At 69 years old, Mirlene O’Connell is Australia’s oldest registered female competitor in the 2014 CrossFit Games Open.
Born and raised in Nambour, on the Sunshine Coast of Queensland, Australia, O’Connell has always lived an active lifestyle.
“Surf-lifesaving, triathlons, marathons—I would give anything a go,” she said. “I even did the 80s Jane Fonda step aerobics, with the headband and the shiny lycra!”
O’Connell’s have-a-go attitude got her to sign up for her first triathlon even though she didn’t know how to swim.
“She signed up for the World Cup Triathlon in Southport, and then went to the pool to learn to swim,” her daughter Sarah Hannay said.
It was just 16 months ago that O’Connell was introduced to CrossFit. In December 2012, she walked into CrossFit Escape for her first class after her daughter talked her into it.
“I thought that it would be good for Mirls,” Hannay said.
When CrossFit Burliegh opened up nearby in January 2013, O’Connell moved there and started training under the guidance of Taryn Stratten and Melissa Crook.
“She is easy to coach. She does anything I tell her to do,” Stratten said. “Getting upside down on a wall, wall walks, handstand push-ups—she has a crack at anything.”
“She inspires everyone who comes here. Everyone comes in and sees what Mirls does,” Stratten added. “Their jaws drop when they quietly ask me how old she is. She comes in, a smile on her face, and makes everyone in the class more at ease.”
So far, CrossFit has had a huge influence on O’Connell’s life. As well as losing weight and keeping fit, her training has helped her maintain a positive and healthy outlook on life.
“I can’t wait to get there, and I feel really good after a class,” O’Connell said. “If CrossFit is done properly, you get the benefits.”
Hannay has seen a big change in her mother since she started CrossFit.
“Out of all things she has done, CrossFit is the one that has given Mirls the most out of life and her energy levels are great,” Hannay said.
“With all the sports that she has done, there have been all sorts of injuries associated with them,” she added. “With triathlons, she had a lot of plantar fasciitis but she doesn’t have any of those things now. With CrossFit, when she gets a niggle, she knows what to do. She knows to roll it out straight away, or go get a massage.”
2014 Open Goals
In her first-ever Open in 2013, O’Connell finished last (12th) in the Masters Women 60+ in Australia. This year, with an additional year of training behind her, she is hoping to perform a little better.
Hannay, a CrossFit Level 1 coach, is helping make the 2014 Open a positive experience for O’Connell.
“She gets nervous a lot, so getting her past that is important,” she said.
Rather than chase a number, or a place, O’Connell has chosen to make her goals movement related with each Open workout. With 14.1, it was achieving double-unders. Now, with 14.2, it is overhead squats and jumping chest-to-bar pull-ups.
“The Open is a great way for me to find out the things that I really need to work on,” she said.
O’Connell scored 65 on 14.1, a remarkable achievement considering she practiced double-unders for the first time the day before her first attempt.
“Whenever double-unders were programmed in a (workout), I would always choose the scaling option,” she said. “And now, not anymore!”
Stratten was also blown away by the performance.
“I was pleasantly surprised when Mirls showed me her double-unders,” she said. “Single, single, double, single, single, double. Goosebumps!”
Open Workout 14.2 presented O’Connell with two challenging movements: overhead squats and jumping chest-to-bar pull-ups.
To date, the heaviest weight O’Connell has overhead squatted is 12.5 kg (27.5 lb.) and she has never attempted jumping chest-to-bar pull-ups.
“With the overhead squats, it’s a mobility thing,” Hannay said. “There are so many years of bad mobility ingrained into her body, so it’s about getting her confidence up under the bar and making the reps count.”
In terms of the jumping chest-to-bar pull-ups, Stratten has been working closely with O’Connell.
“The focus is to make sure you squeeze your shoulder blades together and bring your chest to the bar,” she said.
O’Connell has had multiple attempts at 14.2 so far, scoring five on her first attempt and eight on her second.
“I PR’d my overhead squat 13 times,” she said shortly after her second attempt on Saturday.
O’Connell, however, saved her best performance for last, scoring 12 on her final attempt of 14.2.
Her two jumping chest-to-bar pull-ups mean she has now achieved three personal milestones in just two weeks of the Open. And with three more workouts to go, there is a strong chance that number will continue to rise.