Photo courtesy of Kimberly Potterf
"If I can inspire people to get active, that's the main goal. To teach them that they can eat right and exercise, and do it because they love themselves and they're worth it ..."
The week before Shellie Edington won the Masters 50-54 Division in the 2015 Reebok CrossFit Games Open, she led a small group of wriggling toddlers in a series of frog jumps, forward rolls and a rousing rendition of “Miss Puffy,” a No. 1 hit among the Tumble Tots of Tumblin4Kids, Edington’s gymnastics program for children. As she sang, the kids mimicked her every move, bending to touch their toes before sinking to the mat for the butterfly stretch.
Seven days later, she traded “Miss Puffy” for Slipknot, finishing all 144 reps of rowing and thrusters in Open Workout 15.5 in 9:36, taking seventh place in the workout and first overall in her division.
In her fifth Open she finished in the top four in all but one workout, never placing outside the top 10 and scoring one first-place finish in 15.3. The victory followed a third-place podium finish in the Masters 45-49 Division at the 2014 Reebok CrossFit Games—her second Games appearance since she began CrossFit in 2010.
“It’s an honor,” Edington said. “I’m proud of myself, but the true accomplishment will be standing on that podium in first place.”
Being an elite athlete hasn’t always been her goal. Though she was a competitive gymnast from 12-18 years old and earned full gymnastics scholarships from two colleges, the pressure of competition was too much, and she quit before enrolling in business school in the early ’80s. Two years after marrying in 1985, she and her husband, Christopher, had their first of three children, and Shellie thought her competition days were over.
“I remember telling myself I’ll sacrifice my body for my children,” she said. “At that time, my whole life was my children and my husband, just dedicating myself to them and meeting all their needs.”
Play dates and preschool took precedence over her health, and extra pounds crept on as gym memberships expired, unused. Though Edington neglected her own fitness, she worried for her children’s, noticing a lack of physical education for kids below the first grade.
“I saw no structured play, no play that taught children how to stretch, run, jump, tiptoe or walk backwards,” she said.
So she brought her gymnastics background to the classroom, joining the staff at her children’s preschool to teach basic movement and tumbling skills. She grew the program along with her kids, lugging mats and foam wedges to daycares and rec centers, officially launching Tumblin4Kids in October of 2000. Today, Edington teaches kids from ages 2 to 12, employs another full-time instructor and has seeded a Tumblin4Kids affiliate in Cincinnati, Ohio.
Her mission, she said, is to teach kids to love movement in their formative years.
“I saw kids who wanted to do a back handspring for cheerleading, but they couldn’t even do a forward roll,” she said. “Children have to have certain things by the time they’re 5; movement skills and certain patterns have to be done or parts of their brain won’t develop. We see that a lot in our urban cities where they were kept very sedentary, and at 12 they can’t run or gallop.”
Though Edington spent her days teaching kids to jump, run and tumble, it wasn’t until she turned 45 that she noticed the severity of her own declining fitness. She couldn’t demonstrate a single pull-up or push-up, and her knees and shoulders ached when she bent to pick up a child.
“I really had let myself go; I was in major denial,” she recalled. “I felt decrepit … I was like, ‘Well, I’m going to have to quit teaching when I’m 50 or I’m not gonna be able to move.”
One of her students’ parents had raved about CrossFit Kids, and so in September of 2010, Edington phoned Mitch Potterf, owner of CrossFit 614 in Columbus, Ohio. They made a deal: Potterf would bring his young daughter for a class with Edington and Edington would try CrossFit.
At first, she hated it. Ashamed of her banded pull-ups and push-ups scaled to her knees, she had no desire to return.
“But the fear of going back pissed me off,” she said. “I said, ‘I’m going back because I don’t wanna go back.”
She returned to CrossFit 614 the next day, going on to train three times per week. Three turned to five, and at the end of November she reclaimed her pull-up. In 2011, she competed in her first Open, taking 76th place in the Masters 45-49 Division.
“Everyone was like, ‘That’s really good,’” Edington recounted. “So I thought maybe I should start paying attention.”
