The Road to Rio via Carson: An Interview with Sporting Sensation Tia-Clair Toomey
Based out of the unlikely location of Gladstone in regional Queensland, it’s fair to say that 2015 was the year for Tia-Clair Toomey. In her debut appearance at the CrossFit Games, Tia obliterated a host of revered athletes to finish second, the best performance by an Australian in the event’s history. But for someone with Tia’s determination, tenacity and grit, a lone performance proves nothing.
Remarkably, this year is shaping up even better for the 23-year-old Australian who seemingly has the Midas touch at whatever she sets her mind to. In May she placed second at the Pacific Regional, qualifying for a second consecutive CrossFit Games. Later that month, with her Carson ticket secured, Tia turned her attention to weightlifting, a sport she only started taking seriously in the last two years. A standout performance at the Oceania Weightlifting Championships in Fiji cemented her a spot on the Australian weightlifting team to compete at the 2016 Olympic Games in Brazil.
Only one other athlete (Anna Tunnicliffe; sailing) has ever competed in both the CrossFit Games and Olympic Games, but never in the same year, and certainly not in the same month.
While Tia’s success at such a young age is astounding, she’s drawn criticism from some people who feel that she would perhaps be better served picking one sport and sticking to it. In this interview Tia addresses the haters, deconstructs her motivation, and outlines her grand plan for success.
Video: Luke McCracken
How’s the body feeling at the business end of the season?
The body’s feeling great! I’ll need to be on top of mobility the whole time, but apart from that I’m really happy with the preparation.
What’s your goal at this year’s CrossFit Games?
My goal is to make it in the top two of the Pacific region so I can make it back to the CrossFit Invitational. Another goal is to improve my placings in each event to be more consistent. I’m not putting any pressure on myself to have a particular overall placing in mind, but I just want to make sure I’m giving 110% effort in every event. Last year, after “Murph” and the snatch ladder, “Heavy DT” was a big mental barrier for me and I feel that I gave up and was too willing to give up. This year I want to stay mentally strong and push through it right to the end.
What was your goal for the 2015 CrossFit Games?
[laughs] To not come last!
Photo: CrossFit Games
Well you certainly did better than that! You came in to last year’s Games without much fanfare, but there’s no hiding anymore. Do you feel any pressure coming in as reigning runner-up, or are you just focused on the job at hand?
I want to keep getting better each year, and there’ll always be pressure on the athletes who return to the competition after performing well in it previously. I honestly don’t know if I’ve set myself up for failure after what happened last year…it’s definitely going to be on my mind throughout the week, and whether I’m where I should be.
It’s a long few days so it’s only natural that different thoughts go through your head, and I’m sure the other athletes are in the same boat. I just need to remember to give it everything I have in each workout and the leaderboard will take care of itself. If it’s not good enough, I’ll have to work harder next year.
“I just need to remember to give it everything I have in each workout and the leaderboard will take care of itself.”
How much do you pay attention to what other athletes around the world are doing?
I like to just focus on what I’m doing. I do love watching what other people are doing, purely for entertainment purposes! CrossFit is not just a job for me; it’s my passion. To see people doing phenomenal workouts at incredible weights with huge repetitions or a fast pace, it’s just crazy and so inspiring. I look at it for enjoyment and as something to aspire to, rather than thinking, “I wish I could do that”.
CrossFit is known for the camaraderie of how athletes all get together to cheer on the people who are still going. Now that the sport has become more professional—where the stakes are much higher and there’s a lot of money on the line—what’s the relationship like with the top athletes behind the scenes?
Everyone there is so competitive, there’s no doubt about that. At the end of the day everyone is mature enough, and we’re all going through the exact same thing so we have sympathy for each other. If something’s gone wrong or if someone’s feeling down, you do recognize it and help them out or wish them well, as much as you can. But if something hasn’t gone your way, you don’t want anyone near you. We just make sure the person is okay, and then let them be so they can prepare for what’s next.
For me, if something hasn’t gone right, I just like to be left alone so I can talk to myself, rather than have people surrounding me asking if I’m okay.
“You can’t do it once and be done – you need to back it up.”
At what point in your life did you feel like you were a professional athlete?
Even after qualifying for the CrossFit Games [in 2015], I probably didn’t feel it. You can’t do it once and be done – you need to back it up. It was only after qualifying for the CrossFit Games a second time, and the Olympic Games, that I actually felt like I was possibly a professional athlete.
Photo: CrossFit Games
What do you think is the biggest difference between a Regionals-level athlete and a Games-level athlete?
Confidence. Not just knowing that you can do it, but also trusting in your ability to get there. For the athletes who have made it before, their confidence is sky-high compared to the athletes who are still trying to make it. That being said, there’s always new athletes coming through each year who rely on pure determination.
People need to ask themselves, “How bad do you really want it?” If you really want it that bad, it’s going to come out in your favor.
“People need to ask themselves, “How bad do you really want it?””
Two weeks after the CrossFit Games you’ll be lifting at the Olympic Games in Brazil. What do you have to say to some of the weightlifting purists who may feel that the spot should have been reserved for someone who is able to dedicate themselves full-time to weightlifting, as opposed to someone handling the demands of two professional sports?
Everyone deserves their own opinion, and if that’s what they genuinely feel – that’s fine. But I think it’s very unfair for people to accuse me of not caring about both sports when, if anything, I feel as though I have trained my butt off for both sports. I’ve sacrificed just as much as what everyone else has, if not more. I feel like I deserve it because I know how hard I’ve worked for it. You never know what other people are thinking, but I really wanted this, and was willing to do everything it took to get there. I’m proud of where I’m at and feel that I deserve to be here.
