HERNDON, Va. — With a 155-pound barbell resting on her shoulders, Gretchen Kittelberger lifted the weight over her head, held it for a second, then brought it back down.
After five repetitions, she leaned against a wall, her body upside down, and did five handstand pushups. Next came three more handstand pushups — on rings hanging roughly 3 inches above the ground. Her pace gradually slowed, and her grunts became louder after every repetition, but in less than 13 minutes, she had completed four sets of each workout.
Kittelberger, a former Maryland gymnast, has been doing CrossFit for the past five years, and the popular strength, conditioning and aerobic program's physically grueling exercises are now a part of her lifestyle.
"You feel like you want to just lie on the ground and not move," Kittelberger said after finishing her two-hour training session last Sunday morning at CrossFit Reston.
Despite CrossFit's taxing demands, its competitive aspect keeps her motivated. The 28-year-old, who works as an attorney for CrossFit Inc., won the Mid-Atlantic regional event in May to qualify for the CrossFit Games, a worldwide competition that starts Wednesday in Carson, Calif. The games consist of as many as 10 events over four days, testing an athlete's speed, strength and endurance.
This will be Kittelberger's fourth appearance in the competition. Instead of doing flips on a balance beam, she now uses her 5-foot-2 frame to squat 200 pounds. The differences between gymnastics and CrossFit seem jarring, but to those who know Kittelberger, the transition isn't hard to believe.
"She would always do the maximum in the weight room," said Maryland gymnastics head coach Brett Nelligan, an assistant during Kittelberger's career. "She would go do extra stuff on her own at the rec center. She had a never-ending appetite for working out, really."
Well before Kittelberger started hoisting weights and doing legless rope climbs, she was obsessed with doing cartwheels around her home in Webster, N.Y.
Kittelberger started competing in gymnastics when she was 6 years old. Though she had brief stints playing soccer, lacrosse and field hockey, a complete commitment to gymnastics by sixth grade left little time for other sports. She would practice four hours a day after school and eight hours a day during the summer. Gymnastics provided Kittelberger, the valedictorian of her class at Webster Schroeder High, the kind of challenge she didn't receive in the classroom.
"Gymnastics didn't really come easy; she really had to work at it," Kittelberger's mother, Beth, said. "I think that's what really drove her. It was something that didn't come really naturally to her, so she wanted to work hard to be able to do it."
After Kittelberger blossomed into a national prospect, she committed to Maryland, her parents' alma mater. Kittelberger's father, Bryan, played men's soccer at the school during the mid-to-late 1970s, and Beth Kittelberger received her master's degree from the university in 1979.
Kittelberger, who graduated in 2008, first heard of CrossFit from a former teammate in January 2009. Hoping to fill the competitive void left by gymnastics, she decided to try it.
That fall, while attending law school at the University of Virginia, Kittelberger joined a CrossFit gym in Charlottesville. Though she had spent hours working out in the past for gymnastics, this was different. Kittelberger's body wasn't used to hauling around big weights.
"I can remember, when I first started, it being hard to clean 100 pounds," Kittelberger said. "Today … my clean and jerk is, like, over 200 pounds."
After failing to qualify for the 2010 CrossFit Games, she began working with her current coach, Jeremy Gordon. Now a member of CrossFit Reston, she trains five days a week -- sometimes twice a day. The two work remotely, with Kittelberger recording her workouts on her phone and sending the footage to Gordon, a CrossFit Hampton Roads co-owner who provides feedback and suggests other exercises.
"She is absolutely the most compliant client I've ever coached," Gordon said of Kittelberger, who has qualified for the CrossFit Games every year since she began working with him. "She takes input and correction and applies it immediately. She's absolutely dedicated to it."
Feeling like she belongs
Each CrossFit Games has at least one endurance event, something Kittelberger has struggled with. In 2012, the first event was a triathlon with a 700-meter open-water swim, an 8-kilometer bike ride and an 11-km run.
"There was a lot of walking in that one," Kittelberger said with a laugh.
This time, the endurance event includes 3,000 meters on an indoor rower, 300 double-unders — a jump rope exercise in which the rope makes two revolutions on each leap — and a 3-mile run.
When Kittelberger participated in her first CrossFit Games, in 2011, the events intimidated her.
"You're not really sure you belong," Kittelberger said. "You're like: 'Oh, I don't know. I got here, but am I really good enough to be here?' "
Except for a few hints, most of the CrossFit Games' events aren't announced in advance, forcing competitors to have a broader focus in their workouts.
"Once you get out to the Games, those workouts could be anything from sub-five minutes to three hours" in length, Kittelberger said. "You never really know."
Even with the competition's unknowns, she placed 12th overall in the 2011 Games. Kittelberger finished 26th in 2012 and 34th last year, results that she said belie how much more comfortable she feels competing in CrossFit.
"It gets harder and harder just to make it to the Games, and just to even make it to regionals each year, because there's such a wider pool of talent," Kittelberger said.
CrossFit Reston is roughly a mile from her home in Herndon, and as an employee of the organization, she is given enough flexibility to find a balance between work and exercise.
With Kittelberger's gymnastics career over, CrossFit has given her another way to satisfy her lifelong desire for competition.
"I can compete for the rest of my life if I wanted to," Kittelberger said. "So hopefully I can stick with it for a while."