My reasons for joining a gym were simple: after the birth of my third and final child, my body was a war zone. My identity was sunk somewhere in the extra weight and folds. My thoughts were lost as easily as my breath. I needed to reclaim myself. But it went deeper than that. After a childhood of emotional and physical abuse, I had grown up believing that I not only wasn’t strong, but that I couldn’t be.
My childhood was not a wasteland, but it set the stage for tremendous pain suffered from self-doubt. I was taught that I couldn’t trust my physical being. My home was religiously conservative. The beauty of my body was a curse, any physical prowess a burden. My femininity was feared. I was taught to be ashamed and to hide. I was told that I didn’t know myself, my instincts were sinful. The words struck at my heart until I folded. I grew quiet and accepted.
Doctors have been telling me for years not to exercise. This, too, I accepted. It started when I was 13. I developed arrhythmia and tachycardia. At the time, I was heavily invested in basketball and swimming. I dreamt of entering college as a celebrated athlete, with full scholarship. My swim coach talked to me about Olympic training. Sports were the one area of my life where I trusted what I could be. My body was built to move. I had drive. I was hopeful and eager. Sports were a way out.
When I blacked out after a basketball practice due to rapid heart rate, I was confused. It was my first true setback in my life outside my home. I wasn’t going to let it define me. However, I blew out my knee the following summer during basketball camp. An irresponsible doctor kept me on crutches for five months, during which time my injury not only did not repair itself, but I overdeveloped my right leg muscles by hopping while my left leg atrophied. Surgery, no physical therapy, a coach who told me flat out I would never play basketball again and 48 added pounds later, the fear set in. My coach’s face is still as clear as her twanging voice in my memory. “It wouldn’t be worth it to retrain you,” she said.
I proceeded from those moments as the girl I was before I’d tasted the promise of athleticism. I felt small and weak. Regaining what I had lost seemed impossible. At home, I was told that I was destined to grow larger breasts and wider hips. My body would continue to betray me. And I had to watch out; I was a siren casting a sexual lure for the destruction of men, and it was my fault. After all, I had worn the shorts. I had argued for the tank tops, for matching my teammates despite the inevitable gaze of male audience members at home and away games. The world told me that, at some point, I would be raped, and it would be my fault. At 14, I soaked it all in. I kept my head down, because that’s what you do when you are a young woman who’s been steeped in a culture that says she isn’t good enough, or deserving, and never will be.
Honestly, despite my hoop dreams, I was never amazing at team sports. I worked hard, though. I persisted, and the improvement was steady. If I’d had coaches that lifted me up, or parents who could sort their hopes from their fears, this would be a different story. If I hadn’t grown up with feminine strength equated to moral degeneration, I would be a different person.
Through various forms of therapy, writing, and the relentless support of my spouse, I began to separate the voices of my past from the voice of my self. I did not have to accept that I was weak. I could choose to be strong.
I do not accept that I am weak.
I choose to be strong.
I joined my gym as a mess of skin and bones. I carried with me the trauma of repeat injury, and the habits of not healing. I remember one of the trainers, after listening to my laundry list of “trouble areas” goggling at me and asking how I manage to walk. That question had the potential to embarrass, but my response surprised me. I felt proud. After all, I had walked into the gym. I was there. I was trying.
Here I was, a former child athlete who destroyed her knee and ankle in one fell swoop, hopped on crutches for five months, had knee surgery with no follow-up physical therapy, an ankle that was left untreated until it was too late to reconstruct the damage, an unstable pelvis that easily slipped out of place and was fractured during the hasty exit of an oversized child, nerve damage up one side of my rib cage from shingles, limited shoulder mobility due to rotator cuff flare-ups that had doctors looking for lupus, a history of ovarian cysts that led to an exploded ovary and it’s morphine-bracketed removal, three pregnancies that resulted in abdominal herniation and pelvic pain so severe I frequently couldn’t walk, facial trauma that resulted in a medical study-worthy knot of new nerves and tissue growing inside my cheekbone and into my eye (excitedly removed with a diamond drill by an overzealous ENT) . . . and those were just some of the surface concerns I could articulate.
