The 2021 NOBULL CrossFit Games season officially welcomed adaptive athletes into the competition fold for the first time in history. For the large cohort of competitive adaptive CrossFit athletes, this marked a huge leap forward in the evolution of the sport.
At the conclusion of the 15th edition of the Games, Beth Tannatt, 43, and Sarah Rudder, 38, had quietly tied for third place overall in the women’s lower-extremity division, making history as the first duo to ever close out the competition in a true tie. Rudder stood on the podium on Thursday, the final day of the adaptive competition, while Tannatt found out the following Sunday that she should have been up there as well.
“When I received my shirt and medal from Dave Castro, I literally took pics on the Coliseum floor with him and had to order an Uber right after to get to the airport to go home … getting my medal from Dave was pretty awesome,” Tannatt said.
A Voice of Empathy
Tannatt is a mother of two and has been a physical therapist for 16 years. She pursued her career after having her own experience with physical therapy when she was injured in a near-fatal car accident on May 28, 1998.
The accident shattered Tannatt’s femur.
“I almost lost my leg, and the medics that responded to my accident removed me from the car as though my leg was still attached, but they weren't sure it was,” she said. “I was in a coma for 10 days and during that time, my family was going to be faced with the decision of whether or not to amputate my leg.”
Saving Tannatt’s leg did not guarantee it would be functional. On the contrary, doctors informed Tannatt’s family that she would be better able to resume her favorite activities, such as running, hiking, and weight training, if her leg was amputated and she eventually acclimated to a prosthetic.
Unsure of how to proceed, Tannatt’s family consulted with a resident who was confident her leg could be saved — and he was right. Surgery saved her leg but she had lost three inches of bone in the accident, which meant initially, her legs were significantly different lengths. Around eight months later, Tannatt underwent surgery to lengthen her left leg.
“They basically stretched my leg to the max that the tissue would allow — one inch was all they could do without damaging muscle and connective tissue — and put a piece of cadaver bone in the space, and then bone grafted with bone they harvested from my pelvis to increase the chance that my body would accept the foreign implant,” Tannatt explained. “It was relatively successful, but the graft never fully integrated, so I believe it has compressed over time. I have a heel lift that I wear in my left shoe to offset some of the limb difference. In a later surgery, they cut a 2-inch piece of bone out of my right femur to try to even things out as much as possible.”
Tannatt spent five months in a wheelchair. She was on and off crutches, underwent 17 surgeries, and spent countless hours in physical therapy over the next several years.
“I am missing about a third of my quads and have nerve damage in my leg. I do have some function in my leg, but there have been many times where I had wished it had been amputated,” Tannatt admitted. “Truthfully, at some point in the future, it may have to be anyway.”
Tannatt’s experience ignited a passion for helping others maintain their fitness while rehabilitating injuries.
“I love helping people,” she said. “I went into PT after I was in PT for so long after my car accident. I wanted to be a voice of empathy, someone to somewhat understand what the patients are going through — I didn't have that, and I wanted to be that for someone else.”
“I also love to be able to show people that they don't have to put their fitness aside while they rehab,” she added. “I work with a fair number of athletes these days, and CrossFitters make up a portion of that ... I am able to give them modifications for various movements ... I also do fitness programming for people so they can still do fitness while keeping their rehab goals in mind.”
Healing With CrossFit
Determined to regain her relationship with fitness, Tannatt attempted running, which proved to be much more difficult and painful than she had anticipated.
“I attempted to run several times after my accident, but not being able to just go out and start running was incredibly frustrating,” Tannatt said. “It was painful and my legs felt like lead. I stopped and started so many times … Almost 10 years to the date of my accident, I was able to run a 5k with a few of my family members. It was awful. It started pouring rain in the middle. The driving rain made it difficult to even see, and we were running on a pretty busy street in upstate New York when it started. But it was awesome to finish and I'll never forget the words my brother said to me after: ‘You can do anything. Anything.’”
Tannatt also dabbled in bodybuilding for a bit until she realized the extreme weight fluctuations were negatively affecting her hormone levels. Plus, it resurrected the body-image issues she’d thought she’d left behind long ago.
