Learning to be an Athlete

Yogi Berra or Jim Wohlford (depending upon the Google search)

Yogi Berra or Jim Wohlford (depending upon the Google search)

Summer morning CrossFit classes in my hood are notorious for crew shifts.  Vacationing teachers, students, and corporate types working summer hours show up as the morning unfolds to mix it up with us daytime regulars.

One recent hump day, I walked into our gym to find a swarm of angels.

Charlie's angels picture

Strong, confident, tenacious, fit; nothing stops these ladies.  Not age.  Not kids.  Not career.  Not cancer.  Nothing.  When the tough get going, they step on the gas and when the weights get heavy; these gals find a way to lift them.  They consistently lap my veteran CrossFit ass, leaving me to wallow in their well-sculpted sweat angels.

Sweat angel

They are women who, when asked what they did they did before CrossFit rattle off a lifetime of athletic achievements: college soccer, lacrosse, tennis, and volleyball, gymnast, kayaker, marathoner and trainer.

I adore the Angels.

A salt of the earth group, they play musical chairs in a rainstorm, foster and rescue neglected animals, offer unsolicited hugs for all sorts and no particular reason, and embrace known entities as well as new faces with respect, genuine interest and open arms.

But when a gaggle of them showed for class the same hour, my hour; I felt compelled to back squat with the dust bunnies.

A gritty, tough cookie born with athletic tendencies, perhaps; but an athlete I am not.  I stopped wearing any semblance of that hat just shy of thirteen when I traded it and organized sports in for a drama beret, a couple of mock trial caps, and my model student beanie.

It wasn’t until drinking the CrossFit Kool-Aid two years ago that the notion of being fit enough in my lifetime to be called athlete crossed my mind.  However, after consistent discomfort, fortunately and often surprisingly I am thrilled to share that I’m able to tackle most tests thrown my way.

Still, anytime Coach Herc or BE calls out, “Look at these great athletes getting it done!” I can’t help but half smirk, cock my head, and scan the room because I can’t imagine they are talking about me.

Why?

Because fitness level isn’t enough.  The Angels know this.  What they own is the ability to stay mentally tough when presented with a physical challenge; a nurtured skill from a young age.

This combination is new for me and I have some catching up to do.

But I’m learning.  Learning to…

Relax

Coach BE used to stare me down regularly and say, “Relax Red, relax.”  He was right.  Excess tension wastes energy and I need all the fuel I can get.  Now this two syllable mantra helps me scale hills, get under a clean, and go back for more burpees.

Stay in the moment

During a workout, the same coach stood next to me and said nothing.  His presence, a quiet push, encouraged the kettlebell to keep swinging and me to focus only on that task.  With life darting about, staying in the zone is no easy feat but doing it transforms the unbearable into manageable.

Make a plan, set a pace

My husband, a fellow CrossFitter laughs when I strategize the scheduled workout a day in advance and classmates love to comment on my marked up whiteboard.  Mock they may, but a plan offsets anxiety and marginalizes intimidation.  Pace preserves gas and rationalizes the agony.

Dig and push

When the dark side creeps in and the Angels are on the verge of breaking, they dig deep, shift gears, and turn up the performance. Experience tells them what their bodies can handle and they go for it.  It’s an admirable sight.

Keep it real

Beating myself up and inflicting unnecessary pressure to perform or eat a certain way drains the psyche and limits my ability to grow.  Witnessing Coach Herc’s tabletop foil wrapper glacier as evidence of a devoured bag of Hershey kisses and watching him take time to heal an injury are wonderful reminders that life is a balance and athletes are human.

As the summer winds down and the Angels rejoin their respective crews, I’ll once again be left alone with my WOD notebook, aspirations, and will to learn.  But thanks to these ladies and our coaches, the next time someone yells something about a group of athletes; I’ll be peeling my ears for that ringing bell and peeking over my shoulder,

because this angel is sprouting wings.

Crossfit barbell jump

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Discomfort

Discomfort

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Discomfort is good. At least that’s what I told myself before stepping into my first CrossFit onramp.

After a year of prodding by a neighbor, feeling the need to get fit before forty, and a whole lot of self talk, I mustered up my courage and scheduled an appointment with the owner of our local affiliate. The CrossFit sounded like my kind of workout; stripped down, personalized, guided and quick.