After dialing in her diet, getting individualized programming from Potterf and studying with an Olympic weightlifting coach three times per week, she went on to take 37th place in 2012, competing with CrossFit 614 at the Central East Regional that year. In 2013, she improved her Open rank by 29 places, taking eighth in her division. By then, her goals had changed from wanting to get back in shape to wanting to stand atop the podium.
“To find out I could compete again was so exciting,” she said. “I felt so privileged.”
But moving from the comfort of her gym to the big stage in Carson, California, reignited the stress she felt before meets as a young gymnast. Cut before the final two events, she finished 19th out of 20 competitors.
“I completely freaked myself out, I was so nervous,” she said. “There was a fight-or-flight thing that was happening and I was not prepared for the adrenaline or anxiety. I knew I needed to go back and do better.”
After another year of training, she did just that, taking third place at the Games last year at age 49, with seven top-10 finishes and one event win. As she stood on the podium’s third pedestal, she glanced at the women in the next age division up.
“I looked to my right and I was like, ‘I’m coming 50,’” she remembered.
Her coach credits her prodigious progress to her work ethic.
“She’s just willing to do what it takes,” Potterf said. “I think everybody thinks she was always like this. She wasn’t … she just knows how to use her body, and she does it over and over again. She works harder than most people.”
According to Edington, her success in 2014 was due to a combination of knowing what to expect and a difference in mentality. Though the pull-up rig at the StubHub Center, heated by the summer sun, seared her flesh in 2007—a 1,000-m row followed by 5 rounds of pull-ups and push jerks—she never quit.
“My skin was sticking to the bar, but my hand was butterflying,” she said. “A year before I would have stopped and not continued, but this time it didn’t even enter my brain.”
Edington carried the lessons with her this year, handing off most of her classes to her assistant instructor, and plotting a map for training and rest with Potterf weeks before the Open.
“The great thing is having experience,” she said. “Knowing what to do, putting it in on cruise control and following the plan.”
She kicked off the 2015 season with a second-place finish in 15.1, capping the performance with a 170-lb. clean and jerk (a 10-lb. personal record) for fourth place in 15.1a. Two weeks later, she took home her first Open win, completing 345 reps in the 14-minute AMRAP of muscle-ups, wall-ball shots and double-unders before the time ran out.
“That’s always been my goal—to win a (workout) in the Open,” she said.
It wasn’t until the final workout that Edington felt the old anxiety creeping back in, as she went too hard, too fast, fatiguing before the set of 27 thrusters was done.
“I thought, ‘How many thrusters can I do without stopping?’” she said. “I got to 21 and I’m like, ‘This was a bad idea.’”
Dissatisfied with her time of 10:08, which would have tied her for 17th on the workout with Marion Valkenburg, she did the workout again Monday night. But as she prepared to take her second attempt, her breathing became labored and a deep chest cold took hold.
She paused, imagining she were on the track at the Games.
“Instead of hearing, ‘3-2-1 … go,’ I hear that horn thing in my mind,” she said. “I try not to look at the clock, because (at the Games) I’m not going to be seeing a clock unless I’m standing around, and that’s not a good thing.”
The oncoming sickness forgotten, she thought only of her plan: to break the first rounds of thrusters in two sets. She banked her last rep at 9:36, a 32-second improvement from her first attempt.
“That right there is a huge leap for me,” she said. “Being able to put something out of my mind that would normally be something that would distract me and cause me to fixate on it.”
This week, Edington will compete against 199 other women in the Masters Qualifier for one of 20 spots at the 2015 Reebok CrossFit Games.
“The goal every year is to do better than (she) did before, and for that to be (her) best,” Potterf said. “Our goal is not to have a fitness vacation in L.A. Play to win the game.”
And for Edington, winning the Games is about more than personal glory. It’s about setting an example—not only for her students, but also for their parents.
“If I can inspire people to get active, that’s the main goal,” she said. “To teach them that they can eat right and exercise, and do it because they love themselves and they’re worth it, and that their family deserves that person ... if I can go to the Games, it’s only going to improve my ability to do that.”