As a kid, I always wished to be athletic. My PE teachers made it sound easy even though I struggled with things other kids had no problems with: “Just go up the rope! There’s nothing to it! What’s wrong with you? Just go up!” I was a hopeless book nerd, slow and uncoordinated. I kept trying though, from neighborhood pickup soccer in the third grade to a brief flirtation with gymnastics in sixth grade to one sad season of women’s rugby in college. Somewhere along the way, I managed to injure both my knees. The college health center doc told me to stop malingering and get back to practice, that there was nothing wrong with me except laziness and weight. I took that message to heart, and for the next ten years pushed through the pain, grim-facedly attempting one dispiriting exercise fad after another. Swimming, running, yoga, biking, power lifting, pilates, I hated all of it, and felt miserable and ashamed every time another instructor or personal trainer would disgustedly tell me that I just wasn’t trying hard enough. I felt like there must be something really wrong with me, that I couldn’t just enjoy my body like a “normal” person, and was deeply jealous of the camaraderie my college roommates found in their team sports. To rub salt in the wound, I learned years later that my attempts at getting fit had been slowly shredding the cartilage in my knees. Occasionally I’d visit a new doctor to get help with the pain, but the message was always the same. “Just exercise and diet.”
By the time I finished grad school, “just exercise and diet” had left me in such terrible condition that I couldn’t walk up a flight of stairs without pausing to rest halfway up. But I had just started a job where most of my coworkers were pretty fit and active. The woman in the next cube over proselytized CrossFit like she had taken holy orders. And then an old friend of mine discovered CrossFit and told me it changed her life. I decided to give this thing a try, so I looked for a box close to my home and found CFSV.
The first few weeks, I cried after practically every workout. It was hard and scary and I wasn’t sure I was going to keep going. But the coaches were always encouraging, and no one ever shamed me for needing to scale the exercises. Other members would cheer me on when I finally finished the WOD. There was one class where I was the last to finish, again, and I felt mortified as the minutes ticked by. Linda picked up her kettlebell and did swings in time with me while I finished that last agonizing round. That blew my mind! The website certainly said CFSV was a supportive place, and the owner talked a good talk about wanting to nurture and support a strong community, but there it was, values put into action by regular members. I quickly discovered that everyone here wants each other to succeed, and I found myself getting invested in my classmates’ successes. That support and camaraderie gave me the courage to keep coming back, even when it was really tough. I slowly got stronger and learned how to put together complicated movements. There is no “Just go up the rope” here. Instead, the coaches break everything down into manageable pieces. “First you grip the rope and lift up your feet. Then you wrap your feet in the rope like this to create a secure foothold,” and so on. I’m not sure when it happened, but at some point I realized I was actually having fun, and looking forward to the workout as the best part of my day.
CrossFit is fun and the community at CFSV is really one of the best, but I still had those pesky bad knees to contend with. All the community in the world couldn’t have made the physical pain disappear. I had a really bad pain day in my second or third month at CFSV; I had to stop halfway through the WOD because my knees were just in agony. Kirstie was coaching that day, and after asking a few questions and evaluating my form, she told me very clearly that my problem wasn’t my weight or bad form or laziness or shirking or anything like that. “This kind of pain isn’t normal. You have some kind of injury that I’m not qualified to treat, and you need to find a doctor who will take it seriously and help you.” That one conversation literally changed my life. It took a couple of consultations with some real stinkers before I found a doctor who took me seriously and ordered an MRI, which revealed severe structural damage to both knees. The knee specialist wanted to jump right to surgical solutions, but I pushed for more conservative treatment first. I did eight months of physical therapy supplemented with cortisone injections to manage the pain. Through it all, the coaches at CFSV were incredible. I would show up and do my PT exercises instead of the WOD, or ask to substitute arms and shoulders for legs, and without fail, the coaches were right there to help with whatever I was capable of that day. I don’t know how many times Nick or JT created entirely new programming for me on the spot, but it was a lot, and I’m grateful for it. The orthopedist thinks I’ll probably still need surgery eventually, but between targeted PT and the varied programming at CrossFit I’ve managed to stabilize my joints enough to dramatically slow down further degeneration. More importantly, my knees have now been completely pain free, without needing the steroid shots or pain relievers, for about fourteen months. It’s still a goddamn miracle to me, every morning that I can get out of bed without needing to pop a pill first.
Thanks to CrossFit I have the physical ability to do all kinds of things that used to be totally unthinkable for me, from high speed contra dancing to circus acrobatics to something as simple as moving into a third-floor walkup apartment. I’m not the most diligent CrossFitter. At the best of times I only make it to the box once or twice a week (in part because every other night of the week I’m at my other gym swinging around on a trapeze), and I’ve taken a couple of long breaks because of finances or mental health stuff. Every time I’ve come back, though, JT and the rest of the crew have welcomed me with open arms, no questions asked. I’ve made so much progress here, physically and mentally. There’s no doubt my body is stronger now, and my relationship with my body is the best it’s ever been. I’m stronger mentally too, more willing to try new things and risk failing, more confident in my abilities, more able to persevere in the face of challenges. The Friday night WOD is the highlight of my week, and I hope it remains that way for a long time to come.