2019 CrossFit Games: Back from injury, Sara Sigmundsdottir is aiming to win this year

A freak rib injury forced Sara Sigmundsdottir to withdraw from last year's CrossFit Games, but this year, she could challenge for the title. Nero Dusevicius (@rxdphotography)

Ask Sara Sigmundsdottir why she does CrossFit, and you'll get a very definitive answer. Yes, she wants to be as fit and as strong as possible, ready for anything life might throw at her, and if winning this week's CrossFit Games is a byproduct of all of that fitness and preparedness, that's OK too. But Sigmundsdottir's drive runs deeper than that.

"I definitely want other girls to understand it's OK to be strong," she says. "That's my why. It's why I do this."

Sigmundsdottir is a favorite -- along with Aussie Tia-Clair Toomey, the 2018 champ -- to win the 2019 CrossFit Games, starting on Thursday in Madison, Wisconsin. But for Sigmundsdottir, strength wasn't always a strength.

Growing up in Iceland, she didn't want to play with the neighborhood kids because she was stronger than the boys, and they would make fun of her. While the other kids fell in love with soccer or swimming or dance, Sigmundsdottir struggled to find an activity she enjoyed.

"I never thought I was good in anything," she says. "I was always wondering why I was the one with no talents. I was always thinking, 'Why am I bad at everything?'"

Things got worse when Sigmundsdottir hit puberty and gained 20 pounds. "I got really big breasts and got very chubby and I didn't do anything about it," she recalls.

Finally, she found a boot camp class at her local gym -- and when her coach complimented her strength there, it felt good.

"It changed my life," she says.

Being praised for her strength, rather than mocked for it, shifted something inside Sigmundsdottir. "I stopped being ashamed and started being proud of it," she says. "I had found something I could shine in, and it was the gym. I never expected it at all."

After a year or two in boot camp classes, Sigmundsdottir switched to CrossFit, but not without reservations. "I always said I would never have muscles in my neck, I would never have big traps, but that changed when I started CrossFit," she says. "It was not the image I grew up with of how girls should look, but I'm happy with it. We all get muscular in CrossFit, and I started to think it was more attractive. I stopped being ashamed of it when I saw other girls who look like me."

Sigmundsdottir finished 169th in the world in her first CrossFit Open, then 39th in the European regional. In 2014, she improved to 82nd and 12th, respectively. Then, in 2015, she started giving Iceland's other CrossFit superstars -- Annie Thorisdottir and Katrin Davidsdottir -- a run for their money. She took gold at the European regional to Thorisdottir's bronze, qualified for the 2015 CrossFit Games and finished third. She finished third again at the Games in 2016, then fourth in 2017.

At the 2018 Games, a freak rib injury forced Sigmundsdottir to withdraw mid-event. During Event No. 3, the CrossFit Total, which called for athletes to establish a one-rep-max in the back squat, shoulder press and deadlift, Sigmundsdottir used a heavy leather lifting belt she had never used before, and the combination of the inward pressure of the belt and the outward pressure of her breath against it cracked her ninth rib on her right side.

Through grit alone, she made it through two more days of competition, including a marathon row and a clean and jerk speed ladder, but she was eventually forced to withdraw.

"That was the hardest thing I've ever done in my life," she says. "It was the most pain I have ever experienced, and I was able to fight through it for a while, but then my whole right side stopped working. I just couldn't do it."

In the 12 weeks it took for Sigmundsdottir's rib to heal, she wasn't allowed any deep breathing, which limited her training options and allowed her to focus on other things. Most notably, she was able to concentrate on the online classes she is taking in pursuit of a psychology degree through The Open University in the UK.

Later in life, Sigmundsdottir wants to study neuropsychology and the differences between the sexes. "It's amazing what girls have to go through just being girls," she says. "I've experienced a lot as a girl being an athlete, not getting my period and worrying and wondering how that will affect my future and having kids. When girls can peak in their training depends on their hormones, because they have 5% less strength when they are on their periods. I'd like to study how to balance that out to help girls be better."

To make herself better, Sigmundsdottir and coach Phil Mansfield also used the downtime from the rib injury to assess her weaknesses and make a plan for her return to the 2019 Games. For starters, Sigmundsdottir decided to address lingering knee issues and change her diet by going vegan. She now eats mostly beans, lentils, tofu, vegetables, quinoa, rice and sweet potatoes, and she uses a food tracker to ensure that she gets enough protein.

"I'm a thousand times better in training, and all of the little aches I used to have everywhere are gone," she says. "I was always a little bit overweight, and losing those last few pounds came with being vegan."

In the gym, where Sigmundsdottir says she is "very good with the barbell and very good at many reps with the barbell," she and Mansfield decided to focus on improving her gymnastic abilities, specifically pistols and climbing pegboards. Because Sigmundsdottir did not grow up playing sports, improving her in-competition awareness and ability to think while racing was also a focus, along with improving her overall fitness.

"As of mid-July, Sara has achieved personal bests in everything from a quarter Ironman and the 5K to the back squat and deadlift," Mansfield says. "It's very difficult to build endurance while lifting heavy and to get strong while also doing endurance training, but we have managed to get her running and rowing her fastest while also bettering her lifts."

Mansfield, an Ironman who has coached some of the best endurance athletes in the world for the past 20 years, says he has never seen an athlete with Sigmundsdottir's ability to work close to maximum effort for a long period of time. That ability to endure has served her well this CrossFit season. In December, she finished third at the Dubai CrossFit Sanctionals. In January, she took third at Wodapalooza in Miami. Then she finished first in the worldwide CrossFit Open, first at Strength in Depth in February in London and second (to Toomey) at the Rogue Invitational in May in Columbus, Ohio.

"I've never been as fit as I am now in all areas, and I've surprised myself a lot this year," Sigmundsdottir says. "I look at Tia[-Clair Toomey], and she doesn't have any holes in her fitness. I was surprised how close I was to her."

While Toomey will likely be Sigmundsdottir's biggest competition at the CrossFit Games, she and Mansfield have a goal bigger than winning. "We call it the 'smile goal,'" he says. "We want her to be able to finish the Games, look herself in the mirror and say, 'I'm enough. I couldn't have done any more. I did the very best I could.' We're happy if someone is better or has more skill, but no one is going to outwork us. And if we can do that, everything is achieved."