"I think that it is up to Louisiana and Mississippi athletes to step it up a notch and let Texas know that we are there and we plan to stay.”
~Jessica Malone, Mississipian
Before the final heat of the final individual event of the 2013 South Central Regional, Mississippi native Jessica Malone was announced to the crowd as the “out-of-towner.”
Surrounded by fit Texans, the Mississippian finished seventh in the final event, en route to a seventh-place finish overall.
It was a vast improvement on her 19th-place finish in 2012, and Malone was pleased with her performance. But in 2014, she’d like to do better. In the process, she aims to make a statement about CrossFit in Mississippi—a state not known for health and fitness.
Malone took a step in the right direction at the end of January when she competed in a local competition—Austin, Texas’ Fittest Games. Facing 22 regional veterans and four CrossFit Games veterans, Malone was a few reps shy of making the final heat.
“I signed up to compete at the Fittest Games in order to test myself and see where I stood against some of the top regional competitors and multiple Games athletes to prepare for the Open,” Malone said. “I finished (in) sixth place and was very happy with my finish.”
“It also gave me the opportunity to finally get to know these incredible athletes on a more personal level outside of regionals,” she continued. “Truly had a blast getting to know many of the Texas girls amongst others from California, Washington, Colorado … (It was) nice getting to compare my strengths and weaknesses, which I rarely get to do stuck in good ole Mississippi. The Fittest Games also taught me to quit selling myself short, and that I do have good potential as an athlete to be at the top if I am willing to commit and work hard.”
The 31-year-old, former collegiate softball player, has come a long way in the sport. Ahead of her first regionals appearance in 2012, Malone had little guidance and direction in her training. As a result, the experience in San Antonio took a physical toll and she struggled on the last day of competition.
Afterward, she enlisted the help of two coaches: Bill Rhaly and Michael McElroy. McElroy is a former South Central Regional competitor.
“After qualifying for Regionals, I knew that I needed guidance from someone to help with my training and programming,” Malone said. “Bill was there to assist in improving my lifting techniques and Michael programmed all of my workouts six weeks prior to regionals. Mike was very skilled in targeting my weaknesses, making me stronger, and increased my endurance in order to maintain and recover throughout the weekend at regionals. It was nice for once to have someone telling me what to do and less stressful for me, not having to worry about what I am going to do at the gym on a daily basis.”
Her seventh-place finish in 2013 proved the shift in training was worthwhile.
Looking ahead to the 2014 Open, Malone believes her qualification for the next stage can’t be taken for granted. In fact, the Open scares her more than regionals. Last year, she narrowly missed qualification, finishing 40th.
For one thing, the Open workouts don’t traditionally play to her strengths.
“My fear is more the Open than regionals because most workouts are aerobic based with basic CrossFit movements that everyone can do,” she said. “The more difficult and complex the movements are, such as muscle-ups, chest-to-bar pull-ups or handstand push-ups, the easier for me.”
In particular, wall-ball shots are her nemesis. At 5-feet tall, Malone struggled with them during every phase of CrossFit competition in 2013.
Ahead of the Open, you can be sure her coaches have programmed plenty of wall-ball shots. Again, McElroy is in charge of her programming, which features a lot of AMRAPs and longer workouts.
Her other coach, and boyfriend, Rhaly plays a dual role. He’s there to coach but more importantly he helps her keep things in perspective.
“Bill is my biggest supporter and has been there throughout every competition, motivating me and giving me the encouragement that I need,” Malone said. “I could not do any of this without him. He is the one who introduced me to CrossFit and taught me all I know. I normally get too stressed out and my anxiety kicks in right before competitions. Bill is the calm one who has taught me how to relax and enjoy the moment.”
Rhaly is also “always there to carry her stuff,” he joked. For him, the coach-athlete dynamic has been more a partnership than anything else.
“Early on, I would teach her movements and progressions just like I would anyone else,” he said. “There was never any push back because we were just having fun. These days, I'm more of a support system for her … I give her pointers when I see something and help her with little things when she asks, but mostly we talk about mental aspects of competition, like strategies for different workouts.”
Work ethic and a love for CrossFit and the community have been key factors in her recent success, according to Rhaly.
He also credits McElroy’s programming, which has made a huge difference in her work capacity and ability to recover over a long weekend of competition.
Rhaly said he believes that Malone has enough talent and experience to emerge from Regionals with a ticket to the Games. Consistency will be key.
“Jessica's chances of making it to the Games are just as good as anyone else’s in the South Central Region,” he said. “She has competed head to head with some really awesome female athletes and she has always held her own. Sometimes you never know what that last workout may be, and as long as she stays consistent, she can find herself in a situation to finish strong.”
Recently, the couple opened up Madison Station CrossFit in Gluckstadt, Miss. Malone said having access to equipment at all times has made a huge difference in her training. Also, she has reunited with her training partner Marilyn Kelleher—the only other Mississippi woman to qualify for regionals last year—and the two have been pushing each other in the gym.
Away from CrossFit, Malone earned a doctorate in physical therapy in 2009. She works full time at Beyond Therapy for Kids treating children with special needs, developmental delays or sports injuries.
“I absolutely love my job and all of my kids,” she said. “I have so many children that I’ve seen for years and I have built so many bonds with them and their families. It is the most rewarding job and I feel so grateful every day.”
Malone treats children who have a wide variety of diagnoses, including Down’s syndrome, spina bifida, cerebral palsy, muscular dystrophy, prematurity and many with genetic disorders.
“Some of these children and families are what motivate me everyday to go out and push myself to the max, because I know if they can continue to fight through their struggles, then I should never give up,” she said. “At times I am exhausted when I get off work and it’s a struggle to go to the box and work out, but I have to constantly remind myself that I am fortunate to have my health and ability to do what I love to do, and that is CrossFit.”
Malone has plenty to motivate her this year. Though she feels that neither the sport nor the community owe her anything, she does believe that being from Mississippi has made her easy to overlook in the past.
Like any elite athlete, her goal is the Games. And she plans on making her mark on the region for years to come.
“It is completely up to me to earn my keep and make myself recognized, which is what I intend to do,” she said. “I am going to keep returning back to regionals and make a name for myself just like any other athlete has from Texas. I think that it is up to Louisiana and Mississippi athletes to step it up a notch and let Texas know that we are there and we plan to stay.”