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Mat Fraser’s retirement has left a vacuum at the top of the men’s division at the CrossFit Games. There’s no dancing around the fact that the most dominant athlete the sport has ever seen riding off into the sunset suddenly opens up a gap of opportunity wide enough to drive an 18-wheeler full of Rogue equipment through.
The question on everyone’s mind is: Who is next?
Historically speaking the answer is a tad complicated. It should be noted that the same Mat Fraser that held a monopoly on the top of the podium for the last half-decade is also the only man in history to repeat as the runner-up at the Games as well.
That means no one left in the current competitive field of men has been able to cement themselves as the heir apparent. All five of Fraser’s title runs have resulted in a different person standing next to him on the podium with a silver medal around their neck.
- 2016: A year after winning the Games himself, Ben Smith took home the silver medal spot on the podium finishing 197 points behind Fraser, and 36 points ahead of 3rd place Patrick Vellner.
- 2017: Arguably the most clear-cut runner-up came when Brent Fikowski finished second during the first season in Madison. “The Professor,” was 216 point behind Fraser, but also a sizable 124 point margin ahead of 3rd place Patrick Vellner.
- 2018: In the final year under the “Regionals,” system Patrick Vellner finished 2nd and on the podium for the 3rd straight year ahead of 3rd and 4th place finishers Lukas Hogberg and Brent Fikowski by 56 points.
- 2019: A season of change shook things up at the Games, and Noah Ohlsen had the best crack at unseating Fraser amidst a chaotic structure in Madison. Ohlsen finished just 35 points back of Fraser for his first career podium at the Games.
- 2020: In a year where a pandemic ran roughshod through the season, dark horse Samuel Kwant showed up in a big way. Kwant shocked many by first making the “Final Five,” before taking 2nd overall at the Games in California.
The volatility of the 2nd place spot at the Games requires a deeper look at the consistency of fitness over time for some of the major players that have repeatedly performed well at the Games. Some favorites start to emerge when the scope is broadened beyond the podium.
- Bjorgvin Karl Gudmundsson (BKG): Average finish of 5.8 at the Games across five seasons. One podium finish. Finished 8th at the 2020 CrossFit Games.
- Noah Ohlsen: Average finish of 6.2 across five seasons. One podium finish. Finished 4th place at the 2020 CrossFit Games.
- Patrick Vellner: Average finish of 6.6 at the Games across five seasons. Three podium finishes. Finished 9th at the 2020 CrossFit Games.
- Scott Panchik: Average finish of 6.75 at the Games across four seasons. No podium finishes but has seven finishes of 6th or better. Returns to individual competition in 2021.
- Brent Fikowski: Average finish of 11.2 at the Games across five seasons. One podium finish. Finished 23rd at the 2020 CrossFit Games.
These numbers only capture part of the picture though, and although it is a significant chunk, it is necessary to identify outliers and exceptions that deserve to be factored in as well.
- Recency bias: Samuel Kwant, Justin Medeiros, Jeffrey Adler, Chandler Smith, and Jonne Koski all had career years in 2020. Despite not having the same body of work over time that the other listed athletes have, they are on an upward trajectory that places them in the mix as well. Inversely there were athletes like Patrick Vellner — who was dealing with a groin tear — had their recent performances at the Games hampered by injuries.
- I.D. Check: Both age and “training age,” are certainly a factor when looking beyond just the 2021 season as athletes like Kwant (24) and Medeiros (21) have time on their sides with room to develop and improve. Fikwoski, Vellner, Panchik, and Ohslen are all nearing or above the age of 30 which is typically towards the top end of a male’s athletic prime.
- Just win baby: It is also important to note which athletes absent of Mat Fraser have been able to actually scale the mountain top at competitions and win in recent years. Given the volatility of the format at the Games the past two seasons, and considering things in 2021 should be normalizing somewhat, athletes like Vellner, Fikowski, Medeiros, Chandler Smith, Koski and BKG all have wins at events over other athletes in the Games field.
The bottom line: Names like Vellner, Ohlsen, Fikwoski, and BKG repeatedly show up under the microscope, but extenuating factors make it hardly a sure thing. We’ve been fortunate in the sport to have basically a sure fire bet at the top for realistically the past decade. That’s the beauty of what is on the horizon for the 2021 season, it’s up for grabs.