"It's been a roller coaster, to say the least."
All three women on CrossFit Jääkarhu's team have faced afflictions that threatened to end their competitive careers, from heart and hip surgery to cancer, and nonetheless emerged not only unscathed but fit enough to qualify for the 2015 Reebok CrossFit Games.
While Ingrid Kantola's heart surgery happened years ago, Karen Pierce and Jessica Estrada returned to CrossFit training after chemotherapy and hip surgery, only a few months before the 2015 South Regional.
"It has been a roller coaster, to say the least," Michael Winchester, the team coach and co-owner of the 8-month-old affiliate.
It was only the second event of the South Regional and the team already had a hole to dig out of after taking 22nd place in Event 1, a couplet of partner 410-lb. deadlifts and synchronized chest-to-bar pull-ups.
While Event 1 required male and female teammates to work in pairs, the second event split the team by gender, requiring first the males, then the females, to complete 175 snatches, 25 rope climbs and 115 thrusters. After the men cleared the way, the women entered the floor.
The first to reach the rig, 29-year-old Kantola did 3 ascents to start. Raising her knees high and stepping into each pull without pause, she scaled the 15-foot rope in just two pulls.
A former collegiate pole vaulter, Kantola is a three-year individual regional competitor and a one-time competitor on team CrossFit Central Downtown, the 21st-ranked team at the 2014 Games. She came on the scene in 2010 after winning the Southern California Sectional. Three weeks later, she fell ill.
“I had fever, body aches, nausea, tunnel and spotted vision, migraines, night sweats and terrible chills,” she recounted. “It felt like the the worst flu ever.”
After almost two weeks, a spinal tap and a CT scan, Kantola was diagnosed with a heart murmur. Further testing revealed a severe case of mitral valve regurgitation, wherein a bacterial infection had eaten away at Kantola’s mitral heart valve, allowing blood to flow backward with each contraction of her left ventricle. She would need open heart surgery.
“Once I was officially told … that I would need open heart surgery to fix the leaky valve, I lost a lot of hope,” she said. “I had been holding on to the idea of recovering from being sick in time to participate in the (Southern California) Regional, but with that diagnosis, I thought I might never be able to even exercise again. A huge part of my life has always been athletics and being fit; I felt like I might never be the same person again, much less the same athlete.”
Her hopes were restored after getting a second opinion from another heart surgeon, who was confident Kantola could return to training after surgery. Indeed, nine weeks after the May operation, she went for her first post-op jog. Over the next several weeks and months, she added lower-body movements like lunges and air squats, and static holds with a barbell or hanging from the pull-up bar. The work was often joyless.
“I had a lot of doubt, a lot of ‘this is too hard’ thoughts, and a lot of simply being discouraged,” Kantola said. “I cried in the gym a lot, but I kept going back. I didn't skip just because I knew I wasn't going to do well.”
With the support of her coaches and fellow athletes, she kept showing up. By the 2011 Open, she had most of her skills back—“even if I lacked some fitness,” she said. She went on to tie Azadeh Boroumand for sixth at the 2011 South Central Regional, later taking fifth in 2012 and 2013.
After the women devoured the remaining 22 rope climbs in Event 2, 30-year-old Karen Pierce took the spotlight on the thrusters. She finished the final 15 reps unbroken while CrossFit Eado’s final female, neck-and-neck with Pierce, dropped her barbell. Pierce finished the 115th thruster and the women leapt over the barbell to join their male teammates on the mat, winning the heat in 19:58 to take third in the event, ending Day 1 in 10th overall.
The team took 18th on Event 3, a relay of running and wall-ball shots. The team had never practiced on a TrueForm Runner, which left members with thrashed quads on the wall-ball shots. A tie for third in Event 4, the max snatch, and a win in Event 5’s handstand-walk relay brought CrossFit Jääkarhu to fourth at the end of Day 2.
“(Handstand walking) is part of our warm-up and cool-down,” Estrada said. “It’s something that everybody on our team can do.”
A former high school gymnast, Estrada, 32, had her moment of glory in Event 6: 50 GHD sit-ups per athlete followed by 50 muscle-ups and 50 hang power cleans total per gender. While Kantola took the muscle-ups in sets of 2 and Pierce did less than 5 reps total, Estrada ticked off reps in sets of 3 or 4.
Just more than a year prior, she could hardly do a kipping pull-up. After going under the knife to repair a tear in her left hip’s labrum in October of 2013, the kipping motion was more than her hip could handle.
There was no isolated incident that caused the tear; an MRI just days before her surgery revealed a sharp bone growth in her hip socket. With every air squat, the growth rubbed against her labrum, shredding it a little more each time.
“(The doctors) explained it like if you take a butter knife and try to cut a big rope in half, that’s what I was doing over time,” she said.
The pain began just before the 2013 South Central Regional, a slight bite in her hip when she rose from a squat. With naturally tight hip flexors, Estrada thought little of it.
“I thought I was sore,” she said.
