Emily Celichowski eyed the rig above her. She’d already breezed through the first 10 55-lb. power snatches of Open Workout 16.3, and bar muscle-ups were up next.
Trouble was, she’d never done one before.
She jumped to the bar, extending her body in a tight arch before shoving herself back and up, attempting to launch herself over the bar. Miss. She tried again, kipping with even more force than before. Another miss, with a slight chicken wing.
Her coaches and fellow athletes screamed their encouragement from the sideline as the clock ticked down from 7 minutes.
On her third attempt, something clicked, and she found herself looking down from the top of the rig.
“Oh my God, I’m up here,” she thought.
She proceeded to knock out eight more bar muscle-ups before the time expired.
“(Each) one was like a huge victory.”
At the time, she was a CrossFit athlete of four years and a coach for nearly as long—yet last year was her first CrossFit Games Open. Despite encouraging her athletes to participate, for three years she avoided the worldwide test of fitness for fear of looking the fool. But when she finally decided to add her name to the hundreds of thousands of competitors across the world, she was rewarded with a brand-new skill and a freshly conquered fear.
“I was definitely glad that I did it,” she said.
Celichowski joined CrossFit Stumptown in Portland, Oregon, in January 2012. A personal trainer and group exercise instructor at the time, she said it was “love at first WOD,” and by the following October she had become a CrossFit Level 1 trainer and joined the coaching staff at the affiliate. Teaching CrossFit, she said, combined her two biggest passions: movement and people.
“I especially really love working with new athletes and watching them have those aha moments,” the 29-year-old said. “It's just really been so fulfilling to be a part of people’s journeys like that, to help them become a little bit stronger and to see people become empowered and maybe fall in love with themselves a little bit more and believe in themselves.”
To help her athletes do just that, she encouraged them to sign up for the Open, and she was always inspired by their performances.
“Just seeing people hit PRs for the first time (or do) things they would have never approached before ... is always really inspiring,” she said. “Seeing them get their first toes-to-bars or first couple kipping pull-ups strung together was a huge win.”
Still, come Open time, Celichowski supported her athletes from the sideline, never participating herself. A full-time student and part-time bartender as well as a coach, she always had a reason not to compete: She had to miss Friday Night Lights to work at the bar, she wasn’t rested enough to do the workouts on the weekends, she didn’t have enough time.
But none was the real reason her name was missing from the roster. It came to her last year, just before the 2016 Reebok CrossFit Games Open, as she wrote in her journal one evening.
“I noticed that I said that (CrossFit) was a huge, important part of my life, but here I am not participating in one of its biggest developments; what's that really about?” she said. “When I finally started asking myself those questions...the answer (was) pretty obvious: I was scared.”
Celichowski was afraid to fail, she elaborated. She couldn’t do a muscle-up, her chest-to-bar pull-ups needed work, and she struggled with heavy weight. What if those movements came up in a workout and she couldn’t deliver?
“It was like, ‘Oh shit, I'm afraid of underperforming in front of my coaches or not living up to my potential,’” she said. “I didn’t want to be humbled like that.”
By that time, Celichowski was coaching at CrossFit Thousand Oaks, training at Precision CrossFit in California and had recently completed the CrossFit Level 2 Certificate Course. As she juxtaposed her beliefs and her actions, she felt convicted.
“In order to talk the talk about how much I loved CrossFit and how important it was to me, I needed to walk the walk,” she said. “And that, for me, meant participating in the Open.”
Just days before the 2016 Open, Celichowski signed up, sharing her registration on social media to hold herself accountable. But that didn’t mean she wasn’t afraid.
“I was definitely really nervous,” she said, recalling watching the live announcement of Open Workout 16.1 with her fellow coaches and athletes at Precision CrossFit. “I remember sitting there, just waiting for the movements and just being like, ‘Oh my God, please don’t be this, please don’t be that.’”
She didn’t have to wait long to test her resolve. Workout 16.1 featured chest-to-bar pull-ups, a movement she could do but not very well.
With sweaty palms and a racing pulse, Celichowski watched the heats before her complete the workout. Unwanted thoughts swam in her head—what if she looked stupid or couldn’t do it?
“I had to talk (myself) out of my ego a little bit and remind myself of why I was doing it, why it was important to me,” she said, “and that it’s not the end of the world if I can’t do chest-to-bar pull-ups.”
To circumvent negative thoughts, she imagined what she’d say to a friend if the situation were reversed.
“I would tell her that her worth isn't determined by her ability to perform specific movements, or that she's incredible and brave for even trying and that she should be proud of herself for how far she's come in her journey,” she said. “And I would try to start telling myself those same things.”
When it was her turn to hit the floor, Celichowski focused on one movement, one rep, at a time. She cast aside the notion that she needed to expertly string the pull-ups together and instead broke them into sets she could manage.
By the time the clock ran out, all she felt was accomplishment.
“I felt incredible,” she said. “I remember feeling really proud of myself ... and then there was also just this sense of, ‘OK, the first one's done. I just have to keep showing up every week and moving forward.’”
The nerves never completely disappeared, but Celichowski kept showing up—even when her worst fear came true. After 16.3 was announced, “I remember thinking, ‘Oh shit, this may be the one where I just sit here for the remainder of the time and just try my ass off to get a bar muscle-up,’” she said.
But the accomplishments of the first two weeks and the support of her coaches and athletes helped her develop a new perspective.
“This is your chance to try,” she thought to herself. “Worst-case scenario you get 10 (reps). You still finished the workout.”
This time she was rewarded for her efforts with a new skill and “a sense of pride that I can’t even describe,” she said. “No one else did that for me. Obviously I had really great coaches, but at the end of the day it’s the work that I've put in that resulted in me doing something that I never thought I could do or that I couldn’t do before.”
Today, Celichowski is registered for her second CrossFit Games Open. And she’s still scared.
“I've yet to do a ring muscle-up … . But I’m signed up and I’m doing it,” she said. “I know that I'm gonna end up surprising myself in some aspect and performing better than I imagine, because it's just what the Open does for you.”
And to anyone who’s still on the fence, Celichowski offers a word of advice:
“Sit down and take a few minutes and really ask yourself that question as to why,” she said. “Dig deeper than your excuses ... whatever your reason, go another layer deep. Ask why, and once you answer that question, ask why again. Get down to the bottom of it—and ask yourself why not?”
Top photo courtesy of Chas Blake