Leah Shullenberger went into the 2011 South Central Regional with the goal, "Don't finish last." She finished 9th.
Glitter. Neon. Sparkles. Tutu. If these don’t sound like the components of a serious CrossFit athlete then you haven’t met Leah Shullenberger. Since her first workout, Shullenberger has not only been quite the CrossFit fashionista, but she has also displayed the potential and talent to get to the CrossFit Games.
Shullenberger began competing in gymnastics when she was only 8-years-old, and by age 10, she was participating in numerous sports at a competitive level. As she got older and grew taller, gymnastics was no longer an option, so basketball became her new focus. She played basketball through high school, but decided to forego the sport when she went to school at the University of Texas, in Austin. She didn’t lose her competitive drive, however, and intramural sports couldn’t fill the void she felt for competition.
After graduating in May 2010, Shullenberger moved back to Houston to begin an internship with the NFL’s Houston Texans. At the time, she hadn’t given much thought to a career in fitness or as an athlete, but figured working for a professional sports team was the next best thing. She didn’t know it at the time, but CrossFit was about to enter her world and change its whole direction.
Under the encouragement of her aunt, Shullenberger attended her first CrossFit workout in June 2010. “After my first workout, the coach was amazed that I could already do kipping pull-ups, double-unders, and handstands,” she says. “The coach told me I am going to be in a competition in a month, told me what to eat and what not to eat, and threw me in the ring.” In her first CrossFit competition in August 2010, Leah placed in the top 20 in the scaled division. She was hooked. In CrossFit, she’d found an outlet to express the need for competition ingrained in her at such an early age. Determined to improve, she put her training into high gear to get ready for the next competition.
The demanding hours her internship with the Houston Texans quickly interfered with her ability to get into the gym for scheduled classes. “That’s when I knew what my passion was, and I knew the corporate world was not where I would be happiest,” she confesses. “I finished working through the season, but picked up coaching full time as soon as I could. I was finally right where I wanted to be.” In the fall of 2010, she became a CrossFit Level I trainer and has been a coach at CrossFit West Houston ever since.
Shullenberger continued to compete in the scaled divisions of local competitions, but never found herself on the podium. In January 2011, she was encouraged to participate in the CrossFit Games Open. “I had no idea I was even allowed to compete in the Open. I had no idea I was at ‘that level.’”
She would find out quickly she was at “that level.” Placing 50th in the Open, she was now faced with the decision to compete at the 2011 South Central Regional as an individual or on the CrossFit West Houston team. “My head told me to go team. Again, I had no idea I was ready to compete at the individual level. Once again, I got talked into it.”
The Regional would be her first standard (that is, non-scaled) competition in her CrossFit career. With that in mind, her initial goal for the Regional was “don't finish last.” She immediately grabbed the attention of the media, spectators, and the other female athletes after an impressive performance on the first workout. “I knew [Event] 1 would be a strength for me, so I knew I had to do well. Finishing 2nd was a total confidence booster for me.” Shullenberger remained strong and consistent through the weekend and surprised herself with a tie for 9th place overall.
Clearly, her coaches and training partners saw her potential from day one, and after her experience at the 2011 South Central Regional, Shullenberger has learned not to doubt her abilities. “Come competition day, it's anyone’s game. We all have strengths and we all have weaknesses, but it comes down to who has the most heart. Who believes in themselves over anyone else out there, and who can turn failures into success.”
Shullenberger trains CrossFit entirely and any other sports or activities she participates in are just for fun. “Having a gymnastics background, I love a gym where I can tumble. I do my best to take part in yoga. I don't love it, but I am trying really hard,” she says. “And I just run to run. I don't think I have ever run over four miles, but I consider running a strength of mine and enjoy it, so I use it to take a day away from the gym every now and then.”
Shullenberger has continued competing throughout the year. Last year her training was focused entirely on acquiring the full set of CrossFit related skills, so she couldn’t focus on specific weaknesses. In the offseason following the 2011 Regional, she’s had the chance to focus on what she feels is her biggest weakness: strength. She went so far as to cut endurance and gymnastics out of her training for a time. With the help of her training partner, Aja Barto, and some recent pointers from coaching legend Mike Burgener, she’s greatly improved her Olympic lifts. With all of this focus on strength training, Shullenberger feels much more prepared for the 2012 CrossFit Games season. “Last year, seeing a barbell movement in a WOD was like a mental defeat before it started,” she admits. “Now its kind of fun to see some weight and see how far I’ve come.”
Part of improving her strength has included trying to gain weight. During the 2011 Games Season she tried “clean eating,” but now incorporates extra carbs in her diet, including her favorites – donuts and cupcakes. She recently celebrated her birthday with neon, donut-topped cupcakes. “Obviously, that is something I will defer from as I am getting ready for the Games. I still like to get in a shake in for extra calories. Sometimes easier access isn’t the most paleo route, but it has worked for me in the offseason,” she explains. “I have reached a few goals I have wanted to achieve.” She plans to focus on improving her understanding of what she needs to cut out or add in to her diet to help get her ready for competition.
2012 has also marked a mental update. “My mindset has changed tremendously from last Games season in the sense that I have a mental game now. I have a new found confidence and allow for nothing but positives to come from that voice in my head. I have good days and bad days, but I take something from each one and make it better, [which makes] me better. When I walk into the competition setting now, I no longer feel like I'm not on ‘that level.’ I now feel like I am right where I am supposed to be. My goal is no longer ‘don't finish last,’ but ‘finish on that podium.’”