I had to really battle because there were some amazing athletes who pushed me right to the very end, in the likes of Erika and Kiana, and all the girls who were on the weightlifting team vying for the spot. I knew how much I really wanted it and how hard I’ve worked for it. And not only have I sacrificed so much, but Shane and my family and friends have all sacrificed so much for me, too. It wasn’t just for me, but for everyone who’s supported me along the journey. Everyone can have their own opinion, but I don’t listen to a word that they say.
“Everyone can have their own opinion, but I don’t listen to a word that they say.”
Have you got a plan to manage the CrossFit Games and Olympic Games, given they’re so close together? Or is it about staying focused on one event at a time?
The CrossFit Games demands a lot more of the body, and there’s been a lot of talk about what would happen if got injured and wouldn’t be able to perform at the Olympic Games. That would be a horrible outcome. I definitely won’t be pushing my body to the point where I’ll injure myself. In the back of my mind, I’ll always remember that two weeks after the CrossFit Games I’ll have the Olympic Games to compete in.
Last year I gave it everything because if something did happen I knew there was plenty of time to recover. But this year it’s a little different. That’s just a sacrifice I’m willing to make, purely because I get to do two sports. It may mean I don’t podium this year, or achieve some of the goals I set for myself. But I’ve already achieved my main goal, which was to compete at both of those events this year.
I’m still going to give Carson everything I have, and at Rio I’ll be going for PBs as well. But you just don’t really know until you get there and see how the body is feeling or what the environment’s like. It’s a great question, and as much as I can I’ll focus on one at a time, but the Olympic Games will still be in the back of my mind.
“In the back of my mind, I’ll always remember that two weeks after the CrossFit Games I’ll have the Olympic Games to compete in.”
What’s your goal for Rio?
Last year at the World Weightlifting Championships I came 27th. Making the top 20 would be amazing. That’s a pretty difficult goal for me to achieve, but it’s definitely possible if we play it right on the day.
Photo: Australian Olympic Committee
For a long time, many people believed that the Eastern European countries had superior training methodologies, but we’re finding out now with retrospective drug testing that perhaps they weren’t all as above board as they claimed. Going in to your first Olympic Games, does it concern you that all your competitors may not be on a level playing field?
You can never really know. I definitely do not approve of drugs and would never, ever have anything to do with them. I look at it as a bit of motivation. If I can beat someone who’s actually on drugs, and had to cheat their way to the top, that’s so rewarding. In a way it’s unfair, but I really don’t look too much into it. If they’re taking it, they’ll get caught one day.
“If I can beat someone who’s actually on drugs, and had to cheat their way to the top, that’s so rewarding.”
We’re definitely starting to see that more and more. One bad choice can lead to a lifetime of looking over your shoulder.
Absolutely. It’s a very hot topic when you talk about it with weightlifters. Someone actually said to me, “They’re still training really hard. But in order to get the best recovery, they’re just taking PEDs.” But in my opinion if you’re a cheat, you’re a cheat, and you don’t deserve to be there.
Do you feel that CrossFit HQ is doing enough to police PED use within the sport?
I’m sure it will evolve. We do get tested. I’m currently on a program where they can randomly test me at any time, for both weightlifting and CrossFit; I have to let them know my whereabouts and where I’ll be, so there are systems in place. Honestly, I don’t mind. They could definitely improve it and do more randomized testing, but how they manage that is not of any concern to me. I just focus on the job at hand.
Photo: CrossFit Torian
How do you manage your weekly schedule with running your own affiliate, training for Carson and Rio, and being recently engaged (congrats by the way!)?
Thank you! I have a really great team behind me. Our team of coaches is what allows me to go away on these trips with peace of mind knowing that the gym is okay. I’ve also got a very supportive partner who I can now call my fiancée! Shane does everything for me. He’s not just my programmer and coach. He’s constantly keeping me in check and making sure I’m up to date on everything.
Just having that support there allows you to realize how lucky you are, and it motivates me to give it everything I have each day. If they’re willing to put in that effort for me, I’m willing to put in that same amount of effort to create an income, build a profile and achieve my goals. It’s hard, but easy at the same time. I’m sure there are plenty of people who have it a lot harder than I do.
Is that support network your primary motivator?
Definitely. The sacrifices that Shane has made for me…I could never repay him. The only thing that I can do is just place as best I can, so he knows that everything he’s done and sacrificed is worth it.
How important is nutrition in everything that you do?
[laughs] I won’t lie to you! I love chocolate, Thai food, curries – oh man. I love junk food. But when it comes to competition or amping up my training, my recovery needs to be on point. I try to feed my body the right nutrients, so a lot of whole foods, meats, good carbs and good fats. Food makes me happy. I go through some dark times when I’m not allowed to have whatever I want! And that’s the hardest part about my training.
What are some examples of the types of food you would consume?
I really like lamb and beef, so I’ll have a marinated steak or lamb roast with nice herbs, with some spinach leaves, avocado and sweet potato. It’s a pretty clean meal – it’s got my proteins, carbs and fats. If it’s been a particularly big session, or a long swim or run, I’ll have some rice with flavored chicken; sometimes a curry, but I’ll just make sure it’s a very clean version. I try to include seasonings that help with muscle and joint inflammation.
I love a homemade daily smoothie that gives me all my fruits and vegetables for the day, in case I’m not getting them through meals. I’ll make a smoothie with carrot, celery, cucumber, kale, spinach – blueberries, too, if they’re cheap! It’s a very refreshing way to start the day.
Have you got a cheat meal lined up when you finish the CrossFit Games!?
Oh yeah, anything and everything! Snickers, chocolate, liquorice bullets. People know that if they give me lollies and chocolate they’re in my good books for life.
What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever been given?
To have fun. If you no longer enjoy what you’re doing, you need to ask yourself why you’re doing it. Just get out there and have fun.