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Meet the fittest folks in the world, built in a gym in Natick

Ben Bergeron has trained some of the CrossFit world’s highest achieving athletes. Their mental game matters as much as their muscle.

It was the spring of 2014, inside a packed arena in Copenhagen, and all eyes were on Katrin Davidsdottir as she looked up at a metal rig with a long rope hanging from it. None of them could believe what they were seeing.

She had come into this final event in the lead, a rising star from Iceland built better than a statue, and now women were racing up ropes all around her, finishing while she stood and stared up.

It was just a rope. After all this. Yet she had failed already, then failed again, her arms blasted after days of events. The European championship was gone, and she could feel herself spiraling to sixth place in these regional games, which would keep her from advancing to what many thought she would win: the world CrossFit Games.

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She took another deep breath, jumped for the rope, and began muscling her way up, shredded arm over shredded arm (no legs allowed), until she had yanked herself one step from the end and everyone in the arena was out of their seats and screaming. And then she failed again.

She had only to make one final reach, just tap the top of the rig to complete the move, but when she jerked toward it, it was a movement of a body that had already given in to devastation, and she slid down the rope, collapsed to the arena floor, and broke down, her fellow competitors rushing to console her.

As the sobs rolled through her body, she knew two things already: She never wanted to feel this feeling again, and she knew exactly what was next. She had already known, but it took this moment to believe it.

Ben Bergeron. She would have to move from Iceland to Natick, Massachusetts, and let a man named Ben Bergeron help build her into the Fittest Woman on Earth.

And he did.

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On a Monday in Natick, Ben Bergeron is finishing up his morning workout as CrossFit New England clangs and clamors around him. It’s a fairly typical CrossFit gym (there are 13,000 of them worldwide) in that it’s ugly on the outside, hard to find, and stowed away in an industrial area, this one a cluster of warehouses near the Mass. Pike. Bergeron, the man who runs it, happens to be one of the sport’s most respected coaches.

Ben Bergeron puts Katrin Davidsdottir through her paces at CrossFit New England.  She trains five or six days a week for up to eight hours each day.
Diana Levine
Ben Bergeron puts Katrin Davidsdottir through her paces at CrossFit New England. She trains five or six days a week for up to eight hours each day.

So far this morning he’s taken a class led by one of his coaches and filled with the moms and dads of Natick — the incredibly fit moms and dads of Natick. After that he went into a side room, took his shirt off, and did an intense interval session of treadmill running and ab work that, at age 40, earned him that shirt off.

Bergeron’s workout, like everything in his life, will be entered — and then reviewed critically — into the Excellent Life Organizer, a spreadsheet on his computer. “It’s about defining what’s important in your life and then setting goals that are actionable, measurable, accountable, and personal,” he says in coachspeak, which is his natural speak.

At the beginning of each month, he gathers his wife, Heather, who is also a competitive CrossFit athlete, and their two older children, and together they set goals for the coming month and give each other tough grades on their goals from the previous one. For the last three years, Katrin Davidsdottir has been there, too.

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At 24, she is now the Fittest Woman on Earth.

Shortly after the collapse in Copenhagen, she moved in with the family and gave herself over to be “Built by Bergeron,” as the gym’s T-shirts announce. “We call her a daughter,” Bergeron says. She committed herself to a training regimen and mental lifestyle that had one goal — to build a superhero. And she has. Davidsdottir is the two-time (2015 and 2016) defending champion of the Reebok CrossFit Games. She’s most recently been spending six to eight hours a day, five or six days a week training for this year’s games, taking place August 3-6 in Madison, Wisconsin. The woman and man who achieve first place will each take home $275,000.

For Davidsdottir, training is not just about building muscle and endurance. “Most coaches help you get better at pullups or rope climbs,” Davidsdottir says, “but they won’t work with you on your mind. With Ben we focus a lot on the mentality of it and who we are. We don’t just spend time at the gym; we read books, listen to podcasts, talk to each other a lot, communicate.”

CrossFit was created in 2000 by a former gymnast named Greg Glassman, and it’s really just a combination of many exercise schools — military boot camps, Olympic weightlifting, gymnastics, plyometrics, calisthenics — all performed, typically, at high intensity. The engine at the heart of most CrossFit workouts is simple: Keep moving.

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Every day in each gym (or “box”), the Workout of the Day — or WOD — is written on the  board. Some gyms follow the WOD issued by D.C.-based CrossFit headquarters, while others program their own. The WOD is usually done in a class at a gym, and often in teams or with partners, powering through shoulder to shoulder. You can’t stop planking, for instance, until your partner does 10 burpees. And while everyone does the same workout, there are always options to scale down each movement or choose an alternative, making each WOD open to all levels.

Some WODs are intense and over in 10 minutes; others are an intentional grind that can go for 40 minutes or more. But with the warm-up and cool-down, CrossFit usually requires no more than an hour. You’re in, you’re out, and you didn’t even have to think about what you were going to do.

