What started as a backyard competition among friends with a prize of $500 has now turned into a massive sporting event. This year’s prize stands at a whopping $300,000 for both men and women.
In the main category, Russia will be represented by Alexander Ilin. When we arrived to interview Alexander, he was still training. Push-ups, sit-ups, gymnastic rings – everything he does, he does effortlessly, but it took years of daily training sessions to get to this level. He took part in the 2018 CrossFit Europe Regional and at 29 became Russia’s fittest man, winning the national championship. Alexander is now ranked 46th on the CrossFit leaderboard. When the cameraman sheepishly asked him to do another set with his weights, Alexander smiled and lifted the barbell, saying: “It’s okay, you’re helping me get stronger”.
Sputnik: Alexander, tell us about the average day of an athlete, set to participate in the most prestigious CrossFit competition.
Alexander Ilin: I wake up at 7 a.m., eat breakfast and by 8:30 drive to the gym where I train for 2-3 hours. After that I have lunch and rest and by 3 p.m. I return to the gym for another training session.
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Afterwards, I once again take my meal and rest. By 7 p.m. I return to the gym, where I do cardio for an hour to an hour and a half.
Sputnik: How many hours a day do you train?
Alexander Ilin: Six hours a day, five days a week. One day is reserved for swimming and active recovery. Sunday is a complete rest day.
Sputnik: You’ve got only one day to rest. How do you spend it? Some athletes entertain themselves with hobbies. Mike Tyson raises pigeons, David Beckham does fencing, while Cristiano Ronaldo loves fishing.
Alexander Ilin: Well, they have time for hobbies (laughs). I like riding a bicycle and going to the bath house. I may take part in other sports events, run a half-marathon for example (laughs). I don’t have time for anything else.
Sputnik: Tell us then how you manage to keep everything in balance - work, training, and personal life.
Alexander Ilin: I have my own business, which doesn't take up much time - 2-3 hours a day. As for my personal life, my girlfriend does sports too and also spends most of her time in the gym (laughs). Somehow we manage to reconcile sport and our personal life. But I think if one wants to become a professional athlete, one has to be selfish, think more about himself and spend more time on himself.
Sputnik: Discipline is an inalienable part of athletes’ lives, especially when we talk about preparation for big tournaments. Do you allow yourself to have guilty pleasures - eating pizza late in the evening or drinking several glasses of beer with friends?
Alexander Ilin: I allow myself to eat something forbidden. Alcohol...Well, I can go to a pub with my friends, but it happens very rarely (laughs) and I have very small drinks.
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The issue of breaking a regimen is very individual. For some, these guilty pleasures work, but for some they don’t. Many of my friends who are professional athletes, allow themselves to have diet breaks, for others it is better not to give in to temptation.
Sputnik: Training sessions in CrossFit are very intense. What makes you go to the gym almost daily and expose yourself to heavy workloads?
Alexander Ilin: Progress. My results are improving with every training session and every training session I learn something new. My dream was to qualify for the CrossFit Games. I worked every day to make this dream come true and you see where it got me.
Sputnik: Alexander, how did you get into CrossFit, and why did you choose it?
Alexander Ilin: I did wrestling and hand-to-hand fighting, I did bodybuilding for year and at some point I grew tired of it all. I like CrossFit because here you have exercises for endurance. I already knew how to perform track and field moves and learned weightlifting techniques later.
Sputnik: Athletes are superstitious and often have some ritual which they think brings them luck. Michael Jordan wore a second pair of shorts, in which he played when he studied at North Carolina University, hockey player Alexander Ovechkin talks to his sticks before games, Serena Williams ties her shoelaces the same way every game and wears the same socks through the entire tournament. Do you have things or rituals that bring you luck?
Alexander Ilin: No. I am sceptical about such things. If one is a good athlete, why should he rely on rituals?
Sputnik: Do you mean to say that you don’t feel nervous before competitions?
Alexander Ilin: I am nervous. I am very nervous. This hinders my performance.
Sputnik: How then do you overcome performance anxiety?
Alexander Ilin: I listen to music, try to be positive, and when the competition starts come what may! (laughs)
Sputnik: The 2018 Football World Cup was a revelation for foreign guests. In an interview with Sputnik they confessed that they had pictured Russia in a different way. They thought people would be reserved and morose. Some even thought that it would be dangerous to stay here. You participated in international competitions. What was your experience of communicating with fellow athletes?
Alexander Ilin: Foreigners distance themselves a bit. (Laughs) People still think we wear ushanka-hats and sleep hugging bears. I can’t say for sure about other sports, but in CrossFit they like us.
Sputnik: What do you make of the situation with Roman Khrennikov? It is the second time in a row that he won’t compete in the CrossFit Games because he was denied visa.
Alexander Ilin: Actually, he has been denied a US visa four times, not twice. It’s unfair. Roman is my close friend, he is a great athlete who deserves to represent Russia at the CrossFit Games like no one else.
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I can’t even imagine what the reason for the denial was. Maybe, the fact that he served in the army. In my opinion, they haven’t granted him a visa now because he has a bad visa history.
Sputnik: Due to the increased tensions between Russia and the USA, those who want to travel to the US have been forced to apply for visas with US consulates abroad. Did you have any problems?
