Tia Toomey walks over just as I am doing my version of a burpee, number nine of an assigned 12. You know the kind, so terribly sad-looking, so barely resembling a burpee that all one can do is hope that the people working out in the vicinity aren't looking.
Not to mention the coach, who today is the "fittest woman on earth". "Are you OK?" she asks. I stop worrying, for just a couple of seconds, that my tights are falling down and my T-shirt is riding up, and am immediately glad she doesn't ask: "What's that you're doing?"
“Yeah,” I wheeze, immediately using her presence to shave off the last three reps of the most wretched form of exercise I’ve ever known. I put my hands on my hips, acting as though I have officially wrapped up all the required moves and am ready for a bit of a chat while my teammate takes over.
“I just hate burpees,” I say, still wheezing. “Oh,” she says, laughing. “We all do.”
Toomey, who is sponsored by Reebok and has been brought over to Dubai to open the 14,300-square-foot CrossFit Gold Box at Business Bay, earned the title of the “fittest woman on earth” (yes, it’s on her email signature) earlier this year, when she placed first at the 2017 CrossFit Games in Madison, Wisconsin, in the United States.
To accomplish that task, she did up to a half-dozen workouts over four days in one of the most famously brutal events the fitness world has ever known, topping all her competitors – some of whom have 10 kilograms on her 58-kilogram, 158-centimetre frame. Some could argue she earned it a year earlier, when she placed second at the CrossFit games in California, a mere two weeks before she represented Australia at the Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro, qualifying for the national team after only 18 months training in the sport. Although she wasn’t disappointed with her Olympic finish, she admits that second place at the CrossFit Games, her second in as many years, was really hard to take.
“That was an interesting feeling, because I was so happy and honoured to be on the podium, but I wasn’t happy within myself,” she says. “And that’s when I decided the following year I was going to win it.”
Her partner of 10 years, Shane Orr, whom she recently married, is also her coach and biggest champion. She defers to him in all matters pertaining to fitness: "When it's competing, he's the boss, I listen to what he says." Orr counters: "We spend a lot of time together. That's a good thing." Orr explains that the missing ingredient last year, was confidence. "To know what her limitations are," Orr explains. "Not the limitations of the person next to her."
CrossFit devotees have their own language – “amraps” are as many reps as possible; “met con” is a metabolic conditioning workout; and a “box” is a gym – and are as notorious for their zealotry as their musculature.
Toomey is a walking case in point. Her arms are bigger than mine, but in a good way, with biceps that compete with her eyes for my attention. She's been criticised for having overly defined abdominal muscles, with some people calling them gross online.
They are astonishing, but in a good way, appearing as though they've been painted on. And the interesting thing is, her back looks much the same. In fact, everything about Toomey is taut. She is ripped and she oozes energy. When it comes time to grab a kettlebell from across the gym, she trots over as if buoyed on a breeze. Her burpees are actually effervescent. She almost floats through them. You'd never know she wasn't a fan.
It’s all the result of four years training for six hours a day in the gym, six days a week. Knowing that, it’s hard to imagine Toomey being anything but obsessed with fitness, having exercised when she was a child, and ran track and field and hurdles in high school. But when she got to university to study nursing and exercise movement, with an eye to a career in midwifery or as a paramedic, she became so focused on her degree that the lifelong athlete just up and quit any and all physical activity.
“That’s when I noticed I felt like I was failing in life,” she recalls. “In my mind, I felt like it got a little bit dull, I just wasn’t happy or satisfied within myself. I felt really tired all the time, I wasn’t energised, I was really short of breath, and I just totally lost all my fitness and, I guess, lost a lot of strength in my legs.” That’s why, despite her punishing fitness schedule and a strict diet (she doesn’t eat any grains, but loves dairy, with yogurt and granola being her favourite snack), Toomey advises others to always make sure they have balance, adding in fitness as well as socialising with friends. Everyone goes through ruts, she says, but “being a hermit means not having quality in your life”.
Her rut ended when Orr got a job in Gladstone, Queensland. Toomey put off her degree, started running again and tried out CrossFit one day at his suggestion. Ever competitive, Toomey was irked when she wasn't allowed to do all the CrossFit tricks at the outset.
“I wanted to do a handstand push-up, I wanted to do all these advanced movements, but the coach wouldn’t let me for safety reasons,” she says. “When I got told that, I said: ‘Well, I’m not going back to a gym that’s not going to help me develop’, so that was what was hard.” Orr encouraged her to come back, as she needed more conditioning to help with an upcoming race and “running around a track” wasn’t cutting it. “I forced myself to pay for a month’s membership,” she says. “And that was it.”
Toomey, who owns her own CrossFit gym back in Australia, doesn’t actually work out with our class at the CrossFit Gold Box, which includes the gym’s similarly hard-bodied roster of coaches. But she does check in regularly to make sure we are all doing everything properly. I listen, because as the fittest woman on the planet, she would know.
In Toomey’s future? Obviously endless burpees – the perfect kind. And up next, more weightlifting, including one last qualifier for the Commonwealth Games in Carrara, Australia, in April. “Fingers crossed, I make it, and that’s going to be my next goal,” she says. “I’m going to try to podium at the Commonwealth Games.”