalent of a national championship, are held in Carson, Calif., and attract some of the all-around fittest people in the country. Though the participants become her competitors once the events start, Kantola said one of the best parts of her sport is getting to know other athletes in the CrossFit community.

"They are some of the most encouraging, supportive, positive people," she said. "They will cheer you through a tough workout and help you push yourself harder."

A different kind of sport

Another bonus of belonging to the CrossFit community is the lifestyle it endorses. This is not a sport for skinny-minny gymnasts, though there are events that test flexibility, or waif-like milers, though running is one of the events.

"To be successful at CrossFit, you've got to be strong," Kantola explained. "Strength trumps skinny here."

That healthy mindset extends beyond the gym -- Kantola stresses that athletes follow a healthy diet, have a healthier body image than she's seen in other sports and have a positive outlook and high energy. Their can-do attitude is contagious, so much so that Kantola, a sociology major at UCLA, is now a part-time director of planning for CrossFit events, a role she juggles with grad school classes in sporting events management.

"It is so satisfying to see a group of motivated athletes come together to compete in such a positive, healthy sport," she said. "It's something I want to be part of in some way forever."