Photographed by Bruce Weber, Vogue, April 2014
For Annie Thorisdottir, the fittest woman on the planet, working out means pushing her body to the outer limits of performance—and crushing it.
If you were to search a collection of stock images for the words women and exercise, you’d end up staring at a lot of willowy young moms standing in tree pose and skinny aerobics instructors brandishing pastel-colored dumbbells. Earlier this year, though, Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg’s nonprofit LeanIn.Org foundation teamed with Getty Images to create a collection of photos that portray women in a more empowering light. The athletes it depicts have actual, visible muscles, which they can be seen putting to use in pictures with such descriptions as “Woman pressing barbell overhead in CrossFit gym,” “Woman climbing rope in CrossFit gym,” and “Smiling group of friends working out in CrossFit gym.”
CrossFit—the high-intensity workout that, depending on whom you ask, will either turn you into a superhuman or leave you in pieces—has clearly reached a tipping point as more and more women embrace its credo that, as one officially branded T-shirt puts it, “strength is beautiful.” But stock images are one thing. The face—and body—of that emerging paradigm belongs to Annie Thorisdottir, a 24-year-old Iceland native and two-time CrossFit Games champion who, after being sidelined by an injury last year, is returning to competition to try and reclaim her title as the fittest woman on Earth.
That last name translates as “Thor’s daughter,” and one look at her as she goes through her paces in front of a crowd of buff hipsters in a Brooklyn gym last spring makes the connection to the hammer-wielding Norse god clear: the long, strawberry-blonde hair; the ice-blue, almond-shaped eyes; and the complexion glowing with rude health, not to mention broad shoulders, powerful thighs, and take-no-prisoners abs. It’s a body built by (and for) hoisting barbells, flipping tractor tires, hauling sandbags, running, rowing, and, yes, swinging hammers.
Thorisdottir is currently dominating, with relentless efficiency, in a ten-minute contest of presses, dead lifts, and box jumps, against the American Lindsey Valenzuela (who will go on to finish second at the 2013 Games). “CrossFit is about living a healthy life and finding new ways to challenge myself,” Thorisdottir says, dressed for battle in a white tank top, tiny red shorts, and striped knee socks. “How can I push myself to find out what my body’s capable of? Where can it take me?”
So far, it’s helped make her (along with the three-time men’s champion Rich Froning, a former firefighter from Tennessee) CrossFit’s first real star, winning her endorsements from such brands as Reebok. The company has sent her around the world as an ambassador, added “Annie” sneakers and T-shirts to its line of apparel, and introduced her to a wider audience in a TV spot that shows her going head-to-head in the gym with former NFL wide receiver Chad Johnson.
The CrossFit recipe was first cooked up in the mid-nineties in a small gym in Santa Cruz, California, where an iconoclastic personal trainer named Greg Glassman tortured his clients with medieval workouts that combined weightlifting, gymnastics, and calisthenics. From the start, Glassman’s classes were equally divided between men and women—a ratio that’s held as CrossFit has exploded from a cultish regimen with a handful of affiliate gyms (known as boxes) to a global phenomenon with more than 9,000 boxes worldwide. Along the way, it’s evolved into a competitive sport with an annual gladiatorial contest, the CrossFit Games, which offers $275,000 to its champions along with those fittest-on-the-planet titles.
Though Thorisdottir now lives and trains in Reykjavík, she spent the first six years of her life in Vík í Mýrdal, a tiny coastal village two-and-a-half-hours southeast of the capital, and she learned how to navigate the world on its Viking-like terrain. She continues to be drawn to the outdoors (when it’s warm, she runs in the Esjan mountain range, which broods over Reykjavík from across the bay), particularly to spots where nature is at its most intense—Vík í Mýrdal’s wave-lashed black-sand beach, the breathtaking Gullfoss (Golden Falls). When the ice-capped volcano Eyjafjallajökull erupted in the spring of 2010, she and her family made a pilgrimage. “It’s insane how much power is in this earth, and you feel so close to it here,” she says. “It flows through you.”
When I visit Thorisdottir in Reykjavík just before Christmas, she invites me to her parents’ house for a dinner party that includes her two older brothers and their wives and kids. The decor is Scandinavian modern meets ski lodge, replete with a rack of reindeer antlers mounted on the wall—a trophy from one of her father’s hunting expeditions. It is a strapping, healthy-looking clan, and I’m not surprised to learn that the entire assembled throng is devoted to CrossFit.
By her family’s account, Thorisdottir showed signs of being a natural athlete when she was still in diapers, scudding across the floor on her backside instead of crawling. (“It was faster,” she explains.) Soon she was swinging from tabletops, climbing kitchen cabinets, and beating her brothers and cousins in pull-up competitions arranged by her grandfather, once receiving a prize of the Icelandic equivalent of $27—a dollar for each pull-up. “If there was a challenge, especially one with a reward, I had to win it,” Thorisdottir says.
