"A Reason to Try"

February 24, 2015

Brittney Saline

Three women from one affiliate in Santa Cruz, California, talk about their first experiences in the Open. 

Natasha Castro, Hannah Wikse and Lynn McCune.

"For me, it's not about comparing myself to anyone else." 

“Men will die for points,” CrossFit Founder and CEO Greg Glassman observed years ago in the classic article "Understanding CrossFit."

But we all know exceptions to that rule.

Not every CrossFit athlete lives to compete. Such is the case for three schoolteachers out of one box in Santa Cruz, California.

By this time last year, they had heard seemingly non-stop talk about the Open from trainers, friends and partners, but they still weren’t sure that aspect of CrossFit was for them.

Lynn McCune and Hannah Wikse were most comfortable training quietly in the often cold but welcoming 6-a.m. class. Neither was interested in the extra pressure of movement standards, heat times and judges.

“I don’t want anybody paying attention to what I’m doing or counting my reps, and the Open is pretty much the opposite of that,” McCune explained.

The 32-year-old middle-school teacher and counselor joined CrossFit Santa Cruz two years prior, and kept count of every class she attended. Each morning as she drove through the dark, past the crashing surf on West Cliff Drive to the affiliate at the edge of town, she would recall she had done 629 workouts and by the time the sun would rise the number would be 630. That running tally mattered more than her score on any workout. 

“For me, it’s not about comparing myself to anyone else,” she said. “It was more of a reward. It was like, ‘I’m here, so I win.’”

Wikse, meanwhile, was all too familiar with the competitive aspect of CrossFit. The year prior, the kindergarten teacher got her first exposure to the fitness regimen and the sport when she came to cheer for her then-girlfriend—now wife—Angel Forbes.

“It was really intimidating,” Wikse said. “I’ve never been in a sport where you had to race the clock.”

At first, she had no interest in joining the athletes who posted their scores on a whiteboard for all to see. She stuck with running and yoga and left CrossFit to Forbes.

“I was like, ‘You do your thing, I’ll do mine,’” Wikse recalled.

But eventually she came around. 

“Once I saw that it was about competing with yourself, I started working out,” she said. “I was really drawn to the community, also.”

Natasha Castro, 30, took the need for privacy to a whole other level, training in her driveway using a homemade pull-up bar and a small collection of basic gear with only one witness: her girlfriend Megan Mitchell. While the theater teacher and recreational ballet dancer was accustomed to taking the spotlight, she felt unusually shy about CrossFit.

“I was super embarrassed to work out in front of anyone except for Megan,” Castro said. “I think I was nervous about failing or looking stupid.”

Yet, the non-stop talk about the Open eventually wore down their resistance, and these relatively new, competition-adverse CrossFit athletes soon found themselves watching the live Open announcements, waiting to find out what was in store for them that weekend.

Fortunately for McCune and Wikse, the owners of CrossFit Santa Cruz decided to make the atmosphere at the Friday-night workouts more relaxed. 

“The concept of it was more like a party where we happened to do a workout,” McCune said.

Athletes would come and go freely, competing in heats with judges of their choosing while spectators milled about, beer in hand.

When 14.1, a couplet of double-unders and snatches, was announced, McCune felt uneasy. Despite two years of practice, she had never managed a single double-under.

Still, she spent 10 minutes lashing her ankles with effort, taking home the whip marks to prove it. And though her score stayed stubbornly at zero, McCune no longer felt afraid to compete.

“It felt no different than a regular workout at the gym,” she explained. “Part of my anxiety was knowing everyone was going to be watching me and that they can do double-unders in their damn sleep, but it felt great. There were a couple of people cheering me on, but they were the right people … I had a zero, and I survived. The world didn’t end.”

The next week, the couplet of 65-lb. overhead squats and chest-to-bar pull-ups meant all three women would have to see whether they could beat their PRs on the overhead squat—the empty barbell—by 30 lb.

Before the workout, Wikse paused. 

“What do you have to lose?” she asked herself. “Maybe you’ll get it, maybe you won’t, but you can’t say you didn’t try.”

She surprised herself in the warm-up, power snatching the 65-lb. barbell and then squatting the weight. When it came time to turn on the clock and perform in front of a judge, she knew she could get at least one more good rep. 

Then, she got seven. 

“It was awesome,” Wikse said. “And because in that particular workout there was only one piece I could do, I could focus all my energy on it. I was really stoked that I could put up a score.”

A couple miles away at the driveway home gym, Castro would soon do the same. Simply practicing overhead squats with a PVC pipe or empty barbell was challenging for her, so she mentally prepared for 14.2 with a nervous intensity.

“At first, I didn’t think I’d be able to post a score,” Castro said.

Drawing on her experience in theater and dance, Castro spent her free moments after the live announcement visualizing power snatches and overhead squats.

Since the 30-lb. jump was a lot to ask for, she worked up to it slowly in a drawn out warm-up. When she reached 65 lb., she surprised herself with an easy power snatch, slowly lowering herself to the bottom of her squat. Shaky but determined, she broke parallel and managed to stand back up.

So she set the timer for three minutes and put seven more reps in the bank.

“It was a huge victory,” Castro said. “The Open gave me a reason to try.”

Soon, all three women will take part in the Open once again. This year, they see the appeal.

“No other time in the year is every person involved in CrossFit doing the same workout at the same time,” McCune said. “That is a way larger communal experience than anything else you could ever do.”

“At the same time, it’s just like a class,” Wikse said. “You go through a shared experience with the members of your community, and the spirit is high and it’s so fun … it’s a chance to learn something about yourself.”

“It teaches you that your body is a lot stronger than you think it is. It teaches you that it’s less about your strength and more about your frame of mind,” Wikse added.

Castro, now a regular member at CrossFit Santa Cruz, will compete for the first time in front of other people.

“I feel more confident about being able to work out at my gym, with other people,” Castro said. “(Doing the Open) made me feel like I was doing CrossFit for real, and not just for funsies. And I think also it made me feel like this is a community I can be a part of … I think the Open was the moment where I felt like, ‘OK, I can belong here.’”