Then one chilly Thursday in March, I found myself in a yellow, industrial, concrete shell nestled behind an auto glass manufacturer and a door I wasn’t strong enough to open, with no heat, enjoying the odor from the neighboring sanitation department, surrounded by chalky poles, stacked weights, and clammy rubber desperately trying to hold a push up position.

An insightful, seemingly sensitive but stern coach who was guiding me through the session reached for AbMats to support the wide gap between the floor and my chest.

“She doesn’t need AbMats!” boomed the owner and head trainer.

“He seems to think I’m strong enough,” I thought. “Maybe this guy knows something I don’t.”

One push up. Not bad.

Two, eh.

Three. Not happening.

“Can I do them on my knees?” I asked the sensitive sergeant.

Before she could answer, the owner’s voice flew over my shoulder, reverberated off the concrete, and knocked me in the jaw. “This ain’t no New York Sports Club fairy princess class! No. You cannot do pushups on your knees.”

“Who does this guy glued to that swirly chair think he is; the burning bush?” Scared straight and getting the sense that he knew what he was doing, I kept my mouth shut and went back to work, AbMatless.

When my onramp was over, Sensitive Sergeant said, “You are a strong person. The only one getting in your way is you.”

The Burning Bush stood up, smiled earnestly, gave me a high five and said, “Excellent job for your first time.”

Their disciples, who cheered me on during the timed portion of my workout, came over and did the same. And when I hobbled out, my body feeling like a dented can of preserves, a golden goddess of a woman smiled and said, “No matter what, just keep coming.”

I heeded the advice, knowing discomfort was coming my way, but not realizing I was about to get more than I bargained for.

You see, as a teenager, I was the big boned girl who couldn’t climb the rope in gym, the non risk taking solid citizen who longed for validation, and the secretly shy, moderately social, but most certainly insecure person who soldiered through life alone, never getting too tight with anyone, especially a group of girlfriends. CrossFit resurfaced, challenged and then chipped away at each of those lingering childhood discomforts.

In CrossFit, egos are checked at door. Because the only way to get fit, fast, and strong in a place like this is to take risks, be vulnerable, put yourself out there, make mistakes, and trust your coaches and classmates. And for someone like me, that was slightly unsettling. But I did it anyway, and I started to get better.

Success is magical. Whether it’s running 400 meters without stopping, throwing a weight over your head, doing a pull up, getting a handstand, jumping rope like Rocky, or beating a personal best, it feels like you did as a kid learning to ride without training wheels or whistle for the first time. The emotion is pure, unbridled elation especially if you never imagined you’d be able to do it.

Gaining ground, being pushed to my physical and mental edge, and kindling that inner flame time and time again convinced me that I wasn’t as limited as I thought and encouraged me to draw on my strength consistently in and outside the gym. I got out of my own way; and eventually, climbed that rope.

However, the CrossFit picture isn’t always pretty. Things can and do get raw. But anytime I hit a wall, needed guidance, lost a skill, or had a bad day The Burning Bush, Sensitive Sergeant, and my fellow disciples had my back. For that designated hour, our job was to work together, help each other, cultivate community, and have good fun. In this place, you can’t help but feel validated and confident.

Sometimes, amid the blood and burpees, you also make a good friend. Mine was Sparta. She and I started CrossFit that same Spring. Because we had a similar schedule and were of similar ability level, we quickly became training partners. After a year of laughing, lunging, chatting and cleaning she asked me to join her team of lady friends for an upcoming mud run. She thought nothing of the gesture. It was a natural extension of our new friendship.

As the girl who always wished to be tight with a group of women, but usually found herself on the peripheral, Sparta’s thoughtfulness meant the world to me. A couple of mud runs with these ladies have come and gone since her invitation, and now it’s understood that whenever there’s an event; we’re a team.

And so I declare to you from the Plylo Box on which I jump; discomfort is in fact, good. Discomfort opens doors. It helps you grow. CrossFit just happened to be my cherry Kool-Aid.

Whatever your discomfort is

Tap into it, and find your flavor.

Then chalk up those hands,

Crank up the Katy Perry,

And get on it.

3, 2, 1…

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