2017 CrossFit Games: The Epic Comeback of Alethea Boon
Just days out from the CrossFit Games, one of the most grueling and versatile competitions on the planet, we look at a remarkable story with roots from a year ago. In a freak mid-event accident at the 2016 Games, Alethea Boon suffered a ruptured Achilles, bringing her season to an abrupt halt.
Where most would have given up at the sight of the painful and long rehabilitation process, Boon strengthened her resolve and went to work, rebuilding her body in ways she’d never done before. In doing so, she defied the longest of odds—and medical opinion—to register and compete in the CrossFit Open, mere months after surgery.
Week one of the Open re-introduced her to box jumps, the movement that ended her previous season. But Boon has made a career out of overcoming adversity. With five weeks of scores logged, Alethea qualified for the Pacific Regional, where she put on a sizzling performance in front of thousands in attendance and many more watching online, booking her ticket for a third consecutive Games appearance.
Now, with a renewed sense of gratitude, unflinching eyes on the prize, and a rebuilt body, Boon returns to the Games. What will the new venue of Madison, Wisconsin have in store? Only time will tell. But Alethea Boon has unfinished business, hoping to add a heartwarming chapter to one of the sport’s most inspirational stories.
Take us back to the 2016 Games. How were you feeling about the event to that point?
Leading into last year’s event, I felt the fittest and strongest I’d ever been. I was a bit disappointed by my results in the first few days, but in saying that they weren’t really my style of events. However, I was really looking forward to Saturday because they were much more suited to me. Leading into that day, and that workout [Event 10], I felt ready to go and knew my ranking was going to improve. I thought, “I’ll go hard on this event” and went for it. Unfortunately my Achilles snapped, and my heart broke.
“Unfortunately my Achilles snapped, and my heart broke.”
How were you feeling physically in the lead up to Event 10?
My legs were definitely tired, and the calf muscles especially must have been more tired than I thought. When you’re in the middle of the CrossFit Games, you don’t think too much about what you’re doing—you block out any pain or tightness. You just go. Ignoring that, I missed the warning signs that maybe it was too tight and perhaps I should have paid more attention to it. Although if your Achilles is going to go, you can’t really avoid it too much I don’t think, especially at the Games.
An event the next day was a long handstand walk [Event 11], obviously right up your alley. Did you go back out to the StubHub Center the next day planning to compete in that one event, or had you been advised by medical staff or Games organizers that it wasn’t possible?
I was hoping to get on the floor and do a Julie Foucher, but those three events were all done in the one session. They said if I wasn’t able to run down the end of the field, I wouldn’t be able to start. It was a timing issue from the organizers more than anything. I would love to have done the handstand walk in the moonboot, but at the same time I respect the organizers’ decision and can see why they made it.
What did the doctors tell you about recovery time once you got the diagnosis?
The doctors did the Thompson test: squeezing my calf to see if there was any pulling on the foot or if it moved. There was no movement on the foot, so they knew straightaway that it was completely ruptured. It wasn’t until I got back to New Zealand a few weeks later that the doctor said to me, “You’ve got a good nine-month recovery, possibly a year, to get back to functioning fully.” I thought the 2017 season was a write-off. But I wanted to make peace with CrossFit after what had happened, so I planned to do the Open scaled. I guess I did a bit better than that!
Yes, you tried to get back to the CrossFit community roots, and it sent you back to the Games! The injury was obviously very significant and anyone who follows you on social media could see how disciplined you were with rehab. What were you focusing on to get through it so well?
In the initial stages, there was nothing I could really do. They bound it back up and stitched my calf back together. At the start, it was more about keeping weight off it. I took a bit longer in the front-end of it all; normally people put weight on it a month after, but we waited double that time. The doctor had a plan, so I listened to that.
He started me weight-bearing eight weeks after, just walking in the boot. Within a few days, I could take my foot out of the boot and start walking slowly. We didn’t start strengthening it at all until nine weeks after surgery. From there, it was very little stages—getting muscles in my feet stronger again by scrunching my toes—for another month or so. Then we started loading the calf using bands.
The whole time, I was still loading the upper body. I was doing a lot of bench press and bicep curls! I got into following a lot of bodybuilding and exercises they do that I hadn’t done before. I actually got really into that—learning how to pose and what not—just for fun. That whole time, it was all dumbbells.
“I thought the 2017 season was a write-off. But I wanted to make peace with CrossFit after what had happened, so I planned to do the Open scaled.”
