Life and Limitations as an Adaptive Athlete

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By Hannah Setzer

I’m an adaptive CrossFit athlete. Two years ago, I joined CrossFit Pushin Weight in Powhatan, Virginia, after vehemently (and publicly) saying I’d never do CrossFit. In the past two years I’ve eaten my words, and a lot of ice cream – because, whew those workouts make you hungry! I’ve gotten stronger, challenged myself physically and mentally, and felt part of a community like I never have before.

My gym isn’t full of adaptive athletes; actually, I am one of the few to ever pass through their doors. Yet, I’ve been met with humility and honesty from coaches from the moment I signed up. They were honest with me in that they didn’t know what my workouts may look like, but they were committed to figuring it out with me. They kept me safe and made their space as inclusive as possible for me. They’ve been true to their word, and I couldn’t be more grateful.

Recently, I was in class with several women that I’ve grown to consider great friends. We’ve sweated together, cried together, and laughed together several times a week for months now. One of them has been doing CrossFit for almost eight years and is nearing her sixtieth birthday. She is amazing and much stronger than I am! She challenges me to try harder, go faster, and lift heavier frequently. She was lamenting about getting older and feeling like she is starting to be limited in what she can do. She isn’t able to lift as heavy or push herself as hard as she did years ago. I asked her how long she had been doing CrossFit, and she shared about eight years. I reminded her, “but eight years ago you couldn’t lift that heavy or push yourself even like you do now.”

In my mind, I was surprised by her being sad about limitations she was now facing. To me, she is incredibly strong, powerful, and capable, but of course I’m not in her body and don’t know how she feels. She did not say this to complain or compare herself to anyone else besides her former self. Aren’t we always our own worst critics?

I wondered why I reacted so strongly to her sharing that she was a bit upset by this. In my mind I suddenly thought, “I’ve lived my whole life with limitations – at this point anything I’m doing, in the gym or in life, is a success!” I’ve only been doing these workouts for two years and am vastly stronger than I was two years ago. I have every intention of continuing until I can’t, and I’m certain that I’ll continue to get stronger. I’ll grow until a point; the point where we all get to decline. I hope that point is very far from now and that I can accomplish much more before then.

Being born disabled has meant that my whole life is full of limitations. There are things I will literally never be able to do, whether that is swim under water due to my trach, hike the Appalachian Trail due to having a feeding tube, or have a barbell loaded with weight in the front rack position balanced on my shoulders for fear of hitting or crushing my trach. I don’t say any of that to garner pity, but as context for the mindset I have cultivated to be grateful for the milestones I do hit, and the strength I still have to strive for more. In this moment, I was glad I could maybe offer another perspective, to remind her how far she’s come, but also to honor her feelings that things have changed. It’s ok to be sad about those things too!

Being disabled means I find new limitations all the time, or honestly, new things to be insecure about. It also means that I have very tangible examples I can mentally or physically return to, to remind myself how far I’ve come and how much I’ve overcome. Hopefully, I can offer this hope to others, not a way that is patronizing, or minimizes their feelings, but because if they haven’t often faced limitations before. Limitations can be very jarring.

I don’t want to be Pollyanna and say, “well when you reach a certain age all you can do is look back on your life and be glad for XYZ.” I think we can always move forward and grow but in terms of physical activity, our routines may look different at age 45 than age 20. Anyone of us can become disabled in any way, at any time. Putting effort and energy into the things you have now, acknowledging how far you’ve come, and combining this with a healthy dose of hope for the future, is all we can really do.

Also, find yourself a community of people of all abilities to hang with, and move your body, mind, or soul. That’s important too!

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