Talayna Fortunato is not most people.

It’s pouring outside, the sort of late afternoon soaker that makes it terribly tempting for most people to stay home, watch television and order a pepperoni pizza.

Instead, she’s at Real Fitness, the North Naples CrossFit gym where she trains. Nearby, other stores shut their doors tightly against rain, but Real Fitness swings theirs wide open, defying the drench. Fortunato warms up on the rowing machine and stationary bike, then stretches. The real work is yet to come, and there will be plenty of it. Last year, she took third place at CrossFit Games, a CrossFit competition that pits other elite CrossFitters against each other to reveal the “fittest on Earth.”

Now, she has a new coach, a new training plan and is in the gym six days a week—often twice a day—as she prepares to return to the Games this month.

Because make no mistake: Fortunato is going for gold.

Fit to win

On the brick wall behind a row of pull-up bars, there is a string of words. Power. Speed. Stamina. Endurance. Strength. These are just a few of the promises of CrossFit, a worldwide strength and conditioning program founded in the 1970s.

It was this last promise that hooked Fortunato, now 32.

“I’ve always liked being strong,” she says, “but I didn’t know what it was being strong.”

A former Division 1 college gymnast and heptathlete, the Tennessee native graduated from Southern Utah University in 2003 and later moved to Naples. Here, she became a self-described “gym junkie,” someone who would go to as many as three back-to-back workout classes in a day or hop on the elliptical machine for hours and study one of her textbooks while she worked up a sweat. Fortunato earned a master’s degree in physical therapy from Florida Gulf Coast University and now works at Elite Physical Therapy in Naples.

In October 2009, a friend suggested she try CrossFit. She walked into the newly opened Real Fitness gym, what CrossFitters call a “box.” There, she was put through a baseline test, a kind of mini-workout comprised of rowing, air squats, pull-ups, push-ups and sit-ups that’s designed to gauge fitness. Liking it, she decided to return the next day, and discovered the Workout of the Day—or WOD, in CrossFit speak—was “Angie,” a kind of amped-up version of what she’d done the day before.

Fortunato didn’t falter, plowing through Angie’s 100 repetitions of pull-ups, push-ups, sit-ups and squats in about 11 minutes. The next morning, her left arm wouldn’t straighten.

“I thought, that’s weird,” she says. “I’ve never had that happen.”

She came back again the following day, already suspecting that CrossFit was going to be her new fitness addiction. Finally, she had found a challenge, she says. The intensity of the workouts meant she saw a quick change in her physique, but it also meant she had to develop another level of mental fierceness.

“Gymnastics took time, and it took patience and dedication. But the actual effort took seconds,” she says. “And you weren’t dying. Here, you’re dying. And you have to decide if you want it.”

She definitely wanted it. Even as early as 2010, just a few months after she had started the sport, she was thinking about competing in the Games. She narrowly missed qualifying in 2011 when she placed fourth at the South East Regionals. Fortunato says that wasn’t a huge disappointment, at least not until she traveled to California to watch the competition.

Then, it burned. Watching the other women vie for a spot on the podium, Fortunato told herself, “I will be that.”

She returned to the box determined to do whatever it took to qualify for the Games, and nothing was going to stop her—not even a boating accident that left her with a broken rib and injured wrist one day before the 2012 Open. She jokes that the pain of competing in the Open “sucked more than normal,” but she pushed through to qualify for Regionals and, finally, the Games.

Still, she felt a bit of skepticism in the atmosphere around her, a sense that she might not really be able to do it. And she knew how people are expected to talk when they’re headed to a big competition, how they’re supposed to express sweet sentiments like, “I’m going out there to have fun,” or “I’m just trying to do my best.”

Fortunato decided to scratch all that.

“I just told myself, I’m going to skip that step,” she says with a laugh. “I told people I’m going to win.”


Game girl

As part of the Games, Fortunato competed in multiple events, everything from weight training to an obstacle course to a miniature triathlon. What she remembers most was the length of the multi-day event, the need to stay sharp and consistent throughout. Those old CrossFit promises were more important than ever, as it wasn’t brute strength that got her through, but an ability to endure.

