"I understand what is involved — the sacrifice, the self-discipline, the training volume. I immediately recognized the caliber of women currently in the sport and I wanted to compete against them."
In September 2012, the CrossFit community in Austin, Texas, hardly took notice when Judy McElroy took second place at a local competition. Standing atop the podium at 5-foot-6, and 140 pounds, McElroy has a mane of jet-black hair twisted into a trademark braid that hangs to her waist.
There were plenty of new faces at the event and she was just another Austin athlete who came out to try her hand at something different.
Four months later, the 36-year-old is the talk of the town. She’s dominated the local competition scene and put up numbers some say will challenge the Fittest on Earth.
Before she’d ever heard of thrusters, McElroy (nèe Sverchek) was a fan of the iron. McElroy hails from Coeur d'Alene, Idaho, where she not only ran the PRIDE powerlifting federation, but also made a name for herself as an elite RAW powerlifter.
In 2009, McElroy, competing in the 148-pound weight class, recorded world record-breaking numbers: a 285-lb. bench press, a 395-lb. back squat and a 510-lb. deadlift. (Note: At the time of publication her deadlift still stands as the Women’s American RAW record). These days, McElroy “only” lifts 265, 345 and 470, respectively.
But she’s been busy.
The Endurance Athlete
McElroy met and married her husband Jeff, moved to Austin, and 17 months ago, they welcomed their baby, Max. In the last 12 months, McElroy has participated in endurance events, including the Austin 3M Half Marathon, the Livestrong 1.2 Marathon, three 100-mile bike races, and even the IronMan Texas.
She was introduced to CrossFit in September when her husband signed her up for the Athlete Open. Despite her unfamiliarity with Olympic lifting and many of the CrossFit movements, McElroy managed a second-place finish. In two of the events, she revealed the depth of her bag of tricks. In addition to her strength and endurance, McElroy proved to be quick on her feet: she ran 200 meters in 31 seconds, and a mile in 5:46.
In October, McElroy entered the Central Texas Showdown, which includes MMA Competitions. As it turns out, before her powerlifting fame, McElroy dabbled in MMA and boasts a 10-1 pro record. She won.
After some exposure to CrossFit, McElroy was ready to get serious.
“I took an immediate interest in the sport,” McElroy says.
McElroy approached Wes Kimball, head coach/owner at CrossFit Austin.
“I told him that I wanted to compete in the Games and that I knew I could. It wasn’t a disrespectful assumption, of course,” she says. “There are skills that I need to develop and that takes time. It sounds like a goal, but I just don’t set goals. I was making a conscious decision at that moment. I understand what is involved — the sacrifice, the self-discipline, the training volume. I immediately recognized the caliber of women currently in the sport and I wanted to compete against them.”
Surprised by her bold statement, Kimball soon realized this was realistic for McElroy.
“It’s not every day you come across a gal with zero CrossFit experience, who can score a 375 on Fight Gone Bad."
McElroy began the Sports Performance Program at CrossFit Austin in November. Program Director (and former Level 1 and 2 USA Track and Field Coach), Aaron Davis, says has been working with McElroy to prepare her for competition.
“Judy has a coaching team much like what Olympic track and field athletes have,” Davis explains. “Chad Vaughn takes care of the Olympic weightlifting technique, Wes Kimball breaks down and coaches her movement quality and efficiency, and I take care of her day-to-day workouts.”
In the beginning, this approach didn’t sit well with McElroy.
”I came in like a wild animal,” she recalls. “My understanding of CrossFit was to do everything 100 percent, as fast as you can, regardless of form or efficiency. They had to put me in a cage and reprogram the way I think. I begged for more and presented a lot of resistance.”
McElroy trains three to four hours, five days a week, followed by two active recovery days. She often doesn’t know what she will be doing until she wakes up in the morning.
“We always want to manage the dose of work we are giving her,” Davis says.
He adds: “From a technical aspect she is raw, but physically very gifted. I say gifted, but in reality she has worked extremely hard over the years to be where she is today … We just need to put the finishing touches around the specifics of CrossFit.”
Twelve weeks later, McElroy is a believer.
“The progress and gains I have made are unquestionable,” she says. “My CrossFit philosophy has been radically altered — my focus is on executing correctly and efficiently. Whatever I am doing, I focus 100 percent on quality. The emphasis is on becoming a better athlete, not just getting better at CrossFit.”
It’s hard to imagine McElroy getting much better at CrossFit. In the past eight weeks, she has stood on the award podium at every competition she’s entered.
Clearly, McElroy is a gifted athlete, but is shy to admit it, and will deflect if questioned.
“Typically the athlete will most often get the credit for top performances, but it is without a doubt the great coaching behind that athlete that is responsible,” she says. “My coaches prepare me to be great. You can have all of the talent in the world, but underachieve because you don't have the right people to nurture your talent. In addition to the elite physiological and technical coaching, I have received the correct emotional training. This is what keeps me focused when I am tired and gives me the tenacity to succeed when everyone else is done. When you are on a level field, and everyone is an elite athlete, it is the emotional intelligence that gives you the confidence and ability to win.”
Her coaches speak to this mentality, but give full credit to McElroy.
“It's easy to see why Judy has been so successful,” Vaughn says. “Yes, she is ridiculously talented, but more than that, she is determined, self-motivated and relentless. She will put in the time and make the necessary changes because she won't have it any other way.”
Kimball says she has an athlete’s mindset.
“You can’t compete at the top unless you have the ability to focus and know where you need to be mentally. Judy understands what it takes each day to come in and train, and what it takes on game day.”
Tristy Stephens, CrossFit Austin coach adds: “Judy sees herself like a painter views his masterpiece: never finished. No matter how much she accomplishes or how great of an athlete she becomes, she will always be working on what she sees as her weaknesses, even if no one else can see them. I have never witnessed someone more dedicated, disciplined or hard working than Judy.”
She intends to compete in the Open and beyond.
“When I do something, I want to go all the way with it,” she says. “Have you ever heard the saying, ‘It looks like peace, but it is war?’ I need that ‘war’ in my life and I thrive in this type of environment, whether it is the physical punishment of training or from opponents, injuries, complicated relationships with coaches, family and friends, competing for time and money, or the pressure to be everything all the time. Most people on this planet could not handle a life like this. On the contrary, I wouldn’t want to live without it.”