"I don't ever want to shy away from life's experiences just to be a super athlete."
The air was cold as four-time CrossFit Games athlete Michelle Kinney and her girlfriend, Emily Schromm, stepped into a swaying gondola at Keystone Ski Resort in Colorado, snowboards tucked under their arms. It was late on a Sunday morning, yet the crowds were thin, and the dusty slopes in the distance promised a good powder day.
Two days earlier, Kinney hosted Open Workout 15.3 at her new affiliate, CrossFit Park Hill in Denver, where she moved to be closer to her girlfriend of a year. Sidelined from the 2015 season due to several injuries, ranging from torn labrums in her right hip and left shoulder to a partial tear in her left rotator cuff, Kinney clutched a judge’s clipboard as the clock counted down.
“I got chills as if I was about to do it, and then I had a reality check,” she said. “It’s definitely a tough pill to swallow.”
When the 14-minute AMRAP of muscle-ups, wall-ball shots and double-unders was over, Kinney signed off on Schromm’s 318 reps. Now, as the steel cable tugged the pair toward the white peaks of the Rockies, Kinney sipped coffee from a paper cup as she remembered the joy of cheering for her girlfriend.
“All my sadness from not competing goes away when I watch her,” she said.
2015 would have marked Kinney’s sixth season, and if she were to have made it to Carson, her fifth appearance at the CrossFit Games. After taking 10th and 17th at the Games in 2010 and 2011, she failed to qualify at the Central East Regional in 2012, missing the third podium spot to Heather Welsh by 10 points.
She returned to Carson in 2013 with a career-best rank of eighth place, finishing in the top 10 in six events. Last year, she took 12th place, finishing in the top 10 in seven events—including a third-place finish in the final event, Double Grace—despite a nagging pain in her right hip.
An MRI taken after the 2014 Games revealed that it was a labral tear, but she continued to train, focusing on upper-body movements. In December, her shoulder began to ache, and by January, she couldn’t hang from a pull-up bar without pain. When another MRI uncovered the tears in her shoulder, Kinney knew she wouldn’t compete in 2015.
“That was kind of the nail in the coffin,” she said, chuckling. “My body was trying to send a message that it was done for a bit.”
Had that been the verdict three years ago, she wouldn’t have been laughing. She had competed in the Games for two consecutive years, and her desire to return for a third time was all-consuming. She quit snowboarding—a hobby she had loved since college—for fear of injury.
“I told the person I was (dating) that CrossFit came first,” she recalled. “I thought that (training) had to be everything for me to be at the top of my game. I thought I could be a top-five Games finisher … but that it required me giving every bit of me to the sport, relationships with friends, family and otherwise be damned.”
When she didn’t qualify that year, it hit her hard.
“Games came before everything and everybody, and that ended up not being such a successful strategy,” she said.
It was several months before she embraced the philosophy of her coach, CJ Martin, that “full effort is full victory.” By 2013, she took a new, positive outlook and reclaimed her love for training, something she still works hard to maintain to this day, applying lessons she’s learned during Martin’s athlete camps at CrossFit Invictus over the past two years.
During the camps, Martin asked athletes to evaluate their priorities in life, helping them devise training strategies around those priorities.
“It’s been a process, but over the last few years … I’ve learned what it means to live my life in conjunction with what kind of person I want to be,” she said. “I don’t want to be single dimensional … I don’t ever want to shy away from life’s experiences just to be a super athlete.”
While training for 2014, Kinney spent more time with family, drank beer when out with friends, and set aside many weekends to fly from her home in Memphis, Tennessee, to Denver, Colorado, to see her new girlfriend, Schromm. She credits her fourth trip to the Games to her more well-rounded approach to life and training.
“I wasn’t this monster athlete who needed to eat, sleep and train all the time,” Kinney said. “I still trained my ass off, but having that well-rounded life and a good outlook on your training makes everything better. If you’re super intense about something, it doesn’t mean you’re gonna do well at it. The best at the Games find that balance.”