Those who love CrossFit really love it; more than 4 million worldwide do. And those who do not are tired of those who do. CrossFit is rife with social media over-sharers chugging its electrolyte-infused Kool-Aid. And anything that has trademarked the phrase “The Sport of Fitness” is just asking for it. They’ve all heard the quote from Kenny Powers, the fictional baseball player on HBO’s Eastbound & Down. “I play real sports. I’m not trying to be the best at exercising.”

And then there is the injury problem, or rather the question of whether CrossFit even has an injury problem. A 2013 study by researchers at Ohio State questioned whether the “risk-benefit ratio for such extreme training programs” made sense. CrossFit headquarters promptly sued the researchers, arguing the injury data were faulty and “intended to scare participants away from CrossFit.”

CrossFit won . . . and lost. The study was eventually retracted, acknowledging problems with the data, but the damage had been done and in many ways pushed CrossFit further into that easy image of a cult that goes after anyone who dares question it.

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Bergeron grew up in Wellesley and started out as a personal trainer who ran boot camp-style classes with equipment he carried in the back of his SUV. He discovered CrossFit in 2006, and 10 years ago he opened CrossFit New England, training regular Joes as well as some of the first competitors in the new sport of CrossFit.

“I had been doing Ironman triathlons, and I tried CrossFit for three months and I was in better shape than from three years of triathlon training, and it just spoke to me. It felt like the way humans were supposed to move and look and train. The movements were natural and essential and functional. It wasn’t about physique or how long you could do something. It encapsulated every component of fitness that I was looking for, and it just made sense.”

Bergeron had some early success, including with his own wife, whom he’d met when he was an instructor and she a trainer at Boston Sports Clubs. He began building and recruiting a roster of athletes, but the arrival of Davidsdottir catapulted him to his current lineup, which includes two men and two women who placed in the top 10 at the CrossFit Games last year.

“I’d had a whole bunch of athletes go to the games and do well, but when Katrin came to me, I was still a pretty average coach, and she was an average games athlete,” says Bergeron. “But after what happened to her [in Copenhagen], she was ready to show me what the level of dedication and commitment looks like inside a champion. I would give her feedback, exercises to work on her mental game, and she would do them completely and we’d very quickly see the effects of it.” He made her a better athlete, he says, but she made him a better coach by showing him how well the mental training could work

At 9:30 a.m., Davidsdottir arrives at the gym and begins the first step in the process — CrossFit devotees love words like “process’’ — which is to lounge on a mat in a side room and meditate.

Even in repose, she is a sinewed marvel. The body of a competitive CrossFit athlete has almost no comparison in the sports world. Like a muscular gymnast, multiplied by two.

 She has built her physique to handle everything she might face in the five long days of the CrossFit Games: Five-mile trail runs. Swims in choppy open waters. Flipping huge tires the length of a football field. Walking on your hands. Sprinting. Cardio tortures. “Murph” — a workout done in honor of a fallen Navy Seal that is a 1-mile run, then 100 pullups, 200 push-ups, and 300 squats, then another 1-mile run, all while wearing a weight vest, against the clock. Whatever the organizers can come up with, she needs to be ready for.

Two-time champ Katrin Davidsdottir heads to the CrossFit Games again next month to compete for $275,000.
Diana Levine
Two-time champ Katrin Davidsdottir heads to the CrossFit Games again next month to compete for $275,000.

Every second of her training is micromanaged in a specific program created by Bergeron. He will correct her form. He will place his hand on her pulse as she rows. He will repeat the coaching mantras. And he will push her.

This usually works incredibly well, but sometimes it does not. After several hours of training on this day, Davidsdottir is getting frustrated by too many misses as she tries to snatch a bar cleanly off the floor and catch it over her head while she jump-squats.

Bergeron can see she’s losing focus and tells her to take a break, which by his standards means hopping in with the class coming in the door and doing the regular WOD — a grueling workout that has left most of the people who’ve attempted it lying in a pool of sweat.

This one involves wallballs, pullups, thrusters, box jumps, and kettlebell swings. Do each one 21 times, moving down the line. Then a set of 15. Then nine.

Davidsdottir cruises through the WOD in 7:25. She doesn’t bother to record her time on the board where scores are left for the week, and instead goes straight to the side room to go after the snatches again. Seven minutes later, a muscular man winds up the WOD and collapses in a puddle on the gym floor — finishing second.

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It’s a freezing day in Colchester, Vermont, just northeast of Burlington, and Mat Fraser is mad because a fresh 2 feet of snow means he can’t go to the outdoor gun range where he was planning to spend the rest of his day firing his AR-15.

Fraser is the Fittest Man on Earth, arguably the biggest star in the sport at the moment, and he is also technically one of Bergeron’s athletes. But if Davidsdottir’s training resembles Ivan Drago’s, Fraser trains like Rocky, mostly in his parents’ basement. During his final two years as a student at the University of Vermont, he finished second at the CrossFit Games. Last year, he crushed everyone in the most dominant performance in history, and like Davidsdottir, he’s about to compete in the CrossFit Games in Wisconsin.

Sometimes the 27-year-old Fraser follows the workouts Bergeron sends him. Sometimes he does his own thing. Sometimes he sits around watching reruns of The Office, ticked off that he can’t get to the range.

