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Competition Drives Alum to Top Ranks in CrossFit

Denny Ristow ’78At 47 years old, Denny (McDermid) Ristow ’78 struggled to run a mile. So she challenged herself to get back in shape. Within six months, she was running half marathons. Within a year, she completed her first full marathon.

“I just kept going a little farther, a little farther, a little farther,” she says.

At 58, she decided to raise the bar. She joined CrossFit, an all-encompassing fitness regimen that aims to train the whole body through a mix of high-intensity interval training, weightlifting and other exercises. 

“When I started, I had no weight on my barbell. I started with a PVC pipe,” she says. “I had never lifted a barbell in my entire life, ever.” 

Now, Ristow (pictured, photo courtesy CrossFit Eastern Ridge) can deadlift 200 pounds – and she’s in the top 200 CrossFit athletes for her age bracket.

“I’m kind of competitive,” she says with a laugh. “But I’m in competition with myself, with nobody else.”

That competitive streak is what’s driving Ristow up the rankings in the CrossFit Open, a contest in which hundreds of thousands compete worldwide. The top 200 athletes in each age bracket move on to CrossFit Regionals, the last round before the big event: the CrossFit Games. 

“Your chances of getting there, it’s very slim,” she says. The first year she competed in the open, at age 60, she came in at No. 202 in the world for her age group. “I missed it by two. … If that doesn’t light a fire under a person’s belly, I don’t know what does.”

The CrossFit Open takes place over five weeks from February to March and requires participants to complete certain timed workouts once per week in their local “box,” or CrossFit gym. The second year she competed, Ristow was ranked 167 in the world in her age group, making it to the two-weeks-long regionals, where she finished at 138. This past spring – competing at age 62 – she was ranked 176 in the world at the open and jumped to 132 in regionals.

“So again, I beat myself. That’s all I look at. Did I do better than last year? Yes, I did,” she says. “It’s an incredible feeling when, even though you’re a year older and you’ve got younger people coming in, you beat yourself (in the rankings). It’s such an awesome feeling. And that’s why I love CrossFit. It’s totally for myself.”

Only the top 20 in each age group at regionals make it to the CrossFit Games, and with younger competitors entering her age group each year, Ristow doesn’t expect to make it all the way. But she’s not done challenging herself. Her goal for next year: Break the 130 barrier in the regional’s rankings. To do that, she says she needs to work on handstand push-ups – push-ups done while upside down in a handstand – and other strength exercises. 

“I can see me doing this well into my 70s,” she says. “I love it as much today as I did when I first joined.” 

In addition to fueling her competitiveness, Ristow, general manager of InkWorks Printing LLC in Plymouth, Wis., enjoys the sense of community CrossFit fosters. She attends CrossFit five days a week, often working out with her daughter. 

But most of all, she likes what it does for her health: “I’m doing this for me. I’ve seen the way my body has changed. I have muscles. I’m healthy. … I’m doing it because I love how it makes me feel – not when I’m doing the workout, but when it’s done I feel so good. I feel so strong. And my health has never been better. I just feel incredible, almost all the time.”

Sept. 4, 2018