Lymphedema is one way to go from 16 miles per hour to zero in a very short time.
Deborah Cordner of CrossFit Saint Paul found that out in 2002, when she was a scholarship sprinter at the University of Northern Iowa. The former elite gymnast boasted a 53.5 400-meter run—an average speed of about 16 miles per hour—but got lymphedema and was told she had to stop running.
“While I was in college, I got lymphedema, which is a big part of who I am,” said the 30-year-old event planner. “My life kind of revolves around it. There’s a lot that goes into taking care of it. When I got it, they told me I needed to quit college track because basically you can’t do activity with lymphedema. It’s supposed to be bad for it.”
Related to the lymph nodes, lymphedema is a condition where fluid is retained in certain parts of the body and can cause significant swelling. People are usually either born with it or develop it after an injury to their lymphatic vessels, though its exact causes have not yet been completely determined. Cordner said her doctor suspects her condition is related to a groin pull she suffered in college. Either way, Cordner’s collegiate sports career was over.
“I felt like I was never going to be any kind of any athlete again,” she said.
Stubborn and determined, Cordner took up recreational running at longer distances, and she still has to wrap her leg for eight to 12 hours before activity to keep as much fluid as possible out of it. She also wears special compression garments that help her manage the symptoms.
In December 2009, during a long, cold run in Minnesota, she saw a CrossFit gym and stopped in to warm up. She didn’t understand what was going on in the rugged facility at first, but coach Tyler Quinn explained what CrossFit was all about. Cordner was quickly hooked on the program, and in 2011 she decided she wanted to return to competitive athletics and take a run at the Reebok CrossFit Games Open.
After the first workout, she was in 10th overall.
She believes the right activities help her manage lymphedema.
“What I’ve been able to prove, at least for myself, is that being fit and having the lowest amount of body fat as possible without being unhealthy is actually better for my leg,” she says. “With CrossFit, it’s the right amount of competition and the right amount of athletic-energy output … but it doesn’t stress my leg to the point where I need to stop.”
Her therapist thinks perhaps her working muscles push against her compression garments and help push the fluid out of her leg.
Of course, Cordner still has to prepare for activity. Before Workout 11.2, which was put on April 2 in Minneapolis by CrossFit St. Paul and CrossFit Minneapolis, Cordner wrapped her leg for 12 hours with compression bandages. She went on to score more than 13 rounds (484 reps total) in the Twin Cities Open—good enough for 17th overall after two of six workouts. Her motivation during the event was showing people what’s possible.
“It’s disheartening when I go for occasional lymphedema treatments and you see people who are not really living a life that is very full. Of course, I would love people to see me and be like, ‘Listen: I’m not an exception. I’m just stubborn.’”
She continued: “I knew I had to compete. I wanted to show people that with all this adversity it’s still possible to do some pretty good things. I feel almost like if I didn’t have lymphedema I wouldn’t be this far because it gives me all my strength. It gives me all my desire to beat it and not let it define who I am. So this is awesome for me. I love doing this.”
Cordner completed 32 rounds (64 reps) on Workout 11.3. At the time of publication, she is ranked 17th worldwide and 1st in the North Central region.