Growing up, I was far more of an academic achiever than an athletic one. (In junior high, I was voted “little Einstein” by my classmates. True story.) I was terrible at most of the school gym class activities, and my friends were mainly the kids I knew from choir, theater, and uber-geeky clubs like “Future Problem Solving” (yep, it’s a thing). I did not particularly look up to or admire the jocks at school, but I was always fascinated by athleticism. I’ve been a huge Olympics fan since I was old enough to know what they were. During the summer games of 1976, I was sick in bed and remember feeling lucky because being ill meant I was allowed to have the old black and white TV in my room so I could watch. Most people who knew me growing up would never have known it, but I longed to be good at something physical.
My own attempts to be athletic started early and were decidedly unspectacular. My parents were avid downhill skiers, so I was competent on the slopes from a pretty young age, but too timid and tentative to be good at racing. Inspired by my father, who had taken up running in the late 1970s and went on to run several marathons, I started running too and was a determined member of the cross country team all through junior high and almost all through high school. Although I dropped out of the team halfway through the season so I could be in the school musical my senior year, my letter jacket (which I earned for perfect attendance at team practice rather than race results, mind you) was my most prized possession in those days. Along the way, I tried numerous other sports, including swimming, diving, gymnastics, cross country skiing, basketball, softball, even fencing, with results ranging from passable to utter failure. While I had many positive experiences and some small achievements, I never found the kind of success or satisfaction I dreamed of.
It wasn’t until I was an adult that I began to discover physical activities that I was actually good at. The first was Scottish country dancing, which I tried on a whim while I was living in Scotland during my junior year of university. Apart from the forced square dancing we were subjected to in high school gym class, I had never done any kind of dance up to that point, so I was shocked to discover how much I loved it and how easily it came to me. It changed my life forever. It gave me a circle of friends. It gave me confidence. It gave me joy. It was physically challenging. But. It didn’t quite satisfy my yearning to be an athlete.
I was a member of some kind of gym nearly uninterrupted from childhood, whether it was the JCC, the Y, or the college rec center. I was a dogged pursuer of fitness, from Nautilus machines and aerobics in the 1980s, Pilates and step aerobics in the 1990s, to Body Pump and elliptical trainers in the 2000s. I drifted between various routines and group classes, eventually growing bored and moving on to the next thing. While I maintained a baseline level of fitness, I never saw much in the way of results.
I owe my discovery of CrossFit to a perfect stranger who generously agreed to help me with my squat. Squatting was a regular feature of BodyPump, and I had been frustrated with my inability to do it. I mentioned my difficulties to my hairdresser (as one does) during an appointment one day in late 2009, and he said he could connect me with a friend of his who might be able to help. That friend was Michael Sampson, who despite not knowing me from Adam, met up with me at the YW, and gave me some helpful pointers. Then he said, “you know, if you really want to work on squatting, you should check out CrossFit,” and told me about a new CrossFit gym opening not far away. That was the first time I’d ever heard of it. A couple of weeks later, I had become one of that gym’s first members.
I didn’t know then if I’d be any good at CrossFit, but I knew I liked the idea of workouts that were short and intense, incorporated lots of variety, and took place in a small group setting. And I was promised plenty of opportunity to get help on my squat! I quickly discovered that CrossFit was an exhilarating mix of things that I was able to do well almost immediately (double unders, push-ups), things that I could do passably well with effort (box jumps, running, toes to bar), and things that seemed almost impossible (snatching, anything involving squatting!). For every thing that frustrated me, like wall balls, there was something that, though hard for many others, came relatively easily to me, like pull-ups. I soon discovered that even closing in on 41 years old, I was far from the worst, and at least in the little pond of our gym, I was a big enough fish to beat some of the 20-somethings. And here is where I must confess, dear reader: If you don’t know already, the truth is, I have a pretty strong competitive streak. CrossFit emphasizes metrics, and I enjoyed the ability to track my improvement in strength and speed and to measure myself (oftentimes favorably!) against others. It was a new and exciting sensation to me to be measurably better than others at a physical activity. In 2014, I won the masters division at the Dakota Games in Fargo. It was the first time I had ever won something athletic. I can still remember the feeling. It was only a regional competition with about a dozen athletes in my division, but for me, it was as if I had won the Olympics. CrossFit gave me that moment, and I will never, ever forget it.
But being reasonably good at CrossFit is not the reason I’m still doing it ten years later. The variety of modalities was an attractive element from the beginning, and in the CrossFit workouts, there were lots of interesting things I’d never been exposed to before, like rowing, kettlebells, and yes, barbells. Despite a long history of participating in numerous sports and working out at gyms with all manner of equipment, I had never so much as touched a barbell before I entered the CrossFit gym. It simply wasn’t something anyone had ever encouraged me to try. Though the Olympic lifts were (and continue to be) a challenge, it turned out that I was pretty good at pressing and pulling, and eventually, I learned to squat as well. There is something simple and pure about the act of moving a heavy weight that I find deeply satisfying, and unlike many of the other physical training methods I’ve pursued, the relationship between the work you put in and the results you get seems somehow more direct and clear; do the reps and the sets and you become measurably stronger.
I met Hannah at my first CrossFit gym and followed her to Solcana when she opened the gym in 2014. I participated in my first powerlifting competition when Solcana hosted its inaugural meet that fall. Soon afterwards, the Solcana Powerlifting Team was formed and my Saturday afternoons have been busy ever since. I never would have guessed when I met up with Michael Sampson that day at the YW that almost exactly ten years later he’d be coaching me to a national championship and an American record for total. I never dreamed that day I went in for my CrossFit intro and had to air squat to a 20” box in order to do the baseline workout, that a decade later I’d be back squatting 280 lbs.
But being a successful powerlifter, as amazing as that has been, is not the reason I’m still at Solcana five and a half years on (and just paid my membership up through 2020). People are the reason. Whether it’s the coaches or the other members, I’ve always felt welcomed and accepted. When I’ve been injured, coaches have made sure there were modifications to allow me to keep participating. When I’ve felt discouraged, fellow members have been there to encourage me and boost my spirits. I’m a pretty reserved person, and I have a kind of serious demeanor (RBF anyone?) so I don’t often find it easy to get to know others and make friends, but I’ve always felt like folks at Solcana have my back. Hannah has created an amazing community, and I’m grateful to be a part of it. Here’s to the next decade!