April 9, 2012
Thankful: Claudette Hilliard
By Amy Duchene

"I didn't know how I got here, I didn't train for this, I didn't set out to do it, but here I am, going to the CrossFit Games. It's crazy."

At the end of the 2012 CrossFit Games Open, Masters athlete Claudette Hilliard was stunned to find her name in 20th place on the worldwide Leaderboard. With California, and her 69th birthday, on her mind, a sudden reality set in.

“When I realized I had made it, I was scared,” Hilliard recalls. “I’m still a little bit, actually I’m still a lot scared. It’s a scary stage to think about being on. It’s very competitive and my exercise life has never been competitive, except with myself. It’s never been about beating someone. I didn’t know how I got here, I didn’t train for this, I didn’t set out to do it, but here I am, going to the CrossFit Games. It’s crazy.”

Hilliard began her CrossFit journey just two years ago, when her niece, Nicole Goldin, opened CrossFit 1525 in Houston, Texas. Prior to CrossFit, she had no experience in organized sports and the majority of her exercise life revolved around running and yoga. When first encouraged to try it, though, Hilliard remembers feeling the same anticipation and fear of the sport as she mentioned today.

 “My first reaction when Nicki told me about CrossFit was that I would not be able to keep up,” she says. “It would be too much for me to do, but she kept insisting that I would like it. My first workout with the class was Deck of Cards. After that, I was hooked. I never would have imagined what it would lead to, though.”

Shortly after beginning CrossFit, her new routine quickly became the center of her life. Everyday started with a workout and her wardrobe quickly evolved into an array of CrossFit-inspired attire. She treated each workout like an appointment, and never missed or showed up late. Sheer dedication to this newfound opportunity for life and fitness quickly advanced Hilliard beyond the level of many, who are years her junior.

Going into the 2012 Open, she still lacked several skills required to advance to the national level, including kipping pull-ups. The gaps, however, did not concern her as she hoped to simply support others competing from her box. As the workouts rolled in, something unexpected happened. Hilliard kept continually placing among the best in her age group. By the end of 12.4, she was within qualifying range. 

In 2011, Hilliard was also in shape but, found herself unable to submit a score for 11.5 when she could not power clean 75 pounds. During the final weekend of the 2012 Open, some feared she might endure a similar fate if faced with pull-ups. Fate, however, would soon lend its hand to her.  

“I managed to get my kipping pull-ups on the Wednesday 12.5 was announced,” she says. “Just a couple hours before, I would have only been able to submit a score of 3 on the Fran ladder. I was so excited. That Friday, I finished with 49 reps.”

At 68, Hilliard achieved the unimaginable. Acquiring pull-ups for the first time in her life, and finishing the 2012 Open in 20th place, the cutoff mark for Games qualification. However, she remained unsure about making the trip out west.

 “At first, I was really on the fence about going to California. I felt like I didn’t know if I should take the spot, and I considered maybe just giving it to someone who wants to go out there and win the whole thing,” she says. “Then, in the weeks close to the end of the Open, I heard some sad news about a few friends of mine who I grew up with. These two brothers that I’ve known since kindergarten were both having to have heart surgery. For one, it was quadruple bypass, and for the other, it was his second operation. Then, another friend of mine told me she was having very serious issues with her diabetes, and all of this just after her husband recently had a stroke.

“That’s when I realized how fortunate I was. While others my age are having these life-threatening things happen, I’m just so thankful that I never stopped. I’ve always kept moving, even until now thanks to CrossFit. It really made me understand how fortunate I am. After that I thought, ‘No way. I’m going.’ I’m going to go out there, have a blast and just enjoy this experience.”

In preparing for the Games, Hilliard will work on a few extra skills, like stringing her double-unders together. Overall, she simply hopes to relish in the opportunity. “I am trying not to think about having a goal exactly. I just want to be ready, well trained, and prepared,” she says. “I want to do my very, very best. Where I end up is where I end up. For me, everyday is just about wanting to do better than I did yesterday and keep on improving. This whole process just provides the impetus to get better more quickly. I’m actually training now, not just WODing for fun and I’m really excited to see what it leads to at the Games.”

As those in younger generations train for the world stage, spotlight, or to make a name for themselves, their perception of life and the importance of the Games can be humbled by a story like Hilliard’s. She trains for life and years to come of health and livelihood with CrossFit as her source of tenacity and endurance.