We want to believe that the elite athletes have everything we don’t. The heavy snatches on social media. The selfies showing a formidable physique. But that isn’t what truly makes them great. It is, instead, the willingness to be humbled and the ability to patiently push for fractional improvements. What most people don’t realize is the best athlete —the strongest or most talented— is often not the one atop the podium. The smartest one is.
How scary it was then to watch Colleen Fotsch at this year’s Granite Games, chipping away at a Day 1 deficit, never finishing outside of the Top 15. The former Olympic-level swimmer showed over a career-long four-day competition that it is her mettle, not the shiny first-place purse that competitors should take note of.
“She’s an athlete to the core. Her routine, her consistency, everything about her is about being a successful athlete, which is unique,” said Fotsch’s coach, Mike Lee. “A lot of people say they are all-in but show things in their lifestyle or other areas [that prove otherwise]. If you look at her life, everything points in the right direction. It’s few and far between to get an athlete that dedicated toward a goal.”
In Fotsch’s world, nothing is unaccounted for. Rest days are purposeful, filled with a few low-intensity pieces. The 28-year-old, working towards a masters in kinesiology from Michigan State University, has a homework schedule to stay on track. Even in nutrition, Fotsch —who started working with a coach two years ago— is meticulous.
“I travel with a food scale everywhere I go,” Fotsch said. “It’s so competitive now [at the elite level], if you aren’t doing everything you can, you are kind of shooting yourself in the foot. I don’t think everyone needs to be as crazy about it as I am, but I do think it’s really good for people to be knowledgable about what they put in their mouth. It’s been empowering for me to take the reins [on that].”
“My rationale is if it’s something I can control and that can make me better why wouldn’t I commit to it?”
Still, there was a time Fotsch wasn’t sure if she could commit to CrossFit at all.
For as long as she can remember — at least through high school— there was a nagging ache in her shoulders. Sometimes they’d feel fine. Other times they wouldn’t.
It was something Fotsch, who swam butterfly, just learned to deal with. After all, a lot of swimmers have overuse injuries in their shoulders, a result of thousands and thousands of grueling, repetitive laps in the pool from a young age. For Fotsch, a two-time NCAA Champion at UC Berkley, shoulder discomfort came with the territory.
When she got into CrossFit in 2014, after watching Regionals as a fan that year, Fotsch again found ways to work around the flare-ups. By 2016, she was a rising star, having ascended from 23rd to seventh in the ultra-competitive California Regional. If she just kept grinding, she figured, she’d qualify for the CrossFit Games the following year.
But training later that summer was a mess. The occasional scale for her shoulders morphed into every day pain and the frustration was enough to send Fotsch to get an MRI. If nothing else, to give her some peace of mind.
She was on her way to the gym to coach when she got the phone call that made her heart drop. She had an 80 percent tear in her left rotator cuff. If she wanted to keep working out, she needed surgery immediately.
“At the time, I felt like it was over. It feels like the world is coming to an end,” said Fotsch, who scheduled surgery for that fall. “CrossFit is such a huge part of me and being an athlete is such a huge part of who I am.”
Surgery did not go as expected. The damage was worse than the MRI had shown, with Fotsch likely suffering the tear in college. She had been unknowingly layering kipping movements, heavy lifting and lots of volume on top of a wonky shoulder.
“The surgeons, my coaches were [both] saying, ‘You’ll be back in three to four months’. I went in thinking, ‘Ok, this won’t be that bad’,” Fotsch said. “But I was in a sling for nearly two months. I couldn’t start rehab for another month. And the rehab was horrible.”
Fotsch, who has a lot of people on Instagram in similar situations reach out to her, said she tries to prepare them.
“It would have helped if someone was a little more real with me, so I could mentally wrap my head around it,” she said of the long, arduous recovery process. “It’s not the physical part, but the mental part. At the time, I was coaching full time and the last place I wanted to be was the gym. It put me in a space where I started to think, ‘OK do I really want to keep doing this?’”
It was months before Fotsch could lift her arm over her head. She needed assistance for everything. Little things, like putting her hair in a ponytail, were impossible.
When she was finally cleared, push-ups were on her knees. Planks terrified her. She wanted to compete, but at what cost? She knew she couldn’t go through this again.
Little by little, Fotsch started to come back. By May her team, NorCal, was standing atop the podium at the California Regional punching its ticket to the 2017 the CrossFit Games.
“Now, when I’m having a really hard day in the gym I like to remind myself of those days when I would have given anything to have a crappy, [healthy] day at the gym,” Fotsch said. “I wouldn’t wish that journey on anyone, but you do look back and it all worked out.”
It’s an inspiring success story. But Fotsch wanted more.
“It seems to be a law of nature, inflexible and inexorable, that those who will not risk cannot win.” – John Paul Jones
It’s been the craziest thing she’s ever done, the regimented Fotsch packing up her things and moving out to Arizona last fall.
It had been eating at her for quite some time. Was she really doing enough? Fotsch, who briefly served as Cal’s strength and conditioning coach after her swimming days were over, wasn’t sure. A voracious learner, she was constantly wondering in the months after the Games if there was something missing.
She found it in the Grand Canyon State, where Fotsch –whose ambition beat out her fear– moved to work extensively with Lee. Gone were the team of specialists: a nutrition coach, a barbell coach, a gymnastics coach, etc. Lee, under the all-encompassing OPEX model, would do all that now.
The pair had met several years back through the now-defunct National Pro Grid League and linked up through mutual friend Tennil Reed. Fotsch knew after ’17 that she wanted to compete as an individual. The challenge was simple: How could they make her shoulder strong enough to handle the volume required?
“She didn’t do any kipping for the first four to five months at least, everything was strict,” Lee said. “She was doing basic skill progressions, hollow taps on the bar so we could watch her shoulder move. That’s a long process. It’s not fun to just do strict isometric movement.”
Fotsch’s shoulder stability wasn’t the only overhaul. Everything from her recovery approach to her mentality was fine-tuned in Arizona. If shoulder surgery had taught her what adversity was like, Arizona showed Fotsch how to get past it.
“As an athlete, you learn so much from the lows and a lot from the highs.” Lee said.
“She’s learned to open up about some of those challenges and struggles, about what’s going on in her head, what she’s challenged with. She’s able to talk through it and move past it. And that speaks to her growth as an individual. She’s learned a lot since she’s been here about herself and her journey as an athlete. Thats as important to me to grow. She’s one of the strongest-strongest-mindset based athletes I know.”
That mental toughness was on full display in St. Cloud Minnesota. Fotsch had never done a four-day individual competition and put on a tremendously consistent performance to win the Granite Games. Her shoulders and body felt the best they ever have. So did her mind.
“Everyone can do well on Day 1 and Day 2 and day 3 but how do you show up on day 4 when you’re emotionally physically and mentally tired?” she said. “You go in hoping things will go seamlessly but it never does. It’s being able to move on to the next event.”
Fotsch is no longer afraid to take weeks off, like she did earlier this month after the WZA online qualifiers. She knows where the finish line is, and she’ll do everything in her power to get there: to compete at the CrossFit Games as an individual.
“The one thing I can say for sure is I’m by far the best version of myself Ive ever been. That’s what gives me confidence,” she said.
“A few years ago these changes [coming to the Games qualification in 2020] would have scared me a lot more, but I feel so confident in where I am as a person, as an athlete and the program I’m with. That gives me a lot of peace of mind and also makes me really excited for this year and the years to come.”