Today she spends most of her time at the gym she co-owns, CrossFit Reykjavík, whose airplane hangar–size training floor is stocked with the tools of her trade—barbells, kettlebells, gymnastics rings, plyometric boxes, medicine balls, rowing ergometers. She trains for 90 minutes to two hours twice a day, five or six days a week, devoting morning sessions to metabolic conditioning and afternoons to strength, with a lot of mobility work and Instagram posts in between. (She also coaches three or four CrossFit classes a day.) Thorisdottir fuels all this activity with a Paleo-ish diet heavy on meat, chicken, fish, and vegetables (but free of rice, bread, pasta, potatoes, and sugar), along with a lot of non-Paleo dairy (she needs the calories). She drinks alcohol only two or three times a year but treats herself to a cheat night of ice cream and chocolate cake every Saturday.
Thorisdottir’s favorite training partner is her boyfriend, Frederik Aegidius, a 26-year-old biotechnology and business student from Denmark who also happens to be Europe’s top-ranked male CrossFit athlete. (They won their respective divisions at the Dubai Fitness Championship last fall, cementing their standing as CrossFit’s First Couple.) When I ask Aegidius how they met, he tells me that a female friend of his—as a joke—told him she’d found the perfect girl for him and then showed him a picture of Thorisdottir performing a dead lift at the 2009 Games.
Thorisdottir covers her eyes. “I was pulling on the bar, and it made me look like I had this insane six-pack,” she says. “And Frederik looked at it and said, ‘I don’t know. . . .’ ”
I point out that it probably didn’t help that the face one makes while hoisting a barbell loaded with a few hundred pounds is not one you’d put forward on, say, a dating profile.
“Annie never makes a face,” Aegidius says.
She also rarely wears anything but workout clothes. Thorisdottir swears she loves dressing up—and says that she’s come to learn what’s flattering to her body (sleeveless dresses that are clingy and low-cut) and what’s not (shirts too short to cover her midriff). And the Reebok Nanos on her feet notwithstanding, she’s got a thing for a different kind of high-performance shoe. “As a treat for winning the 2012 Games, I bought myself two pairs of heels—one Valentino and one Prada,” she says.
As a child, Thorisdottir practiced gymnastics and made the national team before quitting at age fifteen because, as she puts it, “I knew that I would never be the best in the world.” She took up ballet, studying at the Icelandic Ballet School until one day in class when she caught a glimpse of her broad shoulders in the mirror and realized, she says, “this wasn’t the body of a ballerina.” Next she tried pole vaulting and became the national champion for two years running, with an eye on the 2012 Olympics. In the end, though, she decided “it was too much of one thing, over and over.”
At a boot camp–style exercise class, she caught the eye of her instructor, Evert Víglundsson, a former soccer player and ballroom dancer who saw something in her immediately. “The efficiency of her movement was just amazing—nothing wasted, no struggle,” he recalls. Víglundsson, who had recently discovered CrossFit, encouraged her to enter the upcoming CrossFit regionals, where, he says, “she absolutely crushed it,” winning herself a spot at the 2009 Games in Aromas, California.
Thorisdottir, who would soon become known on the circuit as the indomitable “Iceland Annie,” worked her way up to winning first place in the 2011 Games, and did it again in 2012. But a few months later she severely injured herself lifting weights. She had just set a personal record of nearly 285 pounds for her back squat and, as she puts it, “got greedy,” moving on to dead lifts without an adequate warm-up. “I could feel something moving in my back, and right away I knew that this was bad,” she says. When she collapsed to the floor and couldn’t move her legs, she started to panic. The pain was so intense that it took paramedics more than an hour to get her into an ambulance. An MRI revealed that she had a bulging disc in her back, and she spent the next week in bed on painkillers, crying.
Within six weeks, though, she started rehab and returned to the gym; two months after that, she was competing in the CrossFit Open. But then she reinjured her back, this time causing nerve damage that rendered her left leg numb for months, forcing her to sit out the Games. While recovering, Thorisdottir found a pair of physical therapists in London who taught her a series of exercises designed to help nerves work more freely. Under the supervision of her coaches, she slowly returned to lifting light weights, focusing on proper form and incorporating exercises to strengthen the attachment of her core muscles to her spine. By the time I see her work out in Reykjavík, she is executing heavy snatches and thrusters with a well-oiled precision, power, and grace that she makes look effortless. Now, with little more than three months until the July Games in Carson, California, Thorisdottir can clean-and-jerk 210 pounds and is back to heavy dead lifts. “My legs are getting stronger really fast,” she says.
“She doesn’t relax,” says Carl Paoli, Thorisdottir’s current gymnastics guru. “She thrives under pressure. When you take her to the edge where she’s about to break, she will turn around, look at you, and say, ‘Watch me do this.’ And she gets it done.”
If Thorisdottir manages to get it done at this summer’s Games, it will mean another big payday, along with bragging rights as the first three-time women’s champ. The renewed exposure will also give her the leverage to expand her roster of sponsorships beyond the realm of protein powders, knee braces, and CrossFit gear. That’s not what’s driving her, though. Looking back on the first days after her injury, she remembers how vulnerable and helpless she felt, scared that she might never walk, much less compete, again. “Of course I want to win the Games, but I want to do it to show people that if there’s something you want, no matter what happens, you can find a way to do it—if there’s an obstacle in your way, you have to figure out how to get over it.”
She also wants to inspire women, especially young girls, to focus more on what their bodies can do than on how they look. “I’m not preaching that everyone should try to become a CrossFit champion,” she says. “But I want to show them that training can give them more confidence—and that being strong is beautiful.”
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