Tannatt was overweight in her youth and began dieting as young as age 10.
“I remember returning to school after a bout in the hospital (for bronchitis and pneumonia) when I was in eighth grade and getting made fun of furiously for my weight. I was put on prednisone when I was in the hospital and gained a bunch of weight. I don't even know how much. I just know I was heavier than when I went in and I was already overweight,” Tannatt said. “I started running and watching what I ate, but like many teenage girls, it spiraled out of control. I was eating very little and participating in after-school sports, counting calories, and aiming for a maximum of 1,000 calories (per day).”
Tannatt suffered from disordered eating well into her 20s and 30s.
“I would have bouts of binging, purging, over-exercising, etc.,” she said. “I thought I had a good handle on my relationship with food for a few years when I started counting macros and stopped labeling foods ‘good’ and ‘bad’ until I started bodybuilding.”
She knew she had to make a change.
“Trying to get as lean as possible and depleted for shows just brought back that disordered eating behavior. In the picture on the left [above], I was 99 pounds and ended up placing second in that show — my best placing in all of my bodybuilding shows,” Tannatt said. “As much as I didn't want to admit it, I was getting back into my old habits of disordered eating, just in a more organized way.”
Then, a friend recommended she try CrossFit.
“I told her I didn't think I could do CrossFit because of my impairments,” Tannatt remembered.
When her friend finally convinced her to give it a try, Tannatt was “immediately hooked,” and the training methodology changed her perception of body weight.
“When I started CrossFit, I was OK with gaining weight,” she said. “I started working with a nutrition coach to get my hormone levels back in check. I hadn't had a period in almost a year. My digestion was also in the toilet. I was only able to tolerate a handful of foods. I'm certain my hormones impacted all of that. In order to truly heal my body, I had to gain weight.”
“Being in the CrossFit environment was immensely healing because I was surrounded by strong, powerful women and none of them looked the same,” Tannatt added. “I started to think less about how I looked and started to appreciate more what my body could do. And I started wanting to take up more space, not less. I wanted to have a strong, healthy body. Not a body with a six pack that really wasn't healthy inside at all.”
The Podium Experience
Tannatt, who now attends CrossFit Stonington in Pawcatuck, Connecticut, said qualifying for the CrossFit Games was a dream come true.
“Four years ago I never dreamed this was a possibility,” wrote Tannatt on Instagram at the start of the Games week. “I never thought we would ever get an adaptive division at the CrossFit Games. And I certainly didn’t think if we did, that I’d ever be here. But here we are.”
Though she was dedicated to enjoying the experience, Tannatt was also gunning for the podium.
“My goal was just to do my best and take it all in. I am not going to lie, I wanted a podium spot,” Tannatt said. “I've been doing CrossFit for four years and competing for about three and half of those. I have just missed (the) podium a few times and I wanted to finally clinch it.”
Not surprisingly, spending time with the CrossFit community was a highlight for Tannatt.
“My absolute favorite aspect of the CrossFit Games was the people,” she said. “Meeting athletes from around the world that had a special appreciation of my situation. We all could identify with each other on a different level than others could. I have never had a community like adaptive CrossFit. We really are like a family. I now have some new friends that I would literally do anything for. Those girls in my division, I miss them every day.”
While she did achieve her goal of earning a podium spot this year, it didn’t play out exactly as she had imagined. It wasn’t until after the competition wrapped that it was determined Tannatt had truly tied for third with Rudder after all the tiebreakers were exhausted and did not yield a clear winner.
“I didn't get the podium experience,” Tannatt said.
Tannatt has big goals for 2022.
“Participate in the WheelWOD Games in November and hopefully podium there. Possibly do Wodapalooza in January if my coach doesn't think it will interfere with the Open,” Tannatt said. “And make it back to the CrossFit Games but don't leave anything to chance. Don't leave any doubt in the eyes of the judges or the scoring. My mantra for this year is ‘remove all doubt.’ And I'll be repeating that to myself in every training session.”