It was some hour after midnight last June in Lynnwood, Washington, and 34-year-old Brandy Digre could hardly breathe. Her 350-lb.-plus body pressed her 5-foot-6 frame to the bed, compressing her chest like a night hag. Gasping in the dark, Digre gathered her stomach in her hands.
“I could literally pick up my belly fat and breathe,” said the mother of three. “The minute I dropped it, I struggled to breathe, and that was my tipping point for knowing I needed to change something about me, or else my family would be left without a wife or mother.”
Digre hadn’t worked out—hadn't so much as taken a hike—in nearly two decades. But today, after seven months of training at CrossFit Industrious, she’s dropped more than 100 lb., perfected the wall climb and in less than a month, she’ll compete in the 2016 Open.
“I just want to see if I can do it,” she said. “I feel like I’ve come so far; I want to push myself to see what it feels like to be in that kind of situation and to see how far I can go with it.”
Killing Herself Slowly
Digre had always been heavy, spending her teenage years mired in a deep depression. She avoided going out with friends, and ate to comfort herself.
“I would never really want to go out and participate in things because I didn't want people looking at me,” she said. “Just the thought of having to sit next to someone when you're overweight and taking up all this space was kind of a mental challenge too, for me. I just felt like I was taking up space.”
Her depression abated as she aged. She moved from her small Washington hometown to the Seattle area and found a job and husband she loved. Though she still avoided social situations, she was happy, and she ate liberally. Fast food was a staple, and she drank large McDonald’s Cokes by the threes.
“It didn't click in my brain that I was probably slowly killing myself,” she said.
When she got pregnant with her daughter Saydie in 2005, she ate even more, growing from 205 to 265 lb. over the course of the pregnancy.
“I just ate whatever I wanted because I had that illusion of ‘Oh, you’re pregnant, you can eat whatever you want; I’ll lose it after the baby,’” she recounted. “And it just didn’t work out that way.”
Three years later, she gave birth to a son, Kylen, gaining 25 lb. more and receiving an underactive thyroid diagnosis.
Digre’s doctor, quicker to write prescriptions than meal plans, prescribed Phentermine, an appetite suppressant with listed side effects including hallucinations, seizures and hypertension. Digre quit the pills after a few weeks, opting instead for programs like LA Weight Loss and Weight Watchers. She gained back all she lost within weeks.
“I wasn't exercising or truly teaching myself how to only put in what I needed,” she said.
By the time she delivered her third child, Seth, in 2013, she weighed 355 lb., had a total cholesterol of 266 mg/dL—well over the 200 mg/dL the National Institute of Health considers desirable—and would soon need to go on medication for high blood pressure, her doctor warned.
The warning fell on deaf ears.
“It was never enough to motivate me to change something,” Digre said. “I think I assumed I would eventually get to it, but I kept packing on the weight. And then it got harder, because the more weight you have, the less you want to do stuff.”
Immediately after work each day Digre would go to bed, too exhausted to indulge her children’s pleas to play with them.
“It was awful,” she said. “I had these children that are full of absolute life, and I had no life in me.”
Her legs were swollen and she could barely bend her knees. Her back ached and she struggled to breathe. She avoided meeting her own gaze in the mirror.
“When you see yourself on video or when you see yourself in a reflection, it's really just not pretty,” she said.
In the summer of 2014, Digre spotted a co-worker clad in gym attire at lunchtime. He had just returned from a workout at CrossFit Industrious, and encouraged her to check it out. She’d seen CrossFit before, she just didn’t know it. Since the affiliate’s opening in 2011, Digre had driven by it each day, staring in disbelief as she idled at the stoplight next to the gym.
“I'd see people running outside,” she said. “I used to think, ‘Um, yeah, running? No way.’ I'd just drive on by, and go to work. I was happy that way. Or at least I thought I was.”
One co-worker’s rave review wasn’t about to change her mind.
“I've never been good with gyms because I feel the minute I walk in, people are staring at me and either thinking, ‘About time you showed up’ or ‘Ew, gross,’” Digre said.
“This gym’s not like that,” said her co-worker.
Digre gave CrossFit no further thought, until one year later, in June 2015, when her employer announced a summer partnership with CrossFit Industrious. CrossFit was coming to campus for two months, and employees could participate for free.
Digre remembered the night she had to lift her belly to breathe, and committed to trying the program for just one week.
“I was nervous as all be to step foot on that lawn,” she said.