The pain worsened gradually, though she managed to post a 155-lb. overhead squat at the regional, a PR set in warm-up just minutes before competition.
“It was painful, but I got through it and the rest of the weekend was fine,” she said. “After that, I just kind of stopped squatting.”
The pain crept into Estrada’s daily life. Getting in and out of the car was tortuous, and if she needed to step higher than a normal stair, she had to assist her leg into position with her hands.
Still, she thought rest was all she needed to recover. After eight weeks, she tested her squat with an empty barbell. Going down was fine, it was coming back up that was the problem.
“I would get to the bottom and try to stand up and there was a really sharp pain,” she said. “I wasn’t able to squat the 35-lb. bar, and that’s when I knew there was something more.”
Doctors told Estrada that surgery would not be necessary—as long as she didn’t want to compete anymore.
“But I knew I wasn’t done,” she said. “There was more I wanted to do. As far as my (coaching) job, and competing, I wasn’t ready to give that up yet.”
On October 8, 2013, surgeons shaved the rogue bone growth in Estrada’s hip, and sewed her labrum back together. After three weeks on crutches, she returned to the gym, her heart set on competing in the 2014 season. At first, she could only pedal a speed bike, with no resistance, for 30 minutes each day. By January, she was cleared to perform any movement, using pain as her guide, and by March, she could squat 135 lb. So she signed up for the Open.
“I figured the Open wasn’t going to be heavy, so I might be OK,” she said.
After competing in the first three weeks, she withdrew when a test run of 14.4—a chipper of rowing, toes-to-bars, wall-ball shots, cleans and muscle-ups—revealed she could not do more than a couple toes-to-bars at a time.
“The range of motion of the extension and the flexion of the toes-to-bars was a little bit too much,” she said. “At that point I didn’t feel like (competing) was a smart decision. I felt like I had gone through this surgery to hopefully give me several more years of competing, and I didn’t want to screw that up for one year.”
Still, it was tough to be benched.
“Quitting halfway through the Open was what was the hardest part, because I didn’t want to start something I couldn’t finish,” she said.
Out from under the pressure of competition, Estrada said she could train more at her own pace, and by May, she was training with the regional team and hitting old PRs.
“Once I didn’t have any pain, the strength part of it came back fairly quickly,” she said.
When CrossFit Central Downtown made it to the 2014 Games, she went as the alternate.
“It was shitty to not be able to compete, to take a backseat at the Games, but I think the biggest thing was to be able to find a positive in a negative,” she said. “It was a good learning experience for me to be there with Michael (Winchester) helping coach. I’m going to (compete) as a long as my body will allow, but at this point in my life I’m a coach first and an athlete second, and to be able to have that experience and learn from him was a silver lining.”
Estrada didn’t take the backseat this year.
Stronger than before her surgery—she added 10 lb. to her snatch for 150 lb. and 15 to her deadlift for 300—she had no doubts hitting the floor in 2015.
“I feel like I’m a lot more fit, so being capable (of doing) all the workouts was definitely not an issue,” she said. “I still feel aches and pains, but I don’t feel like it’s going to keep me from doing anything.”
After Estrada led the women through their 25 muscle-ups in Event 6, Pierce took the reigns on the 135-lb. hang power cleans, doing sets of 15 unbroken. The team finished in 18:50.5 for fourth place, good enough to hold in fourth overall going into the final event, a 26-point spread between it and Salt Lake City CrossFit in sixth.
The final event brought stations of rowing, strict handstand push-ups, toes-to-bars and overhead walking lunges while partners performed static holds and hangs. Few teams had finished the event so far, and the least adept at rowing and toes-to-bars, Pierce was slated to go last. But the plan backfired when her teammates fatigued early, shoulders taxed from the muscle-ups in the previous event.
Though Jeff Vanlandingham, the team’s leader, had planned to do his handstand push-ups in two large sets, he could only manage sets of 2 or 3, with several attempts lost to no reps. By the time CrossFit Jääkarhu had two athletes to the wall, most others had sent their leaders to the toes-to-bars.
As Pierce paced the start mat, she knew she would have to make up for lost time.
“I knew when I got off that rower I had a very small window to score as many points as possible,” she said. “So it was like, ‘You gotta move. You get off that rower and you hustle.’”
Elite CrossFit athletes are used to hustling, but for Pierce, it was a breakthrough moment. For years she’d been known as an athlete who could go to the dark place, but a recent year-long fight with cervical cancer had made her cautious.
“Sometimes that thought crosses my head: ‘You need an extra breath,’ whereas before it was just ‘Go,’” she said. “Sometimes I break things up that I don’t really need to.”
Pierce was diagnosed with cancer in June of 2014, five months after a routine pap smear raised a red flag.
“I went for a pap smear, and they said, ‘Something doesn’t look right,’” Pierce recounted. After a biopsy revealed cell abnormalities, doctors advised her to seek an oncologist. But despite weeks of effort, she was unable to find a specialist who would accept her health insurance.