“You need to be focused for longer,” she says. “The people who win and do the best didn’t win every event. They probably didn’t win until the end.”

After she returned home, she decided to switch to a new coach. Doug Katona is the managing partner and head coach for CrossFit Endurance, and a former NFL strength and conditioning coach. Katona had seen Fortunato at the Games, and he remembers how many of the spectators were openly amazed at her abilities. But at the time, he was thinking something else: “She’s got more in the tank.”

“She’s a phenomenal athlete and she’s got tremendous capacity and skill,” Katona says. “She may be at 70 percent of what she’s capable of right now. The world has not seen the best of her yet.”

Since they began working together, Katona has been working to help Fortunato sharpen some of her existing skills and refine her diet for increased performance. Fortunato is 5-foot-7 and weighs 149 pounds, the same as when she started CrossFit, although she is quick to point out that she looks completely different. Following a more regimented diet has been a switch for Fortunato, who admits she’s probably not as fussy about her food as some CrossFit athletes.

For the record, she’s a huge fan of sweet potato fries. And chardonnay.

“I’ve been writing down everything I eat. I’ve never done that before. But he lets me have wine, so that’s good,” Fortunato says.

What strikes Katona most about Fortunato is her intelligence as an athlete.

“She has the ability to reason; she has depth,” he says. “She adapts very quickly to what I give her. She’s an intelligent, intuitive athlete. She listens really well, takes it in and applies it pretty quick, about as fast as any athlete I’ve every seen.”

And honestly, he adds, the woman is just plain tough.

“She’s driven to maximize her potential and win the CrossFit Games. She’s a true athlete. She gets it; she understands it,” he says. “She’s pretty lethal.”


Beyond the box

Since taking bronze at the Games, Fortunato’s life has changed. It’s not just the new diet; it’s a feeling, a sizzle that surfaces as she goes about her regular activities. Not long after the competition, her Facebook page exploded, quickly reaching the maximum 5,000 friends. She has over 6,400 followers on Twitter. And the other day, a woman stopped her at the gym and asked her to sign a shirt.

It’s been more than she expected, but she’s enjoying it.

“I realize in a few years from now, when this is all over, people aren’t going to know me,” she says. “It’s not who I am, but it’s a fun part of my life right now.”

Her family is having fun, too. Fortunato describes her mother, who has muscular dystrophy, as her “biggest fan.”

“She has a hard time getting around and has never been strong, so she thinks this is great,” Fortunato says.

And there are still plenty of times she’s able to be incognito, including her day job. When she’s working out, there’s no denying that she’s an elite athlete, but when she puts on her work clothes—pants and a polo—she easily fades into normalcy. That’s how most of her physical therapy clients see her, until she shows them a video of her doing 200-pound clean-and-jerks.

Then, they all have the same response, she says: “Oh, my God.”

Her showing at the Games also led to her first sponsorship, WOD Superstore, a CrossFit outfitter that supplies everything from apparel to nutrition. WOD Superstore partners Mark and Bridgett Chandley live in Naples and knew Fortunato through Real Fitness, where they also train. At first, they were impressed by how quickly Fortunato was able to achieve such a high level of CrossFit success, Mark Chandley says.

“The level of intensity that she trains at, and then coupled with the amount of time in the gym makes her stand out,” he says. “There aren’t too many people that put in the amount of time that she does.”

As they’ve gotten to know Fortunato, they’ve also come to admire her personally.

“She loves to compete and be out there in the community,” Chandley says.

For now, though, the focus is on fitness, on getting to the Games and going home with gold. CrossFit isn’t for people who prefer to take the easy way out, Fortunato observes, and none of what she’s done so far has been effortless. She is at Real Fitnes six days a week, with three or four of those days slated for double workouts. Each WOD lasts hours—in the morning from 7:30 to 9:30 a.m. and in the evening from 5:30 to 8 p.m.—and she has trained and competed with broken bones, sprains and other injuries.

But she has no regrets, save one: That she didn’t find CrossFit sooner.

“I knew I could be good, I just didn’t know how good,” she says. “And now I know that I can be the best.”

By Liz Kellar