Fitness: May Cause Happiness
JULY 7, 2015— Stephen Hitt, owner of CrossFit Industrious, loaded up his shiny beetle-black Mercedes sprinter van, “CrossFit Industrious” emblazoned on the side, with rubber mats and rowers. It was the first day of class, kicking off Premera Blue Cross’ summer partnership with the affiliate, in which for two months, three times per week, Hitt would bring the gym to the company.
“We just load up all the gear, pile up in the van, music bumpin’, and roll out in the middle of campus,” Hitt said.
In the courtyard of the four-building campus, he and two other coaches pumped music through wireless speakers and arranged rowers in the grass, in line with a series of hanging potted flowers. Employees stared as they ate their lunches at nearby picnic tables.
Meanwhile, Digre gathered her courage.
“I was extremely nervous the first day,” she recalled. “I was worried how other co-workers would view me, feeling like I would be the most out-of-shape person there.”
The workout was three rounds of a 200-m row, 20 air squats and a 200-m run. Sure of her impending failure, Digre was surprised when coaches cheerfully provided modifications, high-fiving her each time she rounded the bend of her 100-m walk. Her co-workers—many of whom were already regular members at CrossFit Industrious—cheered her on, and Digre forgot to wonder what onlookers might be thinking.
“I never once felt that anybody was looking at me like you shouldn’t be here,” she said.
She came back the next day, and the one after that.
“I think what had me come back was how encouraging the coaches were,” she said. “The minute you hear your name called out in the workout, it's almost empowering. It gives you that little extra boost you need to keep going.”
When Digre got back to her desk, she peeled off her name tag and wrote “355,” her starting weight, in the corner. Two months’ worth of name tags later—and after cutting fast food and soda from her diet—she was down more than 50 lb.
“I don’t think I realized how much my body probably did not want to hold onto that weight,” she said. “After changing the way I ate … it just kind of melted off.”
After the summer program ended, Digre joined CrossFit Industrious as a regular member, training five to six days per week. In the fall, the gym scheduled a 6-mile hike in Granite Falls, Washington. She appealed to Hitt, unsure if she could make it the whole way.
“I said, ‘Well the good news is it’s just walking, so if you keep putting one foot in front of the other, you're gonna make it all the way back to the car,’” Hitt said.
She made it, and followed up her success with another hike one month later. This one was seven miles and included an elevation gain of 1,350 feet.
“(My) breathing had vastly improved, and I didn’t feel the hurt like I did the hike before,” Digre said.
Today, after seven months of CrossFit, Digre has lost 102 lb., can back squat 130 lb., deadlift nearly 180 lb. and complete band-assisted ring dips. She can do burpees with ease, her cholesterol is within the normal range and her thyroid medication has been reduced. She plays Wii Dance with her kids after work.
“It means the world because to be honest, they grow up so fast,” she said. “My 10-year-old is already 10, and before you know it, she's gonna be 18. It just gives me back more time with them, where I really missed out the first few years of their lives.
But her biggest accomplishment, Digre said, is her mental transformation.
“I think once I started seeing that I could do it, no matter if it’s scaled or not, I think that boosted my confidence 110 percent,” she said. “I have people telling me now that half the time they don’t recognize me, not only due to the physical transformation but because I’m out of my shell. I have a ‘glow of confidence,’ as I’m told often, and I look happy.”
But Digre’s faith in herself would have one more test to endure. As fall turned to winter, talk at the gym turned to the Open.
For a moment, the old self-doubt resurfaced. Digre liked CrossFit, but could she really compete?
“I told her absolutely,” Hitt said, “because regardless of whether or not somebody has ambitions to be a CrossFit Games athlete, that’s not what the Open is about. The Open is about sharing this experience with each other and competing together as a community and supporting each other and cheering each other on through it, and celebrating everybody's individual accomplishments.”
Digre’s fellow athletes–including Greg Lambert, who finished the 2014 Open in last place–also encouraged her to join.
“Really, it's the people that are making me feel like I can do it,” Digre said. “To be honest, it intimidates the crap out of me. But everyone's been like ‘You'll love it, it’s a great time, everyone's there to be your cheerleader.”
She signed up on the day Open registration began. Her goal, she said, is to “know that I tried my hardest and finished with as much as I could.”
“I'm committed, I'm ready to do it, I'm excited, everyone has already been cheering for me so it makes me that much happier,” she added.
Regardless of whether she can do all the movements or where she places, for Digre, the Open will be a celebration of just how far she’s come.
“I used to be timid and shy and so enclosed and reserved, and I feel like this has just opened up all sorts of possibilities for me, mentally and physically,” she said. “And if it can help save someone else's life—because I kind of feel like it has mine—then if I can do it, hopefully someone else can think that they can do it too.”