Journalist Criticizes Olympian Tia Toomey for Excelling in Two Sports

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Tia Toomey: the second fittest woman in the world and an Olympian.

Tia Toomey is the first athlete ever to compete at the CrossFit Games and the Olympics in the same year. On July 24, she finished second at the 2016 Reebok CrossFit Games for her second silver-medal CrossFit Games finish in a row. And she just finished 14th in the world in weightlifting’s 58-kilo class, at the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro.

Roy Masters is a 74-year-old Australian sports journalist who has focused his career on rugby league football. Masters does not know much about weightlifting. He knows even less about CrossFit.

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Roy Masters on the left. Source.

Masters penned an article on Toomey’s unprecedented accomplishment, World CrossFit Games runner-up Tia Toomey finds Rio 2016 a different beast.” He appended Toomey’s Olympic results to her CrossFit Games finish with a “but,” instead of an “and.” Masters seems to think that Toomey’s CrossFit Games finish diminished her weightlifting performance. He concluded from the CrossFit Games that,

clearly all that exercise, including bizarre events such as handstand walking, ocean swimming and “suicide sprinting” does not prepare a woman for the snatch and the clean and jerk of Olympic weightlifting.

Bizarre? Who would apply that label to suicide sprints–a staple of athletic strength and conditioning for decades before CrossFit–and ocean swimming–a pasttime enjoyed by millions that can be essential for survival? Perhaps Masters is unaware that the Kona Ironman Triathlon World Championship has included a 2.4-mile ocean swim for decades.

The geriatric sports writer even derided Toomey as “accustomed to the 17-exercise routine of CrossFit competition.” Masters literally must have glanced at the 2016 CrossFit Games events, miscounted them, and then falsely assumed that the events remain the same every year.

Masters’ article constitutes journalism like guessing an appropriate tip while counting on your fingers constitutes mathematics. He did not trouble himself with basic research. CrossFit Games events are the opposite of a “routine”–they vary every year and the athletes only learn what they are weeks, days, or even hours ahead of time. The individual competition included over 30 different movements this year (the exact number depends on whether you classify movements with varying loading and/or contexts as distinct–e.g., is a suicide sprint different from a long hill run or a run in a weight vest?).

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Tia Toomey took on the hills of Aromas two weeks before taking the platform in Rio.

The idea that CrossFit detracted from Toomey’s weightlifting is also flawed in an obvious way: CrossFit is the reason Toomey qualified for the Olympics in weightlifting. According to the Australian athlete, “If it hadn’t been for CrossFit, I wouldn’t be going to Rio.” Clearly Masters did not give Toomey the opportunity to correct his ignorant thesis when he interviewed her. Perhaps Masters listened to the Australian weightlifters that Toomey edged out, who protested her Olympic slot.

Or maybe Masters was influenced by the dogmas of exercise science. Much of exercise science has considered the development of endurance to conflict with training for strength and power. To be sure, there are some good reasons to perceive such a conflict–athletes who excel at distance running or triathlons rarely demonstrate impressive strength and power at the same time. The performance of Toomey and her fellow CrossFit Games athletes, however, challenges this paradigm. If an athlete can excel in an event that includes distance running, distance swimming and high-rep bodyweight exercises, and two weeks later finish 14th in the world in a test of strength, speed and power, perhaps the human body is capable of more than we thought. Toomey and her fellow CrossFit Games athletes are surpassing arbitrary limits emanating from dogma. Isn’t that what the Olympics are about? Isn’t that what sports are about?

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Tia Toomey at an Olympic qualifying event. Source.

Let’s consider what someone with actual experience in CrossFit and competitive weightlifting had to say about Toomey’s accomplishments. Matt Bergeron took 8th place in the 2015 USAW Nationals in the 85-kilo class. He posted,

At the current rate of the 58kg women’s A session, Toomey will finish at 14th place, and if she had made her last clean and jerk, she would have finished 12th, which after competing at the CrossFit Games 2 weeks or so ago, is a pretty gangster achievement for your first Olympic Games.

Finally, we may be accustomed in the west to seeing weightlifting training as an endless procession of snatches, cleans, squats and their variants. But is it so strange for weightlifters to run, jump and perform gymnastic movements? Many Chinese weightlifters perform a wider variety of exercises to build strength, muscle and develop general conditioning. For example, Kirksman Teo, a Malaysian weightlifter with a Chinese weightlifting coach, described the early stage of training for Chinese weightlifters:

… many exercises that seemingly don’t relate to weightlifting are used. Athletes at younger ages from 6 onwards, begin from gymnastics work, such as tumbling, handstands, flips and a whole lot of bodyweight work to create a good strength structure. They also sprint and jump to develop their explosive abilities. The coaches believe it’s necessary to start them young, but they don’t lift weights immediately.

