While Iceland’s queen of CrossFit recovers from a debilitating injury, Annie Thorisdottir learns to hold back — but not quit — to allow a possible three-peat win at the Games.

One day last November, Annie Thorisdottir revved up for CrossFit Total. After blowing her previous record away with a 281-pound back squat, she busted out a 121-pound shoulder press, and then transitioned to a deadlift. She felt strong that day, unstoppable even, and it turned against her. She added too much too quickly. “I was really greedy,” she says. “I wanted another PR.” Then Thorisdottir “did the worst deadlift of [her] life.” High on victory, she failed to set up properly, yanked the 375-pound bar off the ground, and immediately knew something was wrong. Somehow, she had the adrenaline to get upstairs into the locker room, then fell to the floor and couldn’t move. She didn’t walk for a week.

Her L5 disk had shifted, and with it her world. The twice-crowned Fittest Woman on Earth was in the throes of a dreaded injury, the first debilitating occurrence of her athletic life. In earlier interviews and documentaries, Annie made it clear that injury was the only possibility on the horizon hindering the achievement of her goals. The immeasurable expanse of her talent and drive could only be tempered by being hurt. Being injured took a toll on more than her workouts. “You feel so vulnerable,” she says. “I thought I would never train again.”

For six weeks, she didn’t touch a barbell. Over time, she tested her back, gingerly adding range of motion and easing into load. She was surprised by how quickly her strength returned, and, several months into physical therapy by the time the Open started, she felt good during the Open workouts, even demonstrating 13.2 in its unveiling. (Yes, Annie demonstrated 13.2 while she was still technically injured — that was her version of taking it easy.) Finally, in late March, her doctor and physical therapist gave her the approval to train in earnest. She was healed.

The next day, the unthinkable happened. While doing heavy back squats, something felt amiss. Her leg was bothering her. She contemplated stopping, but instead backed off the weight and worked in a few more reps. Then, at the bottom of a squat, her left leg went numb. She crumbled under the weight, and the bar pinned her down. She re-injured her back.

She was devastated. She posted via social media that she could “not even try to express how disappointed and angry [she was at herself], but things happen.” Of course, feeling disappointment at a time like this makes sense, but why, I asked her, was she angry with herself? “Because I felt I should stop,” she says. “My legs were so tired. I should have stopped. I had the attitude that I didn’t want to let myself get away with it just because I didn’t want to do it. But that attitude might need to change.”

This is the kind of person Thorisdottir is: To get better, she’s learning to hold back. Thorisdottir’s mind is always able to handle more; she never quits mentally. “That’s one of the things that makes me ‘me.’ I don’t feel like I need to stop at any point. Quitting has never been an option.” But the question she asks herself now is how does she stay true to herself — her unbelievable drive and toughness — while still determining when to let her body off the hook? Thorisdottir says this is a new priority: learning to trust her instincts, to read her body a little more carefully, to quiet the pit-boss in her mind who doesn’t allow her to put the bar down. While the average athlete is learning how to push harder, Thorisdottir is talking herself down.

Thorisdottir attributes her work ethic to history. Being a competitive gymnast in her childhood helped her learn how much she can handle. She made it to Iceland’s national team before quitting to concentrate on academics. Such high-caliber coaching helped her learn to organize her workouts and push herself physically.

Gymnastics aside, her fami ly is competitive. Physicality is built into the culture of her family, which celebrates the new year annually with feats of strength and physical prowess. For all of Thorisdottir’s life, her family has reiterated that the body is meant to work hard.

Finally, Thorisdottir is Icelandic. Her native country is forged from volcanic activity and ice, like something out of a Sci-Fi movie. Rock freezes and thaws, stumbles and slides, forming a formidable and breathtaking landscape perfect for testing Darwin’s Theory of Natural Selection. The land is stoic, powerful, and bleak. There is a long history of humans fighting tooth and nail for survival, and the genetic consequences vmanifest in badass-ness. Thorisdottir says that people in Iceland are always active and competitive, and she sees a difference in athletic culture in Iceland, something made obvious when she travels. That’s why CrossFit works so well for Icelanders, and Icelanders work well for CrossFit.

Perhaps this is a contributing factor to the huge success of CrossFit Reykjavik, the box Thorisdottir co-owns with two partners. They teach 19 classes a day and are about to move to a larger facility. This is where Thorisdottir trains and coaches. Even if she’s not coaching or training, she hangs around to encourage her athletes. Her family — parents and two older brothers — work out at CrossFit Reykjavik, and she makes a point of being there whenever they are so she can cheer them on and coach them. When her boyfriend, Danish Games competitor Frederik Aegidius, is in Reykjavik, they train there together. For the past few months, they’ve spent most of their time in the same country as one another, offering each other support and motivation. “We push each other,” she says. “Having somebody you trust to watch lifts, help record, check form, is great. We’re both really competitive, so we push each other in the workouts. When I’m tired, he drags me, and vice versa.”

When I spoke with Thorisdottir, she was in Orlando, Fla., attending the Europa Fitness Expo and posing for photos with Nutriforce Sports. (This is where she beat NFL running back Justin Forsett in a push-up contest. Find the video. It’s magnificent.) Before we spoke, I wondered if she would seem discouraged by her circumstances, but not at all. She was in good spirits, clear minded, happy. Perhaps it’s easier to keep in perspective when everything you touch turns to gold, and you have a demanding and loving support system. Despite a Games threatening injury, life is good for Thorisdottir: She loves her work, is well-loved, and is challenged. Her business is thriving, sponsors are still calling, her family is healthy and supportive, and she’s in a strong relationship with someone who nurtures her ambition.

Success, drive, and community are nothing new to Thorisdottir. “If I decide to do something, I do it 100 percent or I don’t bother,” she says. “If I pick something out that I’m gonna do, I go all the way. I’ve always done that.” This trait influenced her decision to put medical school on hold last year. She knew she would have to cut corners somewhere if she continued to compete, coach, co-own a box, and be a medical student. However, now that her gym and career are well established, she’s ready to resume her education. She has applied to the University of Copenhagen in Denmark to become a sports psychologist and may begin next fall.

Keep smiling, Annie Mist. It makes us feel closer to the heights we can’t reach ourselves.

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