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Hanover's Christen Wagner, Baltimore Anthem brace for inaugural year in National Pro Grid League

Minutes before the National Pro Grid League draft was set to begin April 21, Christen Wagner thought about all the great things that had happened in her life, from the three straight appearances in the CrossFit Games to the unprecedented promotion in the Marine Corps.

Still, Wagner was nervous that she wouldn't be one of the 64 players selected. When she had applied for the league's pro day two months earlier, she said she had expected to be "washed away" by the competition. To her surprise, she was invited to the combine, then became draft eligible.

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The Hanover resident's wait to hear her name called was not long. In fact, it was the shortest of anyone's this spring. The Baltimore Anthem, an expansion team in the sport's second season, selected Wagner with the No. 1 overall pick.

"The fact that she is local is just huge," coach Garrett Smith said. "We really tried to grab the local market as much as we could. She is going to be great on the grid. I mean, she is just built for it. She is going to be a star on it."

Wagner called it perfect timing, her desire to get into the new sport coinciding with Baltimore's expansion roster. And on Sunday, less than two months after being selected, Wagner and the Anthem will step onto the grid in San Jose, Calif., against the New York Rhinos for the team's first match, which will air on NBC Sports Network in July.

She also will have a chance to compete before local friends and family when the Anthem return home for its second match Aug. 9 at Prince George's Sports and Learning Complex in Landover.

Smith, who has worked in the fitness industry for 13 years and owns Crofton CrossFit, looked into getting a team for Grid's inaugural year, but the timing didn't work out. Still, he had his dad, Glen Smith, watch the combine last season, and he fell in love with it. Now Glen Smith owns the team.

"We were born and raised near the Baltimore area, so we didn't want to go anywhere else," Garrett Smith said. "It was kind of like Baltimore or bust. It was just a no-brainer."

The sport emerged from the social fitness world, drawing from CrossFit members and attracting former Division I athletes, Olympians and others from diverse backgrounds. The Anthem alone has two former Olympians and a former Cirque du Soleil performer on its roster, a versatility well suited to each match's 11 races. Each event has a set of required skills the athletes must perform, usually weightlifting or body-weight challenges.

"It takes a lot of teamwork and communication," Jim Rymiszewski said. "No one individual in my eyes is going to outshine everybody. They can be the best individual they are, but it doesn't mean the team will do well."

Rymiszewski, one of the team's two 40-and-above men, will play an integral role on the Anthem given the age requirements. Without the rule, he said, he probably wouldn't have made the roster.

But training for Grid and CrossFit has made him stronger than he was at 35, he said, and he won't let his age affect his performance on the grid.

"The competitor in me is competing with the guys at the training camp now," Rymiszewski said. "I don't care if they are 15 years younger than me. I'm still going to try to keep up, if not beat them. I love the 40-plus rule. I think it's great for the sport. I think people will be shocked at what some of the 40-year-olds can do out there."

Grid is unique for how it pits men and women of similar weights against each other in certain races. And the competitors believe the equality the sport demands could have an impact beyond Grid.

"I don't think there is any other professional sport that men and women actually compete together," former Olympic hammer thrower Loree Thornton said. "So I think it is going to break down a bunch of the stereotypes and limits we put on what people can do."

The Anthem signed Thornton and Dmitry Klokov, who won a world title in 2005 and Olympic silver medal in 2008 in weightlifting, to bolster the strength of the roster. While it's unclear how their backgrounds will translate to Grid, they add intrigue to the sport.

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When Thornton retired from throwing, she didn't feel done as a competitor. And like Rymiszewski, Thornton feels even stronger than she did a few years ago. Now Grid will offer her a chance to continue her professional career and showcase her strength in a different format.

"I think you'll find a lot of us who have moved on from our sport, but we're not moved on athletically," Thornton said. "But I think as it grows, you are going to see more and more people who are probably going to be training for Grid as their first sport as well."

One problem with the Anthem's diffuse roster, though, is that the athletes haven't been able to train together. Before traveling to San Jose two weeks before their first match to practice together, most of the teammates never had met.

And while Rymiszewski said that after two days of training together it felt like they had known each other for 20 years, a sport that demands chemistry and communication will make cohesion tough.

In an effort to bring together team members to train, Smith has bought 3 acres of land in Crofton where he plans on building an athletic facility that will serve as the Anthem's training site.

"That is the way to go with any team sport," Thornton said. "The more we are around each other, the more we can anticipate how each other moves and what we are good at."

The facility won't be completed this season, but Smith hopes to have the project done this winter. From there, his goal is to have the athletes living near the facility, at least during the season, within the next two or three years.

For a sport that Thornton said "doesn't quite pay my bills," relocating might not be so easy. A resident of Colorado Springs, Colo., Thornton and her husband would need to find new jobs in Maryland.

That decision might be a couple of years away, though. For now, Thornton's Colorado roots will help expand Baltimore's fan base. Some of her friends already have bought Anthem jerseys, and her gym plans on projecting all three of its regular-season matches.

"You are bringing so many of us from different backgrounds together that, yes, we are going to be playing for Baltimore, represent Baltimore," Thornton said, "but we have people back home that are repping as well."

Wagner, meanwhile, will offer a local tie to the team. At times, it has been tough for the Marine Corps staff sergeant, who is also a full-time student at Howard University, to balance her schedule with training for Grid. But on Sunday, she will have a chance to show why Smith selected her with the top pick.

"It will be exciting me as an athlete living locally in the area," Wagner said, "but also for Baltimore and Maryland in general to have someone to root for."

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