Getting off the floor is the hardest part. Somewhere between rounds four and eight, it occurred to me that cleaning a 70-pound (about 32 KG) barbell, for several reps, was not hard. Getting to the floor, lying on my back, and swinging my feet overhead to touch toes to that same barbell, for several reps, was not hard. No, twenty plus years into being diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis (MS), and seven years into my CrossFit journey, I came to realize getting off the floor in between those two movements was the hardest thing. The hardest thing was the simplest thing, but that’s the story of my life.
At the age of 41, I’ve lived with MS over half my life, but in many ways, I think I’ve always had MS. I was the kid who owned the fifteen-minute mile and no matter how much my athletic mother worked with me, I couldn’t jump rope. “I guess she’s just a little uncoordinated,” people would say. Granted, I loved sports and I was never picked last for school yard games, but I knew I had to work harder than most kids. That was, especially, true for my tennis career. My mother taught me how to play as a child and I had success with the sport, but it didn’t come naturally. I moved slow on the court, my legs always felt like bricks and you knew I was nearby if a coach was screaming, “Move your feet!” after every other stroke. I knew I wasn’t going to win any matches with my agility, so I learned how to hit the cover off the ball . . . all 5’4” and 100 pounds (about 45 KG) of me, which no one saw coming and served as my saving grace.
I had offers to play tennis at the university level, but I turned them down. That turned out to be a good choice because I was diagnosed with MS while working on my undergraduate degree. Despite that, I finished my degree on time. Despite that, I pushed ahead, but I was, also, living in a bit of denial, and I didn’t realize that until I drove halfway across the US to accept a job I wasn’t prepared to take. I was in no position, mentally or physically, to move across the country by myself, but I didn’t realize that until I got all the way there and had to turn around and come home. I knew my original career choice of politics was unrealistic, so I decided to enroll in graduate school and changed my career path, altogether. What I didn’t change was my, general outlook. I finished my graduate degree, began a new career in higher education and my life looked to be on the upswing. I was in a better mental place, but my physical health was terrible. I had ballooned to around 200 pounds (about 90 KG), I was lethargic, constantly out of breath, pre-diabetic and my cholesterol was at dangerous levels. Something had to change, and I was, finally, done with excuses. MS or not, I had to help myself.
I can’t remember, exactly, how I landed on CrossFit, but, seven years ago, I signed up for an introductory weekend or what is called On-Ramp. All the barbells were lined up in upright storage holder slots separated by weight. The coach asked us to grab a 35-pound bar (about 15 KG) and bring it to the mat. I put my hands around a bar. I pulled up on the bar. Nothing. I tried, again. Still, nothing. I couldn’t lift the bar up and out of the storage holder slot. In fact, I was so weak, I couldn’t even budge that bar. I couldn’t do the simplest thing there. The simplest thing was the hardest thing. I’m not an, overly, emotional person, but in that moment, I just wanted to cry and run out of there. I wanted to quit. I’d chosen something that was too hard. I wanted to leave. I wanted to leave, but I decided to stay. It was the best decision I could have made for myself.
I finished that On-Ramp weekend with a PVC pipe instead of a barbell, but I finished. As it turned out, I could do some things. I could pull a rower. I could pedal a stationary bike. I could swing a light kettlebell, press a light dumbbell, and push a very light sled. I wasn’t good at any of it, though, and I had to teach myself how to do other, seemingly, simplistic tasks. I had to learn how to step up on a box without falling down. I had to learn how to do a lunge without falling over to the side. I had to learn how to squat without falling backwards. I had to learn how to jump rope without falling over my own two feet.
I, also, had to get myself through another, seemingly, simple thing. I had to learn how to withstand extreme temperatures, namely, the heat and high humidity during the warmer months. Surprise! Most CrossFit gyms (or boxes as well call them) either don’t have air conditioning or they don’t cool all that well. Plus, the owners control the thermostat and like most of our dad’s, when we were kids, they don’t want anyone else touching their pre-programmed settings, either. Sure, there’s a lot of industrial fans, but even people without MS can attest, fans only go so far and do so much. Needless to say, it was hard, but over time I trained my body to withstand the heat as well as the stagnant, thick, humid air and, several years in, I was well conditioned enough to endure long distances in the heat, too.
About three years into my CrossFit journey, I traveled to Israel and I ended up walking through the streets of the Old City in Jerusalem wearing a heavy backpack in early July. I passed tour groups with medics hard at work. People were, constantly, sitting in the shade or stopping to rest. Everyone around me was complaining, but I was fine. I was taking in the sites of the Holy Land, by myself, in extreme temperatures, with a heavy backpack all because I didn’t quit that On-Ramp. I ended up crossing something off my bucket list because I didn’t quit. I ended up having a reflective and cathartic experience because I didn’t quit. I ended up getting baptized in the Jordan River. All because I didn’t quit.
To the naked eye, my MS isn’t visible. I work full-time, I don’t use walking aids and my gait, probably, wouldn’t raise any eyebrows. I don’t look all that different in the gym, either, until my MS decides to show up with certain movements. I can hit a 185-pound deadlift (about 83 KG) but stepping up on a 20-inch box is difficult. Many times, I’m still the last one to finish a workout, but I finish, or I finish as much as I can. A lot of people with MS tell me, “I could never do CrossFit” or “I can’t exercise,” but that’s not true. Everyone can do something. I don’t care if all you can do is walk to your mailbox every day, it’s something and, after a while, walking to your mailbox might turn into walking around the block and then maybe more. The important thing to remember is you control more than you think. MS robs people of a lot of things, but the thing it steals the most is self-motivation. We all fight different battles, but what others do for you is never as important as what you do for yourself. Everything starts and ends with you. Everything is up to you.
I’m not good at CrossFit. I’ll never lift the most or turn in the fastest time, but I’m not the slowest, either. No, the slowest person is the person who doesn’t even try. The slowest person is somewhere else making excuses. The slowest person isn’t even there. I think about that when I struggle with, seemingly, simple things. It’s hard to get off the floor, sometimes, but I know how to pick myself up. I’ll get there, eventually. It’s nothing new. It’s the story of my life.
#crossfit #adaptivecrossfit #changenowcrossfit
I work in higher education at a public research university in Kansas City, Missouri (USA). I enjoy traveling, CrossFit, rucking (walking with a weighted backpack), Kansas City Royals baseball and spending time with my cousins’ children as well as my parents. Diagnosed at the age of 20, I have lived with MS for over 20 years. I no longer takes any MS-related medication and manages all symptoms via exercise, chiropractic care, diet, and a positive outlook. I'm active on Instagram @gina.n.campbell.