A photo posted by Michelle Kinney (@michelle_kinney) onMar 4, 2015 at 3:14pm PST
The lessons paid off this season, as she watched friends and competitors post their Open scores while she was sidelined.
“It’s helping me deal with not being able to compete,” she said. “If CrossFit was everything for me now, I’d be in a pretty bad place right now.”
At first, Kinney was tempted to compete through injury this season, considering cortisone shots to mitigate the pain in her shoulder and hip.
“I was like, ‘OK, I could do that, but this is just going to mask the pain and then I could really screw up my shoulder,’” she said. “I don’t want the Open that bad. I want to be able to heal and try to come back next year. I’m trying to preserve my shoulder for the long term.”
In the meantime, Kinney is embracing her identity as the new owner and head coach at CrossFit Park Hill. A few months ago, the distance between her and Schromm was taking its toll; even though she had opened CrossFit Chickasaw in Memphis just two-and-a-half years earlier, it was clear something had to change.
“Not being around each other, not getting to experience day-to-day life together was really crappy,” Kinney said.
So when CrossFit Park Hill went up for sale after its owner moved to Fiji, Kinney bought the affiliate and moved to Colorado in October, taking the helm as head coach to its 140 members and six coaches.
“I love the outdoors and (Schromm) does, too, so it made lot of sense for me to be the one to move,” she said. “I thought that this was a unique chance to continue to do what I love.”
Though it was difficult for Kinney to leave her family and affiliate behind, she said her former athletes were supportive of her decision.
“They certainly understood, and they saw it coming before I saw it coming,” she said. “It was super difficult; those were my best friends.”
It’s challenging enough to take over as coach to an established community of tightly-knit members. But as a CrossFit Games competitor, Kinney was nervous that her new athletes would see her as more athlete than coach.
“That’s what most people know me for, so that, in turn, creates my identity,” Kinney said. “But I knew that that’s not who I am, that’s not the only thing I have going for me. I’m very much more than that.”
When more than 50 members showed up to help Kinney move the gym from a 1,200 square-foot space to a larger facility in the shell of an old supermarket, she knew she had established a new identity as their coach and affiliate owner.
ONE WEEK separates these two pictures. I can't help but brag, not on myself, but on all the people that made this happen. CrossFit Park Hill turned this around like lightening. #unstoppable #teamworkmakesthedreamwork #crossfitparkhill #colfax #denver
A photo posted by Michelle Kinney (@michelle_kinney) onFeb 27, 2015 at 12:44pm PST
“I was able to immerse myself in the community and they embraced me as their leader coach and friend, and it was a very smooth transition,” she said.
While the transition to the new box has gone well, the transition to her new place on the sidelines has had its rough patches.
“I would walk in the gym feeling sorry for myself,” Kinney said. “As much as I had liked to think that I didn’t define myself as a CrossFit athlete … I still feel that void of not competing. But then I remember that I have all these badass chicks to train with, and I don’t feel bad for not doing enough.”
While athletes around the world worry about the Open, Kinney spends her time coaching, fixing leaks in the ceiling of her new affiliate, and rehabilitating her hip and shoulder. Sundays and Mondays are for snowboarding.
“One of the things I want to do most is inspire people,” Kinney said. “The CrossFit Games was my avenue. But in terms of the community and the athletes I get to coach on a day-to-day basis, helping them out and getting them to achieve their goals and hit PRs, that’s kinda how I’m continuing to fulfill that reason for me to be on this Earth. It’s to help inspire people to be the best they can be.”
“(CrossFit) is a fantastic sport and there are a ton of great people you meet along the way, and it’s those relationships that are more important than how well you do in a given workout,” she added. “The Games hold a special place in my heart, and if you have the opportunity to go there, enjoy every moment. But don’t let the pursuit of that take over your life.”