With very little, if any, prospect of being available for the 2017 CrossFit season, when did you realize you were a chance at competing in the Open?
In early January we knew the Open was likely, but I couldn’t skip at that stage. We’d only just started light jogging at a park in mid-January. We started doing the anti-gravity machine closer to December. We knew once I could start running that things were going to get progressively stronger faster.
So you were hoping to see bicep curls and bench press in the Open!?
That would have been perfect!
What about when you saw the box jumps in 17.1? Did you your mind wander a little, or were you focused on the job at hand?
No, it scared me crapless. I was very scared. I hadn’t done that many box jumps [since the injury]. I’d mainly done, in the one session, five jumps to a box because we were still very worried about loading that calf. We were still very careful, stepping down off the box, because that was still only six months after surgery. It was still very fresh.
Getting through the Open, that must have been a confidence booster, but then being back to your scintillating best at Regionals…how did it feel to be back on the comp floor, such an enormous achievement after what happened the year before?
It changed my whole perspective on competing. I went in to Regionals not expecting to do that well. When the WODs were released, we knew they weren’t too bad, especially because we’d done a lot of dumbbell work. But then when we saw the first region’s times, we thought, “Oh goodness…we’re in a position that we might do okay, maybe top 10.”
And then when I actually showed up, I just had nothing but appreciation for being there. I was so grateful; it didn’t matter where I placed. Just being able to take the floor made me really emotional. I’m getting emotional now, just thinking about stepping out on the floor and smiling the whole time the first heat was on. For me, that was a huge mental hurdle to get over.
Photo: CrossFit, Pacific Regional
I think you rubbed off on some of the other competitors, if all the dancing was anything to go by!
We had a great time! I definitely realize now that competing out there is such an honor and privilege. You’ve got to lap up every moment you can. Appreciate every win, no matter how small it seems—it all matters.
How has the preparation for this year’s Games been different to previous campaigns?
I’ve definitely been behind the eight-ball in terms of leg strength and running endurance. To be quite honest, I think I’m still behind a lot of the other athletes. But we played the short game to get through each stage. We’ve gotten to a point now where my numbers are back up to where they used to be. It’s just the endurance part that I’m probably lacking. However, I’m not lacking in heart, so my effort will still be the same.
My coach Luke Starr, from Starr Strength and Performance, he’s been crucial, to getting me from rehabilitation point into performance. My main goal was to qualify for 2018 Commonwealth Games in weightlifting for New Zealand. The CrossFit part just kind of happened…it progressed just as well! So a big thank you to Luke. Plus all the support from BSFT Apparel, KC Chiro, True Protein and everyone at CrossFit Active.
“Appreciate every win, no matter how small it seems—it all matters.”
What about on the nutrition side—have you made any changes from last year?
Yeah, I started on RP Strength. Nick has been amazing. I’ve never eaten so much in my life, and never been able to eat so many flexible foods! The nutrition part of it…I’m eating more, and feel like I’ve got a lot of energy, which is good and not something I’ve done in previous years. I’ve tried eating clean, and I always found that I was lacking in energy. With RP Strength, it gives me an option where I can take Gatorade to replenish my carbs and that type of thing. Those little tips and tricks have helped me recover a lot better and faster.
New venue, new city, new part of the world. What do you think Castro has up his sleeve this year?
And a new Achilles! It’s hard to tell—Madison is full of great outdoor activities, so on the ride, swim, run, we’ll see some great scenery. In terms of other events, an obstacle course would be exciting. We’ll see traditional CrossFit for sure, but it’s really wide open. We’re preparing for the unknown, and coming to a new venue we seriously have no idea what’s going to happen. But that’s what makes this sport so good.
Do you think a new location levels the playing field, or are there still people who standout as the ones to beat at this year’s Games?
A new location does throw a spanner in the works. However, if you’ve put in the work, the result will be the same regardless. I do think that if you’ve had more outdoor experience growing up, you’re definitely at an advantage.
“Little by little becomes a lot over time. Keep at it and enjoy the journey.”
Have you got a message for those who are overcoming injury or hardship in their own lives?
Overcoming adversity, particularly this injury, a lot of the time it was difficult to just get up. I found that by setting small goals—it wasn’t even major long-term goals, just day by day goals—that it helped me to keep progressing and moving forward. Set small goals, focus on the small wins, and then have a bigger picture to reach for. Don’t get discouraged. Just keep plugging away at it because day by day things will get better. Little by little becomes a lot over time. Keep at it and enjoy the journey.
Learn more in our previous interview with Alethea Boon: