I don’t usually comment on the “celebrities” in the CrossFit space. The CrossFit Games, sanctional competitions and the standings of the most elite players in the sport of fitness – they are unquestionably inspiring and perform at and have built levels of capacity in fitness to which we all aspire. But they’re also, to the vast majority of the legion of everyday CrossFit affliliate gym-goers, unicorns. They are so far and removed from normal that they are almost their own species – so fit, so capable, so powerful – that it’s difficult to imagine being like them. And yet, we do. Like others at the professional end of the sports for which we have a passion, we aspire to be like them. And Mat Fraser is more notable than most – because he didn’t really seek the spotlight, he sought to be the best he could possibly be at the sport of fitness and the spotlight followed.

Names like Gretzky and Crosby, Jordan, Bryant and James, Williams, Graf, Sampras, Federer, Pele, Ronaldo, Hamm, Marta, Akers… the list of the greatest in sports history now includes another name – Fraser. Another name cementing a legacy defined by individual performance in a sport defined by its variance, making it arguably one of the most difficult sports in which to compete and come out on top. Which makes Fraser’s accomplishments in his time in the sport – first joining a CrossFit gym in 2012 – all the more impressive. In 2014 and 2015, he took second at the CrossFit games. In 2016, 2017, 2018, 2019 and 2020 – he was the champ. And in 2020 won by a more decisive margin that anyone in CrossFit Games history, winning with almost as many points and second and third place finishers combined. 

What I think I appreciate about Mat Fraser is the quiet confidence he’s had in the sport. Yes, in interviews he can come off as a little cocky. I don’t mind that so much. He’s not flagrant about it. He doesn’t put others down, he doesn’t trash talk. He simply says he’s putting in the work and it shows in his performance. And for anyone to have a leg to stand on when comparing themselves to him, they have to demonstrate it on the competition floor, because that’s where it counts. He’s not boisterous about it. He hasn’t been on social media all that long, but like anyone in a position like he is, he had joined that world in part to satisfy the needs of his sponsors and to help him fulfill the role he has as a leader in a growing sports community. I still get the impression he’s not super comfortable with the spotlight, and that spotlight has gotten brighter in each and every year he’s been competing and winning. And it’s been a very long time since he wasn’t winning.

So after five years at the very top of the sport, while it would be cool to have him stick around at the top, I have to confess, I think he’s making a smart call. As he said in his public statement about retirement,

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Except for a few weeks in August, when I allow myself a break, my focus has been relentless.

I’ve passed up vacations, bachelor parties, and more dates with Sammy than I can count, all so I wouldn’t miss a single training session or a full night of sleep.

His competitive life has been his life. And to be as good as he has been for as long as he has, the sacrifices have been enormous and exhausting. I commend him for making this decision. Even though he states that it’s an easy decision, in some ways, I’m sure it’s not. The easy part is to decide what you want to make the most important thing in your life. The hard part is following through with that and disrupting what had become your lifestyle.

There’s three really amazing bright spots to Mat Fraser making this decision now:

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He leaves at the absolute top of his game.

He didn’t just win the Games this year, he absolutely dominated the competition and did so right along side his training partner, the greatest of all time in the sport on the women’s side, Tia-Clair Toomey-Orr, even crossing the finish line hand in hand. That was an amazing sight, and with his retirement announced, it takes on an even more special meaning – and image and feeling that will live on with CrossFitters for decades to come.
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Other great competitors will have a new opportunity to shine.

A dominant player like Mat Fraser casts a very tall and dark shadow across the competition floor. In part it’s the expectation, then it’s the actual performance, and then the post-event frenzy. It’s hard for other competitors to shine when the attention is magnetically drawn to the unicorn on the floor. The Chicago Bulls had a fantastic bench of some of the best basketball players in the world playing along side Michael Jordan. Would they have broken through and gotten substantial media attention if they had been on other teams at the same time? Were they made better by Jordan’s presence and vice versa? What about greats on other teams during the Jordan era? Other formidable competitors in the mens field – Fikowski, Ohlsen, Gudmundsson, Heppner, Smith, Kwant, Medieros – they’ve all been pushed to be better with Mat Fraser’s ever expanding skillset and fitness level, and he’s been pushed by them getting better during the chase – but his absence also gives each of them a bit more of an opportunity to break through and make a name for themselves in a way that just wouldn’t be the same with Fraser remaining on the competition floor.
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Whatever Mat’s pursuit to come will be, it will benefit from his not being in competition.

Mat doesn’t seem like the sort of guy to do something without a plan. He’s not retiring to “see what happens” and instead retiring to “do what’s next.” And whatever that “next” is not only benefit from his undivided attention, but would clearly also not be possible while he’s competing when he’s made it clear that when he’s competing his every decision – and sacrifice – is made with improving his competitive readiness. Those two things just couldn’t live side by side. So whatever his next pursuit is – and I can’t imagine it’ll be long before we have a clearer picture of just what that is since the interest in what he’s doing will undoubtedly hit a fever pitch as this year’s post-Mat-Fraser CrossFit Games season gets underway starting March 11th – he’ll undoubtedly rededicate himself relentlessly to its success the same way he did as a competitor.

So, as a fellow 5’7” CrossFit athlete aspiring to make myself faster, stronger, fitter and more capable than I was yesterday, I wish Mat Fraser all the best in this next chapter. I’m not sure we can reasonably call it retirement since he’s fifteen years younger than I am. He’s simply changing jobs, like so many of us do. He’s shifting to another phase of his career that doesn’t involve competition, but still involves CrossFit and the community he joined in 2012. It’s a community that has most certainly benefitted from his time in the sport, creating excitement, giving us someone to root for, pushing the boundaries of what’s possible and bringing the rest of the field with him. And beyond being the five-time CrossFit Games champ, that legacy too, is one for which Mat Fraser will be remembered – fondly.

Well done Mat. And good luck in the next chapter.

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