A funny thing happened to me right before the 2023 CrossFit Games. I broke my left foot. Specifically – I broke my fifth metatarsal. I’d like to say it was an awesome fitness story, but really, it was fairly pathetic. I was doing box step ups with a 25-lb weight (The prescribed Rx weight, I must add). I really hate box step ups and the workout had a lot of them. Sooo…I was going too fast. I stepped down haphazardly with my left foot. My ankle rolled. I heard a sickening crack. I fell on my butt. I dropped my weight behind me. In the end? Six weeks in a super sexy orthopedic boot and additional weeks of taking Tylenol and babying the darn thing back to health.
So you can imagine my shock, awe and wonderment watching Roman Khrennikov during Event 10 of the 2023 CrossFit games when he allegedly suffered the same injury (unconfirmed – but analysts are suggesting he broke a bone and tore ligaments in his left foot)…and then come back to compete for Event 11 in an astonishing fashion.
Let’s back up and tell the whole tale. Khrennikov came into Event 10 within spitting distance of the overall leaderboard – mere points behind frontrunner Jeffrey Adler. He was wearing the white leader t-shirt. It was anyone’s game for the title.
Here’s the WOD for Event 10:
5 rounds for time:
1 sandbag over 3 logs
(Rounds 1-4 = (100/150 lb), Round 5 = (125/200 lb)
Time cap: 13 minutes
Analysts were quick to point out that around the third round following the 7 ring muscle-ups that Khrennikov was struggling to keep up the pace in a workout where speed was of the utmost importance. It’s hard to tell where exactly he sustained his injury, but the slowdown was obvious. He managed a top five finish, but his post-WOD care told a scary story: Khrennikov was seen in a wheelchair with his left foot wrapped. And Event 11 was largely lower body focused.
Here’s the WOD for Event 11:
8 rounds for time:
Down-and-back P-bar traverse
30 heavy-rope double-unders
1 section hand-over-hand sled pull
Time cap: 15 minutes
Watching Khrennikov step up to the jump rope with his left foot in a black sock, I think eyebrows raised around the country. But then – something extraordinary happened. In a hop scotch style fashion – Khrennikov showed both grit and determination, completing the workout rep-for-rep, up until he was time-capped. And what happened next was extraordinary on top of extraordinary.
He was alone at the 10 minute mark on the floor, the competitors that he normally fought side-by-side long finished. But this wasn’t a moment for slinking away to lick wounds in disappointment. What happened next is a definitive moment in CrossFit history.
The crowd was on their feet. “ROMAN! ROMAN! ROMAN!” It was a scene right out of an inspirational sports movie; fans of all race, religion and creed joined together to support one man. But that wasn’t even the best part. It was the reaction of the other athletes. Instead of chugging sports drinks or icing sore muscles, they were right alongside Khrennikov, including soon-to-be crowned champion Adler. They cheered and encouraged him as the clock ran to zero.
Khrennikov eventually finished approximately half of the prescribed workout. He didn’t earn any points and certainly couldn’t maintain his place on the leaderboard, but the lessons learned from this powerful athlete earns him a place in CrossFit legacy.
Here’s some main takeaways:
Winning doesn’t always mean winning.
This was only Khrennikov’s second time at the Games, and it was clear throughout the challenges that he was a contender for the title. The injury? Yeah, it was the defining moment that took him out of contention. But he managed to dig in deep and turn a disappointing injury into an opportunity to show people the sheer magnitude of his strength. It was his moment to say, “Yeah, I’m hurt. But guess what? I still belong here.” His fortitude proved that 10-times over, and his very effort in that workout made him the winner of the day.
Modifications don’t mean weakness.
Could Khrennikov made it through eight rounds of double unders jumping with two feet? Only he knows the answer. Given his elite athlete status, I’d hesitantly say yes. But would it have been a good idea? Probably not. The up-down impact on his foot would likely have been excruciatingly painful, and he needed the use of both legs for the sled pull too. So he modified. Many of us see modifications or scaled versions and internally wince because we see modifying as being weak – that we can’t hack it at the weight that “real” CrossFitters can. It’s time to flip that narrative. Modifications don’t mean weakness – they mean setting yourself up for the highest chance of success. Khrennikov chose to hop on one foot to protect his body from further injury. The rest of us in CrossFit boxes all around the country choose lighter weights, ring row instead of doing pull ups, and lower the rep schemes when we need to. It’s not about being weak. It’s about being our strongest at the level we are at that particular moment.
Being time capped doesn’t mean you lose.
Because does anyone doubt that Khrennikov used every inch of his strength and stamina to get as far as he could? I know I don’t.
No athlete (even a CrossFit elite athlete) is perfect.
We all have CrossFit movements and lifts that we hate. I love wall walks; I hate box step ups. It’s easy to fall into the trap of thinking that elite athletes are just GOOD at everything and don’t have any weaknesses. But it’s not true! Even before Event 10 began, commentators were analyzing that ring muscle-ups weren’t Khrennikov’s strength. And injuries? We all get them, whether that’s tearing apart your hands from the pull-up rig or breaking a bone. No athlete is perfect. It’s how we react to our situations that make us CrossFit athletes.
CrossFit athletes encourage each other.
We often hear it said that “CrossFit is community,” and it’s refreshing to see it come to life at the elite level. The camaraderie that I share with my fellow 6 a.m.-WODers in Missouri carries all the way up to the CrossFit Games – and even to the Fittest Man on Earth. That’s what CrossFit is really all about. It’s about celebrating our wins and getting through our failures together, knowing that we are all stronger (in every meaning of the word) together.
In the end, Khrennikov and Adler showed the heart of a champion. For Adler, the victory he tasted was both the hard-fought and well-deserved accomplishment and the satisfaction of being a decent human being. And for Khrennikov? It will be amazing to see where he (and both of his feet) can go from here. In watching Khrennikov’s final showing in the CrossFit 2023 games and the spectacular way he competed, I’m reminded of the words of Chinese philosopher Confucius, when he said, “The will to win, the desire to succeed, the urge to reach your full potential…These are the keys that will unlock the door to personal excellence.”
Kendra Whittle is a writer, novice CrossFitter, marathon runner and triathlete. She lives in St. Louis with her husband, three kids and two dogs.