Remember Age Ain’t Nothing But A Number
Although relatively late to the CrossFit party, former world champion Samantha ‘The Engine’ Briggs is still proving age is no limit to achieving big things
By Alice Barraclough
If you’re unfamiliar with CrossFit, it’s one of the most hardcore and punishing sports to train for and compete in. You’ve got to have the lung power to be able to run and the strength to lift heavy barbells and throw sandbags, yet also have the gymnastic capability to climb ropes and perform perfect handstands. It’s quite the skillset – and usually reserved for the fitness elite. After all, there’s a reason why the champions of the CrossFit Games are crowned ‘Fittest on Earth’.
Samantha Briggs, from Pudsey, West Yorkshire, held that exact title back in 2013. This year, aged 39, she’s still competing – is the current UK CrossFit national champion, and ranked 21st at the most recent CrossFit Games in Madison, Wisconsin, in which she was the oldest female competing.
It’s best to think of the CrossFit Games as an extreme decathlon – heats take place around the world in CrossFit gyms, and winners rise to regional contests, then to the world stage for a savage test of functional fitness. But, unlike a decathlon, which consists of 10 track and field events, the Crossfit Games typically have 12–15 events. The other catch? The exact events aren’t usually announced beforehand – because CrossFit founder Greg Glassman believes that the fittest athletes should be able to handle any given workout, whether that’s handstand push-ups or ocean swimming.
It’s fair to say Samantha is a bit of a superstar in the CrossFit world. With over 670k followers on Instagram, and nicknamed ‘The Engine’, Sam shows that with a combination of grit, training and motivation, it’s never too late to achieve your dreams.
“I didn’t start doing CrossFit until 2010 – I was 27,” she tells me. “I was a firefighter for West Yorkshire Fire Service, and we did CrossFit-style strength workouts. The boys in the firehouse would pull out a workout page from Men’s Fitness magazine and we’d do that. I was working out in my local Virgin Active and one of the personal trainers told me he thought I’d really enjoy this thing called CrossFit. I’d never heard of it before. He told me to go home, Google it, and, if I liked the sound of it, he’d take me to this CrossFit gym (or ‘box’, as it’s known) he went to.”
Samantha’s immediate reaction upon Googling CrossFit was that “it looked a little bit weird”, but she’d recently moved to Manchester, and thought it could be something fun to do on her days off. “So I went along and did my first class, and I absolutely loved it. I cancelled my Virgin Active membership the next day, and I joined the box straight away.”
The lure of CrossFit subsequently took over her life. She ranked 4th at the CrossFit Games in 2011, and was on the path to a medal in 2012 – until an injury meant she had to sit out the season. “I think some people thought I was mad when I quit the fire service to pursue a career as a CrossFit athlete,” she says. “I just knew if I was going to compete in 2013, I wanted to go all in and do it properly. I requested a sabbatical from the fire service, so I could play with being a professional athlete and if it didn’t work out I could go back to my job in six months. But then I won the CrossFit Games in 2013 and a lot of opportunities opened up.” It was clearly the right decision. “I knew that I genuinely loved training and pushing myself – and now I get to make a living by working out, what’s not to like?” she says.
This love for pushing her body to extremes isn’t anything new. As a firefighter, Samantha often had to tackle dangerous and adrenaline-fuelled situations every day. But even before that, as a child, she was competitive. “I had a younger brother. Everything that he wanted to do, I had to do but better,” she says. “Mum wanted us to try as many sports and activities as possible, so she enrolled us in everything. I played football, rugby, I swam, I even did ballet. When I retired from playing football around age 24, I started running for a club in Salford and I cycled with the guys in the fire service, before progressing to triathlons. For the first year of doing CrossFit, I actually did CrossFit to get stronger for triathlon. It worked, but then I discovered that I was better at CrossFit.” This seems to be a general rule for Samantha – she’s happy to push herself to the extremes, but only if she’s good at it. “I’m just less interested when it’s something I don’t have a natural talent for,” she adds.
But where does this love for putting her body under such unimaginably hard stress come from? “I suppose it’s something that must be ingrained in me,” she says. “I remember when I was younger, my mum and dad separated. My mum was working full time and she’d still take me and my brother to as many different activities as possible, but also then find time to go for a run or do something for herself. It didn’t matter how tired she was, she would still find the energy to keep fit. Watching how hard my mum had to work – she taught me you don’t get anywhere without determination.” At 39, and now living in Ohio, Samantha still trains every day – injury permitting, of course. “It’s my full-time job,” she reminds me – so, no, she doesn’t have any other interests. Well, apart from her dogs.
CrossFit, with its close-knit community and champions, does seem to acquire a devout following. But CrossFit is often described as more cult-like than other sports. “I’m definitely addicted to the sport. I love pushing myself, so it’s quite easy to stay passionate about it. Especially after last year, when all the competitions were online or cancelled. There’s an even greater appreciation of being able to compete in front of a live crowd, against fellow competitors. The buzz of being on that competition floor and everybody screaming for you. There’s nothing else like it. It’s just incredible.”
As long as she’s still enjoying the training and her body is healthy and capable of doing it, then she says she’s going to keep on competing. Although, with the big 4-0 on the horizon, perhaps next year will be her last. After all, CrossFit isn’t the kindest sport on the joints.
“CrossFit is a high-impact, competitive sport. Injuries are going to happen. I had a knee injury in 2012, I had to have shoulder surgery in 2016, and then elbow surgery in 2018. You just have to bulletproof your body as much as possible during training,” Samantha says. For people who like to push the limits of fitness and strength, the risks are worth it because they consider it the most challenging workout around.
And to the naysayers who claim weightlifting isn’t for girls? Samantha revels in the challenge of changing the perception of women’s sport and body image. “When people say lifting weights is going to make you manly, I say you would have to do a serious amount of weightlifting to make any drastic changes like that. How fun would it be if you’re in your 70s or 80s and you can still physically look after yourself? You can still pick up your groceries and pick up your grandkids because you started looking after yourself when you were younger?”
So the next time you’re at the gym and start complaining you might not survive your workout, imagine pulling a sled through three sections of a field, then flipping the pig (a heavy six-foot-long box) five times, before performing 12 ring muscle-ups, followed by 12 bar muscle-ups, times two, then flipping the pig another five times, and dragging the sled back across the field. Oh, all while wearing a weighted vest. Think that sounds fun? Then maybe CrossFit is for you.
For further information on CrossFit and to find your nearest gym, click here.