So she quit looking for a doctor.
“I just got overwhelmed,” she explained. “I said, ‘Screw it, the Open’s more important.”
Unaware of the tumor growing inside her, Pierce pushed through the five weeks of workouts to earn fourth in the South Central Region in the 2014 Open. Feeling fine, she continued to train for regionals.
“She was handling all of the workouts and the loading and the stress of training very well,” Winchester said. “Better than I’d ever seen her.”
But two weeks before the regional, on Mother’s Day, it became clear that something really wasn’t right. She began to bleed.
“And it didn’t stop,” she said.
Two weeks later, she managed a 15th-place regional finish despite overwhelming fatigue and blood loss.
“I’m not a quitter,” she said of her reasoning for competing through the bleeding.
She had made it through in part by carrying a backpack of supplies with her to the athlete warm-up area before each event.
“I was just miserable,” she said. “(Afterward), I called my gynecologist, and I was like, ‘I need help.’”
Subsequent testing revealed that the 29-year-old had Stage 2 cervical cancer with an inoperable, golfball-sized tumor embedded in her vaginal wall. She would need chemotherapy.
“I was like, ‘Are you sure?’” Pierce, who has no family history of cancer, recounted. “‘Because I take really good care of myself. Look at me, do I look sick?’”
Despite describing her teammates as family who “just sleep at different houses,” she told only three people about her diagnosis: two teammates, Estrada and Winchester, and her boyfriend, and she swore them to secrecy.
“I just didn’t want a lot of questions, a lot of ‘poor, pitiful me,’” she said. “It was my decision to do this by myself, because I had a community that really would worry about me.”
Winchester tried to hide his concern.
“I was definitely upset by the news,” he said. “When someone you care about and love is diagnosed with any kind of illness, but especially cancer, it’s worrying, but at the same time ... I wanted to be strong for her … I wanted to coach her like I coach her in a workout.”
Eight months before the 2015 South Regional, in August of 2014, Pierce began chemotherapy and radiation five days per week. Still, she trained twice per day between treatment sessions.
“I was able to, so to speak, hide, because we weren’t going as intense in the offseason,” she said.
That is, until the toxic chemicals designed to kill the cancer began to damage her fitness, too.
“I told myself, ‘Just do 25 burpees a day and you’ll be fine,’” she said. ”I did 10 to 15 (reps) and I was just dying.”
When she completed treatment in November, the therapy removing all traces of the tumor and cancerous cells, she finally confessed to her teammates that her faltering performance was more than the simple “female issues” she’d let them believe.
“There was definitely some shock, but she had already gone through all the (treatment) without a peep of complaining,” Kantola said. “It was devastating, but almost a relief at the same time, when we found out how far she had come already.”
By January, Pierce had returned to her pre-treatment training intensity. Dreams of competing in the 2015 season began to take shape.
“I needed my radiologist to say the word ‘remission’ before I went into the Open,” she said.
On February 5, 2015, one year to the day since she was first advised to see an oncologist, Pierce was pronounced cancer-free. Less than two months later, she finished the Open in 41st place in the South Central. Hitting the regional floor never felt so good.
“That’s the biggest ‘Fuck you’ to cancer I could give,” she said.
Still, doubt crept in whenever Pierce approached the redline. In Event 1, she dropped from her chest-to-bars after sets of 2 or 3, and if not for Estrada’s encouragement before Event 4, Pierce would have snatched 125 lb. instead of the 135 she posted.
“Physically, I’m able to execute, but now it’s about working on my confidence,” Pierce said.
It all came down to Pierce in the final event. With sizable ground to make up after the bottleneck cleared, there was no room for fear. She did her handstand push-ups in large sets, opening with 12 reps unbroken, and strung her toes-to-bars together in sets of 5 or more, no thought of extra rest.
“It was kind of cool because up until last year … I had that mindset of ‘Go in and do it,’” she said. “The mindset of a competitor. I was back to my old self.”
Though CrossFit Jääkarhu took 16th in Event 7, when the leaderboard shifted for the last time, the team held the fifth and final qualifying spot.
“All hell broke loose,” Kantola said. “Karen (Pierce) started crying, and Jeff (Vanlandingham) started swearing. But Jeff is always swearing.”
According to Kantola, the team’s experience with hardship will serve as an advantage when it takes the floor in Carson.
“We all know what each other (has) been through,” Kantola said. “We know each other’s battles, and we know what competition means to each other. Knowing those things helps us to dig deeper for each other, to bond together more tightly, and to work harder.”
“We’ve been at a very low point in our sport, and we know now what it takes to get back to where we need to be … so I think our drive is pretty strong,” Estrada said. “I think also, too, mentally and physically we can probably take a little more. CrossFit is 50 percent physical and 50 percent mental, so us going through all of our major surgeries and cancer has made us stronger competitors, for sure.”
“That’s one hell of a comeback, if you ask me,” Pierce added.