Photo by David Tao

Though CrossFit has experienced impressive growth over the past decade, its evolution as a competition has been nothing short of astonishing. When the 2013 CrossFit Open came to a close this past Sunday, over 138,000 people had registered and completed at least one of the five weekly workouts meant to identify the sport’s up-and-coming stars. In order to advance to the next round of competition leading up to the Reebok CrossFit Games in July, participants needed to finish among the top 48 men or women in one of 17 regions worldwide. When the dust settled, only about one percent of all Open participants qualified for regional competitions.

One member of that elite group is 27-year-old Matt Hathcock, owner of CrossFit Unbroken in Englewood, Colorado. Matt locked up a spot at Regionals by finishing 17th in the South West, but he’s no stranger to competition. Matt impressively finished 4th in both the 2011 and 2012 South West Regionals, putting him just one slot shy of making it to the Games for two consecutive years (only the top three men and women from each region move on to the Games).

Though Matt missed out on the Games the last two years, he’s revved up his training with the goal of finally making it to CrossFit’s biggest stage. He’s come under the guidance of renowned trainer Rudy Nielsen of Outlaw CrossFit and tackled his weaknesses one by one. At 5’9” and 195 pounds, Matt now boasts a 345-pound clean and jerk, runs 400 meters in under a minute, and can bang out 71 unbroken pull-ups. Matt also won the inaugural Outlaw Open this past December, beating out some of CrossFit’s toughest competitors for the winner-take-all $10,000 prize.

Greatist sat down with Matt at a recent Outlaw seminar (where he was coaching other aspiring CrossFit competitors) to talk training, personal growth, and his hopes for the coming season.

What’s your athletic background?

I was a wrestler in high school and did some Mixed Martial Arts after high school. I ended up doing CrossFit as part of my conditioning for MMA, and then I realized I liked CrossFit more, so I transitioned to that. I’ve been competing in CrossFit as long as I’ve been doing it, so about four years.

Who manages your training now?

I’ve been competing for a while, but over the past few months I’ve been working with Rudy Nielsen of Outlaw CrossFit. I went to my first Outlaw Camp in October 2012 and have been training with Rudy ever since. A few months later I started travelling with the camps. It’s a great opportunity to bring my knowledge of the movements to the camps. The Outlaw coaches have also taught me a lot about the fundamentals of the movements.

You’ve been right on the cusp of making the Games the past few years. Is that something that drives you today?

In 2011 I was 4th place at the Regionals, and it put me just shy of going to the Games that year. In 2012 I took a different route with my programming, doing a lot more sprint intervals, but I think I ended up getting the equation wrong. I was third place going into the last workout but wasn’t able to hang, and it knocked me down to 4th place and out of Games qualification again. That’s definitely fueling me. It’s a little hard to not burn out, but I definitely think my efforts will be rewarded. I’ve changed a lot this year. I have a coach (Rudy), and I’ve never had a coach before. I’m eating a Paleo/Zone diet to manage my weight, and I’ve also been working a lot on specific weaknesses.

What are your thoughts on the CrossFit Open, and were you nervous you weren’t going to qualify again?

The workouts have been fun so far, and I’m not too worried. This might sound arrogant, but you don’t end up 4th place at Regionals two years in a row and then not end up in the top 48 for the Open unless something serious happens. This year I’m definitely a better athlete than I was last year. I’m almost 30 pounds lighter!

Wow, that’s a significant drop in weight. Have you been able to keep up your strength while cutting that weight?

Yes, I actually just hit my heaviest ever snatch, after probably a year. A few days ago I hit 265 for the first time ever, and I’m feeling good about going even heavier very soon.

How tough do you think the field is this year?

They’re all getting tough, and while there are a lot of big names in the South West, it’s probably not the toughest region out there. Honestly, I’d have to give that to Central East, because they have two former or current Games champions [Graham Holmberg and Rich Froning]. Honestly, the waters are getting so deep in this sport that every region is getting really, really tough.

When you tell people you do CrossFit, what are their reactions, and do you find people have any misconceptions about it as a sport?

I think a lot of people see the CrossFit Games and think that’s all CrossFit is. They might see it on ESPN and think, “That looks unachievable to a normal person.” So our goal is to bring them in. It’s to say, “It’s what you see on The Biggest Loser — it’s for everyone.” People have different goals, and CrossFit can fit a range of goals for all kinds of people. You don’t have to be a Games-level athlete to get benefit out of it.

CrossFit is unique in that fans can try the same workouts as the top athletes. Do you think that helps create a better connection to the sport?

I think shared suffering has been around for a long time, and it’s kind of like going to war with each other. You build tight bonds because you know that you went through a similar struggle that they did, and though it’s just a workout, it’s still tough. It’s similar to how MMA started: Everyone wanted to be a UFC fighter. And now it’s CrossFit, everyone wants to be a Games Champion. They want to compete for that title.

Anything else you’d like to tell readers?

My wife’s pregnant with a baby girl, and she’s due sometime between Regionals and the Games. The plan is get to Regionals, then have the baby, and then we’ll have a newborn watching me at the Games!

Photo (bottom) courtesty of Matt Hathcock.

Follow Matt on Twitter to learn more about his quest to make the Games.