July 19, 2014
How the CrossFit Community Saved Elisabeth Akinwale
By Greg Okuhara

“On paper, there’s no reason I should be able to do the things I do. I’m 35, a single mom. I’ve had several knee surgeries. I don’t fit the mold. So people will connect with me. The response is overwhelming, and it keeps you wanting to continue that.”

In the months leading up to the 2014 North Central Regional, three-time Games competitor Elisabeth Akinwale contemplated quitting CrossFit.

Nagging shoulder, back and knee injuries led to mental fatigue, and the 2013 North Central Regional champion often thought about hanging up her shoes for good.

“I didn’t think my body could do what it needed to do,” she said.

But the 35-year-old made adjustments to her training, found a second wind, and is headed back to Carson, California, for a fourth straight year. She finished second in the region in her home city of Chicago, just 1 point out of first place.

“Everything was pointing to not going right,” Akinwale said. “I was mentally tired, but that was an outgrowth of the physical stuff. It’s like my body was falling apart—my shoulder, back, knees.”

Akinwale said her competitive personality, as well as the inspiration she draws from her fans and their messages of thanks and support during the past few years is what kept her going.

In 2011, strangers began sending Akinwale Facebook friend requests, noting they discovered her through the CrossFit community. As the requests grew in number, and her blog became more popular, Akinwale received more messages from people who told her she inspired them.

All the messages she reads from her followers are special, Akinwale said. They range from a single mom who didn’t think she could reach her fitness goals because she didn’t have time, to other black women who are excited to see Akinwale compete in the Games on ESPN.

“A lot of us who first started just wanted to exercise,” she said. “I never had the intention of being an athlete, and certainly not have the presence I have now. It’s different from when I had a desk job. I’m pretty introverted. I wouldn’t normally blog or have a Facebook page.”

But when people tell Akinwale she is touching their lives, she is motivated to keep that connection alive.

“On paper, there’s no reason I should be able to do the things I do,” she said. “I’m 35, a single mom. I’ve had several knee surgeries. I don’t fit the mold. So people will connect with me. The response is overwhelming, and it keeps you wanting to continue that.”

A few days after this year’s North Central Regional, Akinwale posted a blog entry about her mixed emotions following her second-place finish. She was equal parts excited and disappointed, happy she had the opportunity to once again vie for the title of Fittest on Earth, yet upset a few missteps may have cost her the top spot on the podium at Navy Pier.

“You’re always grateful to make it back (to the Games),” said Akinwale, who trains at CrossFit Construct in Chicago. “There are new athletes, and you don’t know what the workouts will bring. This year was interesting, and my year as a whole has been difficult—the most difficult I’ve faced as a competitor.”

Even now that she’s had a few months to reflect on her experience, she said she feels the same. Looking back on the ups and downs, she’s also discovered a lot about herself and what it is that motivates a single mother of one son to devote that kind of time to a sport she loves.

Lessons Learned

There is little doubt Akinwale is a gifted CrossFit athlete. She opened the North Central Regional with a bang, successfully performing a 200-lb. hang snatch, and then recorded a 315-foot handstand walk. Two events, two first-place finishes. It seemed she would coast to another regional crown.

She stumbled slightly in Events 3 and 4, finishing 12th and 11th, respectively, and was never able to regain first place despite a strong finish to the weekend. Akinwale said falling short of first overall was a blessing in disguise and taught her she can’t rest on her laurels going into the Games. As a result, she’s focusing on improving her endurance, something she might not have challenged herself to do had she not struggled in Chicago.

“I’m happy with the way everything played out,” she said. “I have won regionals twice—decisively. But I don’t think that helped me keep my edge. Just because you win doesn’t mean you’re the fittest person. I don’t view it that way. The only definitively fittest person is Rich (Froning).”

Akinwale is also pushing herself mentally to places she hasn’t in the past. She said qualifying for the CrossFit Games in 2011 did more harm than good because she “wasn’t ready to qualify.” She took her physical gifts for granted and didn’t develop the kind of work ethic elite athletes have.

“There was a disconnect between my mental and physical strengths,” she said. “When it came to training, I was kind of holding back. I learned more about myself from a loss of first place than winning first place. First only builds your ego.”

A Son’s Wise Words

One of the more memorable moments at the North Central Regional happened right after the competition wrapped up. It was Mother’s Day, and Akinwale walked over to her 7-year-old son, hugged him and spent several moments talking into his ear.

Later that night, she said he asked her how she did. She explained to him the point system and told him she placed second, only 1 point behind first place. He promptly told her she should have “gotten more points” and proceeded to the next topic of discussion.

The innocent exchange, Akinwale said, helped put things in perspective. She may have fallen short of her CrossFit goal, but it illustrated she’s doing the right thing as a mother.

“He doesn’t care,” she said. “You’re just mom. All that is irrelevant. So I feel like I’m setting the example I need to set for him: Follow your dreams, go after your goals. In that moment of disappointment, it was nice to get back to the foundation of my life.”

Akinwale remembered another conversation she had with her son during a training session earlier in the year when he asked, “Mommy, are you doing what you want to do or what you have to do?”

The question helped spark a moment of reflection she now utilizes in her training.

“At the moment, I was working on a weakness,” she said. “It made me realize everything we’re doing is a choice. So I chose not to look at it like, ‘Oh, I have to run today.’ It’s, ‘Oh, I get to run today.’ That’s part of the reason I do CrossFit. I could do something that comes easily to me. Powerlifting or weightlifting comes naturally to me, and I could just do those meets. I’m not going to be (Sam) Briggs on the endurance side, and she’s not going to be me on the other. It takes a different personality to say this is something that I’m not good at and work on it. And it influences how you address other things in your life.”

Games Time

Akinwale is one of the oldest individual competitors at the Games. But she doesn’t feel her age works against her as she goes up against women who are a decade younger. She said she the playing field is pretty even when it comes to all the athletes, both veteran and rookie.

“I think it goes both ways. Generally speaking, there’s an advantage to having experience, but it depends on how you use it,” she said. “In 2011, on the monkey bars, I did it differently and it worked. Sometimes a great performance can come from a lack of experience. You don’t know what to do and you go with instinct. I don’t know if I would have done the same thing if I was more experienced. Being naïve can sometimes be a huge benefit.”

Akinwale said she’s “put in a lot more volume” than she ever has before, and any notion of quitting is gone.

“I don’t think of it at all as this could be my last year,” she said. “Any given day you walk into the gym could be your last.”

Akinwale’s reaction to the beach event: Bring it on.

“I’ve spent plenty of time at a beach, so there’s nothing you can throw me I haven’t done,” she said. “I’m ready to be uncomfortable. I’ll be ready to draw on prior experience and be ready to adapt. I just want to do my personal best, and see how my personal best measures up against everyone else. I feel great.”