Last Friday night, thousands of CrossFit athletes across the globe gathered to compete in Open Workout 16.4. They loaded their barbells and adjusted their footstraps before facing the wall, arms up like crooks, to get measured for handstand push-ups.
Kelsey Whirley, a 20-year-old athlete from Hoosier CrossFit in Bloomington, Indiana, had a bit more to do. Perched upside down against the gym wall, her judge drew white boxes in chalk around each of Whirley’s hands. After, she wrapped her medicine ball in neon orange duct tape.
It wasn’t just for show. At 15, Whirley was diagnosed with retinitis pigmentosa (RP), an incurable genetic disorder that causes retinal cell death, resulting in vision loss and eventual blindness. The markings on the floor showed Whirley where to put her hands, and tricking out the black and red medicine ball helped it stand out from the red target above.
The diagnosis ended an almost lifelong ambition to play professional basketball. But in CrossFit, Whirley said, she’s found new purpose and a potential career path.
“I had a huge hole in my heart from losing my dream of playing basketball,” she said. “I didn't think I would ever get over it, but CrossFit overflowed that empty space.”
For as long as she can remember, Whirley wanted to play basketball. She started at age five, and by middle school, she was spending most of her free time on the court, logging at least 1,000 shots per day after practice. She was just as diligent in the off-season, shooting hoops in the driveway with her grandmother while her parents were at work.
“I had my 60-something-year-old grandma out there for like three hours rebounding for me,” she recalled.
She made her high school team as a shooting guard her freshman year. Hoping to earn a scholarship to play for the University of Tennessee, all thoughts of her future revolved around the game.
“I was like, ‘I want to be a college athlete, I want to play in the pros, I want to make the Olympic team and I want to coach when I'm done with that,” she said. “Basically like my whole career was somehow going to be in basketball.”
But it was around that time that something strange happened. She began having trouble catching passes on the court, and she struggled to pass driver’s ed.
“I was clearly not stopping at stoplights,” she said. “I would just drive right through them. I wouldn’t see signs, so I’d just keep going.”
A routine check-up at the eye doctor led to an appointment with a specialist, where she received her diagnosis. At first, she remained unconcerned, certain that she could still get a driver’s license and continue to play basketball.
“Honestly, I think I didn’t realize how serious it was,” she said.
She wouldn’t come to terms with the gravity of her situation until the end of her sophomore year, during a championship sectional game. Her team was in the lead but the game was close, and she was on the scoring end of a sudden fast break.
“I'm on the other side of the court all by myself by a basket, (and) somebody passed to me (from) down the court,” she remembered. “I should have scored an easy layup, but the ball goes right by me and out of bounds because I just completely could not see it.”
She was crushed and embarrassed.
“That moment was just terrible,” she said. “I was like, ‘That’s not me, I’m not that kind of player. How does that happen?’”
Just a few months later, she was denied a driver’s license. Worse, she knew that despite her skills on the court, she would never be able to see well enough to play at the elite level she aspired to. To cope with the pain, she acted out, sneaking drinks at parties and sulking around the house.
“I think I went through a little bit of a rebellious time...because (basketball) had been my life goal,” she said. “That's what I had spent all my time on. I was set on it...I really needed something, like an outlet, and for awhile it was just getting into trouble I guess.”
It wasn’t until her junior year that she discovered a more positive outlet for her frustration: fitness.
“When I started to notice my basketball abilities going downhill, I would just work hard in practice to beat everybody in sprints,” she said. “And I was like, ‘Maybe I can make my body stronger. That way, on the court, I can have a big presence.’”
A Test of Resolve
At the start of the semester, Whirley began attending body pump classes at a local fitness center.
“There's all that lifting (in body pump) and that's when I was like, ‘This is great, now I want to lift heavy,’” she said.
She got her wish that spring, after the fitness center opened FFW CrossFit on site.
“My life has not been the same since that day,” Whirley said. “I loved how no matter how strong you get, (or) how fast you get, you can always go up from it. You're constantly working for something; your motivation can never be lost because you can never be at the top.”
Whirley’s RP had stabilized for the time being. Though she had trouble with depth perception and perceived anything other than fluorescence as dim lighting, her condition did not prevent her from learning complex movements like the Olympic lifts as she relied on repetition and tactile cues to improve her form.
“I just have to watch a lot more times, because when somebody’s demoing something...you’re watching the full body, and I can't take in that full movement at one time,” she said. “So I'm watching one part of their body because that's all I can focus on at one time. I just have to do it a lot and be corrected once I'm doing it.”
In return for her efforts, CrossFit made Whirley feel “strong and confident in … daily life, despite going blind,” she said. “CrossFit has made me feel powerful and unstoppable. When I am doing CrossFit I forget about the daily struggles and the frustrating vision issues I had earlier in the day.”
By the time she graduated from high school she had a 275-lb. deadlift, a 215-lb. back squat and a new professional direction. Instead of playing pro ball, she would go to Indiana University in Bloomington to study kinesiology. It was at the end of her freshman year there that she discovered Hoosier CrossFit, and learned that CrossFit could do more than just make her fit. It could give her the competitive outlet she’d left behind on the court.
“Somebody I knew that went there was like, ‘Hey, they have a competition team; they actually go around to competitions,’” Whirley recounted.
She joined the instant she returned to campus after summer break.
“I knew right away she was super committed,” said Shaun Tieman, owner of Hoosier CrossFit, “as she usually spent two two-hour sessions in the gym each day and she just loved to be here and work her butt off.”
After a few months at the affiliate, all Whirley’s lifts had gone up and she got the hang of previously elusive gymnastics movements like butterfly pull-ups and handstand push-ups. In December 2014, Whirley joined the competition team.
