Former USC basketball star Jamie Hagiya finds new love in CrossFit

Jamie Hagiya was introduced to CrossFit shortly before the realization that her basketball career was over had sunken in. Courtesy Tai Kerbs

Jamie Hagiya stood in line with her opponents at the California CrossFit regional in May, waiting to hear who qualified for the upcoming CrossFit Games.

The Games, which begin Tuesday and run through July 24 in Carson, California, feature 40 of the fittest women in the world. Only five would be selected from the California regional, and this was Hagiya's fourth attempt to make the cut.

"In first ... Lauren Fisher!" an announcer howled. "In second ... Rebecca Voigt! In third ... Alessandra Pichelli! In fourth ... Chyna Cho!"

Hagiya cheered and clapped with all her might. There was one spot left.

"And your fifth athlete going to Carson, California ... Jamie Hagiya!"

Sitting on a couch last month at California's Torrance CrossFit, where she is a co-owner and coach, the 31-year-old Hagiya replays the video of her name being called. She is beaming. Her face lights up, bright as her turquoise muscle tank. "That's a moment I'll never forget," Hagiya says. "One of the best moments of my life."

Hagiya spent most of her life as a basketball player, whipping the ball up the court to lead Southern California's fast break from 2003 to 2007.

She's found new purpose with CrossFit, qualifying for regionals five straight years in a competition that tests speed, strength, power, agility, endurance and pretty much any other athletic quality imaginable.

"It allowed me a second chance to be an athlete again."

'This is my new love'

During Hagiya's first basketball game in first grade, she scored bucket after bucket while the kids around her giggled and ran aimlessly around the court. Hagiya subbed out. "Then they started losing," said her father, Grant Hagiya. "So they put her right back in and she started scoring baskets again."

But no matter how many shots Hagiya drained as she got older, few believed in her dream to play Division I college basketball. She was doubted, she said, because she was 5-foot-3 and Japanese-American.

"They said I'm too small, I'd never play," Hagiya said. "I said, 'Oh forget that. I know I can play.'"

She happened to find her way into an exposure camp with staff from USC in attendance. And the Trojans offered Hagiya her only scholarship.

Hagiya fought to earn starts -- out-squatting men's basketball players and defending women a foot taller. Once, she challenged teammate Shay Murphy to eight games of one-on-one, refusing to quit until she won. Ultimately she reached sixth on USC's all-time list for career assists.

"She's always had to work for everything in her life," said Murphy, who has played in the WNBA and overseas. "She was always told she was too short or not the right skin color or she doesn't have a name to do anything. That drove her."

Hagiya learned work ethic from her grandparents, who were imprisoned in internment camps in Wyoming and Arkansas during World War II. "They got everything taken away from them. They had to move and they still didn't complain about it. They just worked hard," Hagiya said.

Hagiya eventually played professionally in Greece and Spain. She tried out for the Los Angeles Sparks in 2012. She gave it her all -- swinging the extra pass, nailing the open jumper, stealing the ball.

But she didn't make the team.

She knew she had reached the end of the road with hoops, but nothing prepares a player for that. "If you love it so much and put so much time and effort into it, it's like a relationship ending -- a marriage or something," she said.

She was disappointed, but she knew something better was near.

A few months earlier, she had hosted a basketball clinic for girls when one of the participants' father, who owns a CrossFit gym, suggested she try the program.

Her first CrossFit session? "I died," Hagiya said, recalling the "Jackie" workout: 1,000-meter row, 50 thrusters and 30 pull-ups. But she kept coming back. "I love competition," Hagiya said. "It brought that back out of me again."

"My buddy called me and said, 'Do you love this? It looks like you love this.' I'm like, 'I do,'" Hagiya said. "Nothing will ever compare to basketball, but because that time has passed and I've accepted that and moved on, this is my new love and I love it."

'The comeback kid'

Soon, Hagiya was nipping at the heels of SoCal's top CrossFitters. She qualified for regionals in 2012 (but couldn't compete because of a torn hamstring), 2013 and 2014. She just missed the cut for the Games in '13 and '14, finishing fifth both years (only the top three qualified then).

"She knew she was so close and she knew she belonged with the other girls at that stage," said Andy Paik, a Torrance CrossFit coach. "She wanted to prove herself."

But in June 2014, Hagiya's rise was halted. On a set of 30-inch box jumps during an exhibition in Las Vegas, she felt as if someone had hit the back of her heel with a barbell. She looked behind her but saw no one was there. She had torn her Achilles, and she had surgery a few days later.

Hagiya was devastated. She had to depend on others, unable to walk to pour herself a glass of water. One day she heard one too many it's-going-to-be-OKs and walked outside to her car and broke down. "It's not fine! I'm not OK!" she screamed amid tears. "This sucks! I don't want to hear it's OK!"

But inspired by NBA star Kobe Bryant's recovery from his Achilles injury a year earlier, she committed to strengthening herself through daily rehab. "You dry your tears and you're like, 'Tomorrow's a new day,'" Hagiya said. "'Let's keep moving.'"

With just three months of full-speed training, Hagiya qualified for 2015 regionals. The SoCal CrossFit community dubbed her the "the comeback kid," and many donned T-shirts with the slogan.

But Hagiya finished 20th. She knew qualifying was an achievement, but she was disappointed. She wanted more.

This year's regionals, she felt relaxed. I believe in myself. I know I can do this, she said to herself. I'm just going to do my best and whatever happens, happens.

The road was not easy. On two events on the final day of competition, she finished 13th and 17th. She had one event left to redeem herself. "I had to pull myself together and just go out there and perform," Hagiya said.

She came back to finish second in the final event -- a combination of 65-pound thrusters and legless rope climbs -- beating out last year's California regional champion, Brooke Ence, for the fifth and final spot at the Games.

"I was getting so close, so close, so close," Hagiya said. "That's why this year it meant so much to me. I had been trying for so long.

"I was proud I endured all of that and kept on going."