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Richard Froning, Jr.: Four-time Fittest Man on Earth, husband, father, and according to his 2015 documentary, the “fittest man in history” — a controversial claim that sent comment sections and web forums into impassioned arguments, deconstructing the definition of fitness and examining Froning’s Games performances from every angle.

Retired from individual Games competition since his final win in 2014, Froning is perhaps the most polarizing figure in the sport of CrossFit. People either love him or hate him, think he can do no wrong or that he’s hopelessly overrated, believe no one can hold a candle to his flame of physical prowess or that his flame is like a match beside the bonfire of other athletes — both in and out of the sport.

Is Froning the greatest athlete of all time? The answer tends to be either “of course” or “of course not.”

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What Makes a Great Athlete?

Serena Williams, Michael Jordan, LeBron James, Muhammad Ali, Wayne Gretzky — each of these athletes stands as the greatest (or one of the greatest) in their respective sport. Why? First of all, it’s for their athletic performance: the number of matches they’ve won, points they’ve scored, shots they’ve made. On a statistical level, their athletic achievements make them stand out.

But beyond that, they also gained notoriety outside of their typical fan base. People who aren’t sports fans can mention each of these athletes by name and match them to their respective sport. This notoriety may not make them great, but it’s a testament to their level of greatness in their particular sport.

Is Froning at that level? You’d have to ask people outside of the CrossFit community to find out. Certainly, he’s known in his Tennessee community, because people typically know their local celebrities, but is he known elsewhere by the non-CrossFitting public?

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Narrow the Field to Just CrossFit

Forget being the best athlete of all time and all sports — what about just within CrossFit? Could we say Froning is the greatest CrossFit athlete of all time?

Being named the Fittest Man on Earth four years in a row is nothing to sniff at. In all of those Games, Froning overcame physical challenges to finish ahead of his competitors. The fact that his first trip to the Games in 2010 was the same year he began competing — and just a year after he started doing CrossFit — is evidence of an athleticism that is rare, even among athlete with high-intensity athletic backgrounds, whether Olympic lifting or collegiate sports.

That first year, Froning’s failure at rope climbs forced him into second place. The next year, he dominated rope climbs. Many people point to this as an example of his ability to turn his weaknesses into strengths.

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Another example is his improvement in swimming: In 2013, he finished 30th in the pool swimming event; in 2014, he took eighth in the ocean swim.

But even with those improvements, Froning still had one glaring weakness: running.

In his last Games appearance, Froning — who knew running was his weakness and still reportedly avoided it in training — took 37th place in the third event, Triple 3. He’d kept a decent pace through the 3,000-meter row and the 300 double-unders, but not long into the three-mile run, the Fittest Man on Earth started walking, and competitor after competitor passed him with their breathing cadence intact.

Froning is known within the CF community as a stellar athlete, but his consistently poor performance in running events, even while under the title of Fittest on Earth, is not something he shares with other top finishers like, say, Mat Fraser. Plus, Froning’s approach to competition — to strategically pace himself just ahead of his closest competitors — means that we probably never saw his full capacity at the Games. He could very well be the “Fittest Man in History,” but we can’t know for sure.

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What we do know is that Froning helped shape the sport of fitness. Games events are designed to expose competitors’ weaknesses, and endurance events are now a guaranteed part of the competition. Other athletes have been able to watch the Fittest Man’s blunders and avoid making the same mistakes in both training and competition. And Froning’s humility about his accomplishments, his deference in the face of compliments, ultimately make the sport look good.

Main image: Rich Froning/Instagram