Initially, Whirley said nothing of her RP, though she struggled with the timing of her wall-ball shots and frequently knocked over chalk buckets, kettlebells and water bottles.
“I didn't know if they'd want to keep me in competitions if I can’t see very well sometimes,” she said.
Her worries were quickly quashed after she came clean to her coaches that spring while explaining why she would not able to do a running workout in the dark.
“They didn’t for a second make me feel unwelcome or like I couldn’t compete,” she said.
Incredibly, one of her teammates, Katie Brown, had studied optometric technology in college and knew exactly the struggles Whirley faced each day.
“I remember thinking that our paths had crossed for a reason and that this was a special friendship,” Brown said.
During training, Brown helped Whirley arrange her equipment, drawing lines with chalk that led from the door to her barbell. In partner workouts and competitions, the pair would link arms to travel between stations.
“I believe in leveling the playing field,” Brown said. “We are both so competitive… if I am going to go head to head with her in a workout, I want it to be fair.”
But as Whirley’s fitness improved, her vision deteriorated. She began to bump into people on the sidewalk and grew more frustrated in the gym.
“I was competing at a higher level now,” she said. “Your transitions need to be fast, everything needs to be fast, and I was noticing when I tried to move fast I couldn’t see what was around me.”
Still, she kept her discouragement at bay—until during a partner competition at a local throwdown last summer, a surprise event was announced: alternating Karen. Teams would complete 150 wall-ball shots in pairs, each partner catching the toss of his or her teammate. Whirley panicked.
“Because I rely so much on the timing, I know when it leaves my hands and I know when it's gonna come back,” she said. “Trying to figure out how to judge it based off someone else is just not something I'd done.”
The first few reps she fumbled; the rest, she caught in a standing position before sinking into a squat, losing precious seconds with each segmented rep.
“It looked like I was just learning wall balls,” she said. “When that ball was coming down I just could not get the perception of it, or it’d be in that blind spot.”
Though her team had been in the lead before the event, after, they dropped to third.
“I felt so defeated then, I really don't think I'd ever had a low point like that in CrossFit (before),” she recalled. “I felt like I was dealing with what I dealt with in basketball.”
Whirley considered giving up.
“‘Maybe I’ll just be a lifter,’” she thought to herself. “‘I don’t know if I can deal with all these other parts of CrossFit.’”
A few weeks later, she received a letter from a woman who had watched her struggle on the competition floor.
“Please never quit,” the admirer wrote. “You inspired me today.”
“It was just what I needed to hear at the right time,” Whirley said. “That gave me the pick-up I needed to get my mind straight. CrossFit makes me deal with everyday life better. Because of the confidence that I can go in and overcome that workout, I'm able to approach life stuff the same way. So I think I really just realized that I'm able to function everyday and stay strong about my situation because of CrossFit, so why would I want to give that up?”
Turning Weakness Into Strength
No one would have blamed Whitley for complaining about Open Workout 16.4, a 13-minute AMRAP of deadlifts, wall-ball shots, rowing and handstand push-ups. But that’s not her style.
“Kelsey never uses her eyesight—or anything, for that matter—as an excuse to not try her best and work her butt off,” Tieman said. “She comes in everyday with an uplifting attitude and willingness to do anything it takes to be better than she was yesterday … I don't believe ‘I can’t’ is in her vocabulary.”
Whirley wasn’t worried about the wall-ball shots anyway. She’d spent the months between that treacherous alternating Karen workout and the Open turning her weaknesses into strengths, covering her wall-ball with brightly-colored tape and practicing her timing.
“Where something is a struggle, you can make it work if you just practice,” she said.
The deadlifts were no problem for Whirley, who boasts a 400-lb. 1-rep max. She was onto the wall-ball shots before the third minute turned over.
Brown, Whirley’s judge, led her to the pull-up rig where two red, circular targets were perched at 9 and 10 feet.
Whirley gripped her 14-lb. medicine ball, the plus sign made of orange duct tape facing her chest. She squatted and tossed, the mostly-red ball seeming to disappear into the target behind it. She caught the rep, but it was shaky. So were the next two.
But she had worked too hard to panic now.
“I just had to make myself really stay focused,” she said. “I just don't look away. I had to keep my hands up and know if I'm throwing it in the same spot, if I’m feeling the same, (if) I’m hitting the target.”
She fell into a rhythm and finished all 55 reps in 2:11. When the 13 minutes were over, she had 196 reps to her name.
“It just made me feel so pumped about everything,” she said. “I left the gym in such a good mood. It just makes me happy and confident; it seemed like nothing else mattered in that moment.”
A Vision For the Future
After the end of the 2016 Reebok CrossFit Games Open, Whirley will continue to train at Hoosier CrossFit, which hopes to send a team to the Central Regional in 2017. But Whirley’s vision extends even further.
“I plan on opening a (CrossFit) gym,” she said. “Because I know what it's done for me, I just want other people to have that feeling.”
Though her RP will continue to progress, pressing in on the borders of her vision until darkness envelops her one day, she’s staying focused on the present.
“Honestly, I’m not worried about it,” she said. “Until it happens, I approach it day by day. If it eventually gets to the point where maybe I can’t see well enough to coach the movements, well, that’s fine; I still have my gym. I’ll have coaches that I know will fulfill that, and at the end of the day I’ll still be able to lift.”
“I never thought I would find anything that would fill the hole (that basketball left),” she added. “And (CrossFit) just did. Somehow, over time it was something that I even loved more. It seems like I love it more now than I ever loved basketball.”