Thousands of rodeo fans and tourists clog the highways - a sea of RV's, luggage racks and out of state license plates - the annual mass exodus from Cheyenne, Wyoming as Frontier Days wraps up the month of July - and ushers in the Wyoming Open. The largest individual CrossFit competition in the state has now become a fixture the first weekend of August. As the train of tourists leave, SUV's, trucks and hatchbacks from across the state and region pour into Cheyenne that Friday evening. Many arriving from places as far away as Cody, Wyoming - arriving as late as midnight - passengers who worked until 5 and then hit the road for seven hours in a car, just to test their fitness level.
For the second year in a row, the Open will take place at the newly remodeled Okie Blanchard Stadium at East High School. The Rogue rig set up on the football field gives the competition a "Games" feel to it. You aren't in some packed gym with cones and tape keeping out the few people lucky enough to be able to actually see the action up close. Fans and spectators at the Open can watch from the stadium seats, or down on the field. Warm-up areas are plentiful, tents for athletes and vendors are sprawled out across the concourse above the field. It truly is one of the best competition venues in the state.
Another constant since the Open began, has been Malachi Bennett standing on top of the podium. Bennett is the clear-cut number one CrossFit athlete in Wyoming - and it really isn't close. In the 2016 CrossFit Games Open, Bennett was the top finisher in 4 out of the 5 workouts, finishing second in 16.5. His total score on the state leaderboard was 6 points. Laramie's Cooper Wise (absent from this year's Wyoming Open) came in second, a full 14 points back. When you add Colorado to that leaderboard, Bennett falls to fourth, but only behind three men who qualified for Regionals this year, Justin Jindra, Jared Enderton and Chris Hoppe.
Bennett's path to victory in last year's Pro Division of the Open, looked to be a tough one, as 2016 CrossFit Games athlete Christian Lucero made the trip up to Cheyenne to cash in on the Open's prize money, along with 2016 Regional qualifier Ryan Smith from Big Sky CrossFit in Montana. What looked to be a three-horse race for first, turned into a one-man show. Malachi destroyed the field, leaving Smith and Lucero in his wake, battling for second. Bennett could have finished last in the final and Smith could have won it - and Malachi still would have won - instead, Mal went out and won the final event by five seconds over Smith and took the podium. Smith finished second and Lucero was third.
This year, a new batch of challengers will take a stab at doing what nobody has been able to do so far - knock Malachi Bennett off the top podium spot. Jordan Erwin recently moved to Denver from South Carolina. Erwin was a coach in Greenville and a member of Iron Tribe Fitness' Regional Team in 2014. He is a two-time individual Regionals qualifier and two-time team qualifier. He hasn't been to Regionals in 2 years and has not been competing regularly since then. He moved to Denver this summer and has been training at MBS CrossFit. Last weekend he won a CrossFit Total competition with a 1250lb total. His strength is clearly still there, but the question will be, is his conditioning where it needs to be to take down Bennett?
With the cash prize in the Pro division, this year's Open has also attracted the South East's Angel Rodriguez. On paper, Angel is the biggest threat to Malachi's run for a fourth straight title. Rodriguez finished 36th in the open in the South East Region. His scores in the Open beat Bennett's in all but 16.4. At just 5'4" tall and weighing 158 pounds - how will he fare against Malachi in event 2's 1rm test and the grunt work of a sandbag shuttle run? We know his motor is top-notch, but Malachi is over six feet tall and almost 200lbs - will Rodriguez's size give him Chris Spealler-esque problems when the weight gets heavy? We will find out. This is the battle to watch.
Host gym CrossFit Frontier's Josh Karabetsos is also a guy to keep an eye on. Since last year's Open, Josh has been focusing a lot on his Olympic lifts, and despite his size difference, will put on a good show in Event 2. In last year's event 2, he finished just two seconds behind Bennett in Part 1, but only snatched 200lbs in the 1rm part 2, good for only 15th. Last week, Karabetsos hit a 240 snatch, so he has clearly improved a lot since last year in this area.
The story in this year's pro division - is that it is WIDE open and highlighted by some serious star power. Last year was dominated by 2013 CrossFit Games athlete Natalie Newhart. If you were a female in the pro division, her performance didn't leave you with a lot of hope for 2016. That was until she pissed hot for PED's and was suspended for two years. Her Open scores were invalidated, she apologized on Instagram and alluded to the fact she would be taking some time off from training.
This opens the door for a lot of women. Last year's second-place finisher Bridget Brown from CrossFit Omnia in Denver is not back this year. Third place finisher Stine Pinilla from CrossFit Evolve is also absent. Tiffany Hendrickson will be the favorite Saturday morning. A 2013 Games athlete from Ute CrossFit, she finished 9th at Regionals this year. She will have to fight off CrossFit 720's April DiGiannantonio who placed 35th in the open.
A dark-horse to watch for is Wyoming Open newcomer Miranda Foust. Foust trains at CrossFit Battle Ready in Greeley, Colorado. She did not log any scores in the Open, but she is a tremendous athlete. She placed 101 in the South West in 2015. She is strong and has solid gymnastics skills. Foust's former teammate when they trained at CrossFit Helix in Greeley, Shala Giardini of Lowry CrossFit in Aurora, is also making the trip to Cheyenne and will be an odds-on favorite to win the women's open division.
The 2016 Wyoming Open - powered by CrossFit Frontier takes place August 6-7 at Okie Blanchard Stadium in Cheyenne, Wyoming.