Fraser’s parents, Don and Candace, were a pairs figure skating team — two-time winners of the Canadian Figure Skating Championships who competed at the 1976 Olympics before settling in northern Vermont. Mat began weight lifting in middle school, and for years seriously pursued an Olympic career. For fun, he and his weight-lifting buddies would watch CrossFit “fail” videos on the Internet. The sport of fitness? Please.

He retired from weightlifting in 2011 and kinda sat around for too long.

“I got fat,” he says. Eventually he tried a few CrossFit workouts and found he was naturally good at it and naturally built for it. He’s short and stocky — 190 pounds of beef on a 5-7 frame that can sprint. He entered a competition at his home gym, won $500, and figured he might make some extra cash in these silly CrossFit competitions while he was still in school. It was awhile before he told his weight-lifting buddies about his new interest.

He met Bergeron in passing on the regional circuit, and their paths intersected again when Bergeron was hosting a competition with a good-size purse and Fraser didn’t have the $100 to get in.

Bergeron had posted a video of one of his top athletes doing a workout called “Godzilla” — legless rope climbs, snatches, back squats, and handstand push-ups. He said anyone who could post a video beating the eight or so minutes it had taken Bergeron’s guy to finish could get in for free.

Fraser did the workout and beat the time, but he had trouble uploading his proof by the deadline and e-mailed Bergeron asking if he could get an extension.

What was your time? Bergeron asked.

Fraser replied 2:47.

You screwed up, Bergeron responded. You were supposed to do three rounds.

I did three rounds, Fraser told him.

Bergeron replied immediately: I want you to drop out of college and come live with me. I’ll make you a world champion.

“I thought This guy’s crazy,” Fraser says. “I Xed out of that conversation.”

 Vermont’s Mat Fraser, who won the CrossFit regionals East  this year, believes in Bergeron’s pep talks. “He’ll make us think we’re capable of running through a brick wall.”
CrossFit Inc.
Vermont’s Mat Fraser, who won the CrossFit regionals East this year, believes in Bergeron’s pep talks. “He’ll make us think we’re capable of running through a brick wall.”

Fraser stayed in school but committed to CrossFit, and he and Bergeron began a loose, long-distance relationship, with Fraser training “like a hermit,” as Bergeron describes it, sometimes taking his advice — Bergeron posts his competitor training program, known as CompTrain, free on the Internet for anyone to follow — and sometimes willfully ignoring it.

“I didn’t think I needed a coach,” Fraser says, and his two second-place finishes were nothing to sniff at. But the second time, when he lost on the final event, he knew it was not a problem with his physical fitness. It was his mental game, which is Bergeron’s game.

So after graduation, Fraser moved to Natick, living with another coach from Bergeron’s gym. Then he moved right back home. He lasted three weeks before retreating to his parents’ basement. Not a Natick guy.

He and Bergeron have a good phone chat once a week or so, and Fraser says he listens, especially to the mental stuff. And once last year’s games began, he allowed himself to really be coached. Before nearly every event, the ESPN cameras caught Fraser head down, getting his pep talk from Bergeron.

“He knows how to get his athletes fired up,” Fraser says. “He’ll make us think we’re capable of running through a brick wall. Before one of the last events, he gave me a pep talk that had me choking up with tears.”

Fraser dominated everyone. He won a brutal 7k mountainous trail run on the first day, never let anyone near him, and posted the best score in the history of the games.

He’s not moving back to Natick any time soon. But he’s finally allowing himself to be built by Bergeron.

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They sit like a flock at his feet in front of a dry-erase board where Bergeron has written words on a whiteboard. He has just finished coaching the 8:30 a.m. class, and his faithful suburban moms and dads are dripping sweat, draining water bottles as they stretch on the floor around him.

“Here’s the thing that separates good competitors from bad,” he says as he draws a circle around some of the words. “It’s not ability. It’s what you focus on inside your circle of influence.”

Bergeron exudes guru positivity, and those gathered at his feet — many of them come to his 8:30 every single day — are lapping it up. This is their church.

Inside the circle are the words that matter: “nutrition,” “recovery,” “sleep,”  “mind-set,” “training.” Outside the circle are things they must not worry about: “judges,”  “leader board,” “equipment,”  “gossip,” “next workout,” “last workout.” “What most people are doing is going through life ‘victims of society,’ because they’re trying to influence something they have no control over,” he says, citing examples like traffic and politics.

He draws an “E” on the board to represent “Events.”

“It’s not the ‘Event’ that determines the ‘Outcome,’ ” he says, and draws an O far to the right of the E. Then he fills in the middle. E + R = O.

“It is your ‘Response’ that determines the ‘Outcome,’ ” he says, practically radiating inside a cloud of optimism and calculated thought. The class is rapt. “We need to take this approach to competitive excellence and apply it to our lives. It’s about how we respond to adversity.”

No one moves. Then a woman in the back shouts “Tell us more!”  

Billy Baker is a member of the Globe staff. Send comments to magazine@globe.com. Follow us on Twitter @BostonGlobeMag.