Within a few weeks of starting CrossFit, Gabrielle Andrews’ coach, Nathan Long, saw potential in the 24-year-old athlete.
“You are good enough to compete,” he told her.
“I probably looked at him like he was crazy, and I did think he was crazy,” Andrews says. “I had never even thought of competing and didn’t even know at the time that there were CrossFit competitions. He was about to open his own CrossFit box, so I decided to trust him and follow him to Bold City.”
Her CrossFit beginning
Within a year of training, Andrews took 18th place at her first CrossFit competition, the 2012 South East Regional, discovering she had a knack for the sport.
Now, in her second year, Andrews is preparing to enter Regionals coming off a 16th-place finish in the Open — up 42 spots from her 58th-place finish last year.
Andrews says she is entering this year’s Regionals more confident, experienced and determined for a spot on the podium. Her lifts have gotten heavier, and her workouts are faster across the board. She recently hit a 205-lb. squat clean PR and has added more than 30 lb. to her snatch from last year’s Regional (145 lb.).
“I have spent a lot of time on my lifts and gymnastics skills in particular this past year, and I feel like my engine has continued to steadily improve,” she says.
Other notable numbers include Andrews’ 185-lb. clean and jerk, 260-lb. back squat and 2:08 Grace.
A typical day of training is anything but typical. Long is still her coach and does her programming. She says he is consistently mixing things up.
“My training varies on a day-to-day basis. After Regionals last year, I dedicated a couple months to strictly strength building and some heavy Oly work,” she says. “I then spent a month trying to knock out every goat I could. And right before the Open, I ramped up my volume, involving more two-a-days.”
Most of her sessions in training for Regionals involve a lift, followed by accessory or goat work and a workout — or three.
“I never know what is coming, which helps me with the mental side of being ready for anything,” she says.
Nearly five years ago, Andrews says she never would have dreamed she would be where she is today.
“I was diagnosed with lupus in 2008 at the age of 21. Earlier that year, I had experienced the loss of my dad and two other family members. Lupus can be stress induced. I went through months of not knowing what was going on with my body,” Andrews says.
Lupus is a chronic autoimmune disease that can damage any part of the body, such as the skin, joints, and/or organs. When a person contracts lupus, his or her immune system is unable to tell the difference between foreign invaders and the body’s healthy tissues, so it creates autoantibodies that ultimately attack and destroy healthy tissue, leading to inflammation, pain and damage in various parts of the body.
Before her diagnosis, Andrews recalls pain in her hands and feet and being extremely tired. The pain progressed and affected other muscles and joints, and she was put on a steroid and medication to help ease the pain. Soon after, she was hospitalized for a week with a high fever, fluid in her lunges and swollen lymph nodes in her abdomen.
“My doctor was concerned that it might be cancer. I was physically and mentally drained and was thinking, ‘God, I can’t handle anything else,’” she remembers. “My body started leveling out, and it was then I was diagnosed with lupus because I met most of the markers.”
While Andrews was relieved to know her condition was not life threatening, she still had to deal with pain and a drastic change in her lifestyle.
“At the time, a normal life for me was to get out of bed, walk down the stairs, get ready if I could, and make it to the couch. My mom had to help me get dressed, and I was unable to drive and work. I remember telling my mom I always hurt, 24/7. There was no relief, and I had forgotten how it felt to feel good again,” Andrews recalls. “My brother played college football, and I remember going out of town for one of his games, and we were walking around. I was unable to keep up with everyone because it hurt to walk, so they had to push me in a wheelchair. For someone that was always on the go, independent and competitive, it was an extremely difficult thing to deal with.”
Her healing process
An athlete all her life, Andrews had been involved in fitness and sports for as long as she can remember. She played volleyball, tennis and softball throughout high school and says it came easy to her. In order to get her moving and active again, her doctor suggested she try water therapy, a form of exercise that would be easy on her joints.
“I started doing water therapy with senior citizens a few times a week, but I was discouraged and just tired of feeling sick and not myself,” she admits. “I was really sick for about a total of two years with high and low days.”
Slowly, her medication started to work and she eventually began to get back to a normal life.
“My faith and knowing God had a plan for my life was what I held onto, and it’s what got me through that time in my life, regardless of the outcome,” Andrews says.
She was not magically cured, but for the past three years, with medication and self-care, Andrews has been able to maintain her lupus in a non-active state without any chronic flare-ups.
She attributes CrossFit to her current state of health and well being.
“I think CrossFit and my diet have helped in the fact that I am in the best shape I have ever been in. My body is strong and healthy. I do not take my health for granted now, and while I am healthy, CrossFit allows me to push my body to a place it has never been before.
Long says he knew Andrews had potential from the start. He has been her No. 1 motivator in CrossFit.
“Gabrielle’s natural athletic ability was apparent from the beginning, but its limit had never been found,” he says. “She had some initial fear of trying to compete, based on the fact that she knew there was a chance for her lupus to flare up. As I continued to push her in trying new things and adding more weight, though, the more she began to trust her own abilities and not fear the possibility of a lupus flare. She started to believe that she could pursue CrossFit further.”
CrossFit has allowed Andrews to educate others, like her doctor, about lupus and her life change through the sport of fitness.
“At my last appointment, she informed me that I should not be doing any form of extreme exercise. I then proceeded to tell her I do CrossFit,” she says. “She didn’t know what that was, so I pulled it up for her on the computer and she was shocked with the high impact and stress it can cause on my body. I told her I am feeling great and listen to my body and make sure I am getting enough rest and recovery … I think she thought I was crazy, but couldn’t really disagree with the change it has created in me and my body.”
Most recently, Andrews left her job at a plumbing company her father started several years ago in order to pursue her competition dreams full time. Now, she is able to spend the majority of her time training and coaching at the gym.
“My dad’s partner believes in my goals and abilities and sees my passion for CrossFit, so after a candid discussion with him, we decided that it was time for me to move on to something bigger and better, hopefully involving CrossFit,” she says. “I do feel very blessed to have the ability and drive that I do and think it is nothing short of a miracle that I am not only able to do CrossFit, but compete at a high level with other elite competitors.”