Alexander Ilin: I applied for a US visa in Nur-Sultan, Kazakhstan. I didn’t have any problems. To be honest, I wasn’t sure I would get a visa (laughs). I just prepared an application and went to the visa office. My visa is valid for 3 years. However, athletes who were to represent Kazakhstan were denied US visas, both a female and male athlete.
Sputnik: This is not the first time athletes who could win medals have been denied a US visa. Russian Greco-Roman wrestlers missed the 2018 World Cup due to the same reason.
Alexander Ilin: I believe that everything depends on the consul. US crossfitters are outstanding. Therefore, I doubt that US consulates don’t grant visas to foreign sportsmen just because these athletes may beat US crossfitters. In the case with Russia, political issues may have influenced the decision. Politicians play their games but we are the ones who suffer. We, however, can only speculate what is going on in the world of politics.
Sputnik: In other words, politics has no place in sport.
Alexander Ilin: Yes!
Sputnik: Did you receive any help from the organisers of the CrossFit Games and the Russian Ministry of Sport?
Alexander Ilin: (Laughs) No. I dealt with the visa myself. My sponsors - CrossFit Idol sports club and sports supplements store have organised my trip. And that’s all, no help from the Ministry. CrossFit is a for-profit sport and the Ministry may not be interested.
Sputnik: In your opinion, should the Russian Ministry of Sport help crossfitters?
Alexander Ilin: I don’t know. They have Olympic sports and I’m not sure they need CrossFit.
Sputnik: You've mentioned the Olympic Games and I have a follow-up question. We see more and more disciplines being added to the Olympic Games. Only this year they have added breakdance, skateboarding, sport climbing and surfing to the Olympics. How high are the chances that CrossFit will become an Olympic sport?
Alexander Ilin: CrossFit may become an Olympic sport, but the Olympics already include weightlifting, track and field, and gymnastics - these elements are represented in CrossFit. So I am not sure anyone is interested in doing it. Moreover, I believe it shouldn’t be added to the Olympic Games.
Sputnik: When CrossFit appeared, your colleagues such as athletes, weightlifters, and bodybuilders were very sceptical about it and looked down on crossfitters. They claimed that CrossFit didn’t meet the criteria of world-class sports. What about today when CrossFit is highly popular?
Alexander Ilin: I guess the scepticism is still there. However, where would weightlifting coaches and other coaches be now if it weren’t for CrossFit? Thanks to CrossFit, many weightlifters travel around the world doing workshops. In my opinion, weightlifting has benefitted from CrossFit because many crossfitters seek help from coaches. Furthermore, many weightlifters have come to CrossFit. (laughs) So now I am quite confused how to answer your question.
Sputnik: CrossFit is often criticised for its high risk of injury and heavy workloads. In your opinion, is CrossFit for everyone or can only strong young people who received physical training practice it?
Alexander Ilin: I believe that you can do CrossFit at any age. You won’t get injured if you exercise reasonably. Those who come into weightlifting don’t go to the Olympics to lift 200 kg right away, right? They increase workloads as they train. In CrossFit people do the same exercises, but they differ according to their physical abilities - there are people who lift more than 100 kg and those who only exercise with a weightless barbell.
Sputnik: When do you plan to stop taking part in competitions?
Alexander Ilin: I can’t say anything now about taking part in competitions, everything depends on my work and my family. However, I am sure that I won’t quit CrossFit. Maybe I will train but only for myself. One can’t quit training, if you start practicing CrossFit, you have to keep on doing it.
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It is addictive. If I don’t train, I don’t feel well. I am accustomed to being fit so that is why I think I will always do CrossFit. My workout will become less intense, but I won’t quit it.
Sputnik: Have you ever thought what you would do after you finish your CrossFit career?
Alexander Ilin: Well, I am a businessman so I will be pretty busy (laughs). I will dedicate 2-3 hours a day to CrossFit in any case. However, it depends on my health.
Sputnik: What are your most and least favourite CrossFit disciplines?
Alexander Ilin: I don’t like GHD sit-ups and double-unders. My favourite exercises are those with a barbell and handstand push-ups.
Sputnik: Rich Froning or Mat Fraser?
Alexander Ilin: Rich Froning. I was watching all his videos and looking for any information about him when I started practicing CrossFit. He was an inspiration to many people. I like his attitude to life and training so that’s why I choose Rich Froning over Mat Fraser. Fraser is an athlete of a different level.
Sputnik: What is your forecast, who will make it into the top three at the CrossFit Games?
Alexander Ilin: Fraser will be the winner, Patrick Vellner will be in top three and… Alexander Ilin (laughs). I don’t know, we will see. Mat Fraser used to be a weightlifter so he nails power exercises.
Sputnik: Mikko Salo, the winner of the 2009 CrossFit Games, for his snatch he lifted 83 kg, in 2019 women lift heavier weights. How will CrossFit change? Will the disciplines become “heavier”?
Alexander Ilin: The athletes’ level grows every year as well as in any other sport. This year, a new record has been set in CrossFit in snatch - 150 kg. Before, athletes used to train for 2-3 hours, now they train for 7-8 hours. (laughs) I can’t even imagine how CrossFit will evolve if the performance has improved so much in the last 10 years.