Inside me lived a barbed horror that flourished in any remotely physical situation. To sum it up, I arrived terrified of what I might do to myself. But I arrived more terrified of what would happen to me if I didn’t do something for myself.
When I walked into the gym that September, I was placing a bet. I had seen friends transformed under the CrossFit model. I saw them not grow skinny, but strong. They stood straighter. And they never talked about their time at the gym with that awkward echo of self-doubt. Whatever was happening in that gym, it was good. No bullying, no winging it, and no body shaming between self-conscious, brand-plastered peers.
I’m an introverted introvert. Walking into any group situation is difficult, but I was as ready as I would ever be. I put my money on my success, knowing that if I couldn’t make it in a gym with Hoosier CrossFit‘s reputation, I wouldn’t make it anywhere.
Working out at HCF feels like playing on a team. The gym’s tone is set by the coaches who tell us to check our pride at the door. We are required to do our personal best (“Your only competition is yourself!”), and to know the names of our fellow athletes. As a result, I’ve experienced more than one watershed moment in the gym. My first month in regular group classes, I found myself working out with four other men. They all stood a head taller than me.
As a survivor, that was triggering. I put my blinders on, kept my head down and my sights focused on just getting through. I felt small and slow and ashamed. My classmates all finished at least two minutes before me, despite the modifications I had made to my workout movements. But they didn’t leave. They circled around me with the coach (also male) and shouted at me, “Shawna, you’ve got this! You are strong!” One man my father’s age shouted, “Shawna, you are badass!” Another even hit the floor, doing the work with me, pacing me while he cheered.
In a gym situation, I have never been okay with people looking at me. The reason is because the treadmill once-over is not me being seen, it is me being judged. At HCF, I am seen. My peers may look at my body. Sure, I look at theirs. I love seeing how far everyone has come and how far I can go. The bigger deal is that these gazes—even the long-dreaded male gazes—are assessing me as a person. When my peers see that I can do more, they take me aside and show me how. They tell me I am capable. They genuinely want to see me succeed. I am encouraged, lifted up, made stronger.
And really, during a CrossFit workout, there is no time to worry about how you look. You have to stay focused on doing your best. Form is incredibly important. Form and coaches that pay attention to it. I will never forget Coach Jenna telling me I can trust my body. It was the first time anyone had strung those words together with regards to my athletic ability. She often stood beside me to remind me I am strong.
This experience has been life-changing. Six months before joining the gym, I could not jump and get my toes all the way off the floor. I couldn’t land without jarring pain. I couldn’t do a sit-up or a crunch. Knee pushups were brutal. Holding a PVC pipe over my head could cause me to lose my balance; my arms wobbled like noodles with the strain. I couldn’t jog. I could only hang from a pull-up bar for three seconds. Lunges without pelvic displacement were a dream.
I improved beyond my own expectation, and I will continue to improve. I don’t need to be the strongest or the fastest. I will get stronger. I will grow faster.
While I’ve had a number of setbacks in the last two years, I’m keeping track of where I was. I will make my return.
I could jump up onto a 20 inch box at least 10 times in a row. I could jump rope, and even do a double under here and there. I could do sit-ups holding a 14 pound medicine ball. I could do five standard toe pushups without flopping in the middle. I could press 45 pounds above my head in a workout. I could run a full mile before asthma slowed me down. I could lift my knees to my chest 10 times in a row while hanging from a pull-up bar. I could lunge holding a 25 pound plate above my head with pelvic stability. As an added bonus, I was one inch taller due to all the space created in my spine.
But it was about so much more than measurable strength or visible changes. I had to commit, show up, and do the work every time. I built a relationship with my body based on respect for me and belief in what I can achieve. What I have gained is physical and emotional ownership of my body. In other words, I am empowered. This means I no longer feel the need to walk around with my head down, and that is a gain you simply can’t quantify.