(Other sources support Teo’s account).

Handstands and sprints? These “bizarre” movements pays dividends, and this broad stimulus continues throughout their careers. Take these weighted handstand push-ups, for example. Or check out Lu Xiaojun and Liao Hui performing human flags and weighted bar dips with 75 kg:

Have Lu’s gymnastics movements detracted from his weightlifting? His Olympic gold medal, world records in the snatch and the total, and three world championships suggest otherwise. As for Toomey, she started CrossFit in 2013 and began competing in weightlifting 18 months ago. Yet she already reached the Olympics in weightlifting, a sport where competitors often begin training for hours daily before they reach their teens.

Imagine what Toomey will accomplish at the 2020 Olympic Games with four more years of solid training under her belt. Perhaps by then the Sydney Morning Herald will have hired someone with a basic knowledge of CrossFit and weightlifting to write about these subjects.

14 comments

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  2. This is good at pointing out the flaws in the columnists argument. I would take exception to one thing, strongly: You refer to him a geriatric. That is a slur and you know it. His analysis is more to do with his predispositions, ignorance, laziness in not doing enough research, or even just a desire to stir the pot and get people to read his article. (It worked) This afflicts journalists and reporters of all ages. You would likely not ascribe his analysis to gender, religion, race or whatever. So leave his age out of it. You can do better.

    And FWIW, I am a big fan of Ms. Toomey. Her down-to-the-last-event battle with Davidsdottir in the CF Games was the most exciting individual sports battle I’ve ever seen.

  3. Thanks for that. I read the article in a tram on my cell phone – i.e., skimmed – and came away thinking, “Did I miss something or was that article kind of insulting?”
    One thing I would say: I wonder whether she might have done EVEN better at the OLYs if she hadn’t been at our games. 14th best weight lifter in the world is nothing to sneeze at, but I can’t help wonder what she could do if she … well … you know … specialized. (OTOH, in terms of career planning, 2nd at the games may actually be more significant than, say, 6th at the OLYs.)

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  7. For the Olympics countries gain places in the weightlifting due to team performances. Australia gained one spot for a female lifter and one spot for a male lifter, due to the team performance at the Oceania Championship. The places on the Australian Weightlifting team were then determined by whoever lifted the highest % of official Olympic qualifying weights in the year before the Olympics.

    The reason Toomey is being criticised is because she didnt achieve PBs, or even what she lifted in qualifying, in either the clean or the snatch.

    If in qualifying she had only lifted in what she lifted in Olympic competition, her place would have gone to another lifter.

    Obviously no one knows why she didnt at least equal her qualifying marks, but the question has to be asked if part of the reason was fatigue from competing in a grueling cross fit games 2 weeks ago, or the extra non weightlifting focussed training for the same event.

    You mention “If an athlete can excel in an event that includes distance running, distance swimming and high-rep bodyweight exercises, and two weeks later finish 14th in the world in a test of strength, speed and power, perhaps the human body is capable of more than we thought.” … Toomey’s 14th spot wasnt particularly remarkable. It was 14 out of 16, uncompetative, and more than 50 kilos behind the gold medallist. She was there making up the numbers.

    The fact that she wasnt able to equal her qualifying lifts shows she has either lost strength or injured herself since qualifying. She hasnt mentioned being injured in the media, so her training program (and participation in the cross fit games two weeks before the Olympics) have to be questioned, especially when it is normal for weightlifters to make PBs in competition.

    At the Australian Championships in 2015 Toomey Snatched 83kg and Cleaned 111kg, for a total of 194kg. At the Oceania Championships in May she lifted 85kg in the Snatch and 109kg in the Clean and Jerk, again for a total of 194kg, and an Olympic qualifying percentage in both cases of 107.18%.

    This earnt Toomey the one female spot for an Australian weightlifter, ahead of Erika Ropati Frost, on 107.1% by only .08%.

    At the Olympics Toomey lifted 82kg in the Snatch and 107kg in the Clean and Jerk, for a total of 189kg. Below her best in both. Toomey’s performance at the Olympics was 104.4% of the qualifying weight, a % which in qualifying would have seen Ropati Frost take here spot.

    The argument can be made that after qualifying, she should have focussed all of her training on the Olympics, as any other weightlifter who qualified would have.

    For whatever reason, she wasnt at her best, and came 14th out of 16 athletes in her event, an uncompetative 51 kilos in total behind the winner. Whether her particupation in crossfit resulted in a fall off her strength is a valid question.

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