To get better at one of the most physically demanding sports in the world, Lindsey Valenzuela decided to exercise her mind along with her muscles. The result was a second-place finish at the 2013 CrossFit Games, and another huge leap forward for the former college volleyball star and national-caliber weightlifter.
After finishing 34th at the Games in 2011 and ninth in 2012, she now ranks No. 2 in the world behind good friend and sometimes-training partner, 2013 CrossFit Games champion Samantha Briggs of Great Britain. Valenzuela looks back now and sees that three days of mental torture last October in a camp founded by a former Navy SEAL paid off as much as all the hours she put in to increase her endurance and gymnastic skills.
"Basically, it's 53 hours of no sleep, continuous movement," says Valenzuela, 26, of the SEALFIT camp near San Diego. "You're coached by a present or retired SEAL and you're pushed to where your mind wants to break. Your body will break first, but it's your mind that's going to keep you going. So it was tough."
But after surviving the experience, Valenzuela felt mentally stronger. And as she advanced toward this year's CrossFit Games in Carson, Calif., she was sure she could handle anything.
"I felt like if I can go through 53 hours of getting my butt kicked, I could handle four days of workouts [at the CrossFit Games]," she says, laughing.
Making herself better
Valenzuela's climb up the CrossFit ladder was the result of a variety of factors. First, Valenzuela has been an athlete since she was a little girl, bouncing from jazz dance to swimming to volleyball, her sport of choice through high school and college.
At Cal-Lutheran in Thousand Oaks, Calif., she earned All-America honors as a 5-foot-6 setter and was named to the school's All-Decade Team in 2010.
Then there is her strength, honed by an Olympic-style weightlifting program she began in college and continued at the national level. Valenzuela, who can deadlift 395 pounds and clean and jerk 245, finished second at the National Weightlifting Championships in her division in 2011. Also, over the past two years, she has improved her endurance and gymnastic abilities -- two of her previous weaknesses -- under coach Dusty Hyland of the DogTown CrossFit gym in Culver City, Calif., while also getting mentally sharper through the SEAL-style training.
The final ingredient in Valenzuela's improvement recipe was Briggs, who finished fourth at the 2011 CrossFit Games but was injured in 2012 and unable to compete. Briggs usually trains at her home gym in Manchester, England, but she and Valenzuela became friends after talking at a Los Angeles-area gym last year. They decided to train together in preparation for 2013.
To Briggs, Valenzuela seemed "the complete CrossFit athlete" because of how she'd jumped from 34th to ninth in one year. Both believed they could get better by training together. Briggs' strength is endurance and running. Valenzuela's foundation is her lifting.
"She's done Olympic lifting," says Briggs, "but she's not just tried to rely on that, she's tried to work on other things, which is one of the things I was able to help with."
"We went to the track and did runs and things like that, so we got to work on her endurance. She's been working with Dusty, working really hard on her gymnastics, so she's really been testing herself to be a complete athlete."
The pair trained for three weeks before regional qualifying, and then for five weeks in Southern California before the CrossFit Games in Carson. Training sessions pushed both to greater heights.
"She's an endurance athlete and she can keep going all day, but she's more than that," says Valenzuela, who lives in Moorpark, northwest of Los Angeles. "Her skill sets are awesome."
Valenzuela said that because she's a visual learner, she became better just by watching Briggs. Plus, the two were so compatible -- "I think we have the same weird, quirky personality," says Valenzuela -- they made each other laugh and relax, even while working hard. Turns out, they laughed all the way to the podium.
When Valenzuela was asked if she ever wonders whether she would have won if she hadn't helped Briggs improve, she slaps that notion aside.
"No, I think that the workouts [in Carson] were honestly in her wheelhouse and not mine," says Valenzuela. "I mean, you couldn't have asked for a more perfect CrossFit Games for Sam. She looked at the workouts [when they were announced] and she's like, 'Yes, 2-mile run,' whereas I was like, 'No, 2 miles of running.'"
"But I couldn't have asked for anyone else to get first place. When I lose to good people, I'm OK with that. I don't really think of it as losing, either. I was second in the world behind Sam Briggs. I think that's pretty f---ing awesome," she adds, laughing.
Says Briggs: "We know that when we're pushing each other, we're actually pushing ourselves and making ourselves better."
The two got together again in Southern California in late September for several more days of training. Of course, they talked about their 1-2 finish in the 12-workout, four-day event that Valenzuela said was "like a whirlwind."
"Before I knew, it was over and it was awesome, everything wrapped in an emotional, stressful week," says Valenzuela. "Looking back on it, I couldn't have asked for a better result or an end. It was just awesome."
Valenzuela and Briggs say it will be a different atmosphere when they compete for opposing teams in the USA vs. the World CrossFit Invitational on Oct. 26 in Berlin. Because their senses of humor mesh -- they have "a bit of a laugh" when they get together, says Briggs -- there will be some smiles with all the huffing and puffing.
"I've got a feeling we'll be giggling a lot at each other," says Valenzuela. "I don't think we'll be paired to work out against each other because I think they'll pair who's ever similar in strength in a workout, but it's going to be funny. I think we'll have a good time."
'Work on your weaknesses'
When Valenzuela graduated from Cal-Lutheran, she knew her volleyball career was over, but she was determined to continue as an athlete. For a while, weightlifting filled the void. She eventually switched to CrossFit, which she'd seen at a gym her senior year.
"I said, 'I want to try that,' and my coach was like, 'No,'" Valenzuela recalls. "I said, 'OK, since you said no, I'm going to try it for sure now.'"
Her first competition, the 2009 Southern California regional in Orange County, didn't go well because she couldn't do chest-to-bar pull-ups. The next year she got another DNF because she couldn't do one of CrossFit's more demanding workouts, the muscle-up. But Valenzuela persevered.
"You have to be smart and work on your weaknesses," she says.
She and Hyland constantly assess where she is and tailor her workouts accordingly. Valenzuela admits she'd probably just lift every day if it were up to her.
"Working on overall endurance gave me the push to do well and work out longer," she says. "Because I'm an explosive athlete, if you give me a short workout, I'll be OK. But my endurance has just got 50 percent better over the past year."
The fact that she's improved so quickly in so many areas gives Valenzuela confidence she can continue to improve. Even in recent weeks, her learning light bulb continues to flicker on, as it did at a recent workout when Hyland was demonstrating something.
"After the Games I was working on some gymnastics stuff with my coach and I was, 'Oh my God, I understand what you're saying. I feel my body doing that,'" she recalls. "He said, 'You just figured that out?' I'm like, 'Yeah.' He was like, 'Oh, my God, I quit.' It was weird, but I'm still figuring things out."
As she looks ahead, though, she's thinking her window of opportunity for improvement in the near future may be small. She'd like to start a family with her husband, a Ventura County deputy sheriff, so she'd have to take some time off. But afterward, she could still storm back the way CrossFit standout Valerie Voboril has done after becoming a mother.
"Just because you have a family doesn't mean you can't be a top-notch CrossFit athlete," says Valenzuela, who calls Voboril a "badass" who's paved the way for other women in the sport to do both. Voboril finished third overall this year.
In the meantime Valenzuela will be working to do her best at the 2014 Games, but she's not going to predict anything other than being better.
"Honestly, I think I've let people know I'm a force to be reckoned with, but at the same time, everyone's getting better," she says. "It doesn't take me from my work ethic that I had before. I still have in the back of my mind, 'Am I really that good? These girls are so much better than me in these movements.' I think that sometimes.
"But I definitely re-established the fact that all the hard work and sacrifices were worth it."