1 Year of CrossFit!

Today is my 1-year CrossFit anniversary!

I came to CrossFit having taught myself weightlifting in my basement, and that’s still what I love the most, but the variety of CrossFit is what has really kept me going. Since that first day, I’ve learned all sorts of gymnast-y things including all sorts of kipping and butterfly pullups, handstand push-ups and walks, double-unders, bar and ring muscle-ups and more! There’s just an endless list of skills to develop and train, and while at times it feels overwhelming to keep all your shiny new skills in practice, it also means there’s always something exciting to work on!

Overall, I’m super happy with the progress I’ve made in the past year. On top of cardiovascular/engine and gymnastic skills gains, my Olympic lifts have gotten much snappier and more consistent and I’ve seen significant PRs there due to technique improvements (turns out having a coach watch you and give you advice is better than going it alone in your basement), and while my big maximal lifts haven’t increased much, strength work is going to be my focus for year two, now that most of the skills are coming along nicely.

Putting all the exercise talk aside (which I love), I think maybe the most transformative part of CrossFit has been the community. As everyone who does CrossFit will probably say, the community is what makes it all work. Suffering together really does build strong relationships!

Additionally, for me, this is probably the first time in my life that I’ve felt a sense of actual community. I’ve had groups of nerd friends with shared nerdy interests, but CrossFit is truly is a community and a local one at that — it’s not just making friends, though you make plenty of those as well — it’s seeing people from the gym who you might not know that well yet, but knowing you have something in common with them and that you’d instantly help them out and vice versa.

Friendship for me has often meant hanging out with people (in real life or online) who are very similar to myself who have a relatively narrow set of similar interests to me, and while we all have CrossFit as a shared interest, being part of the gym community has meant building relationships with people from a wider range of backgrounds and experiences, and that is something that’s really important and healthy. I also have had to get used to (in a good way) constantly seeing people I know as I’m out and about. It’s like living in a small town again, but instead, it’s a small community that’s part of a big city.

Finally, my biggest fears, about being discriminated against for being trans, ended up being the least important aspect of my entire experience. The gym has been wonderful, and there were already a ton of queer and trans or gender-nonconforming members already. I don’t know exactly numbers, but a significant portion of the gym is queer and nerdy, so it’s absolutely perfect. I won’t say my fears about gyms and CrossFit and transphobia in general were unfounded, but my lesson in this instance was there are already queer and trans people out there, doing what they love and what you want to do — you just have be brave enough to go and join them. This sounds melodramatic in retrospect, but a year ago, fear was keeping me from doing something I’d wanted to do and find a community around for years, and now I’m doing it and I can say with certainty — the rewards far outweigh the risks.

Some highlights from the past year include doing my first CrossFit Open, doing OutWOD, a traveling CrossFit workout and fundraiser for LGBTQ CrossFitters, and meeting Katrin Davidsdottir at a Reebok store!

OutWOD

OutWOD

OutWOD Photo

OutWOD

Allie with CrossFit Athlete Katrin Davidsdottir

CrossFit, Lifting, and Non-Binary Gender

When I first transitioned back in 2009/2010, my transition was very much from one side of the binary to the other. Even as I was aware of and happy for people who were living outside of the gender binary, I still saw myself fitting into it.

As a result, I spent a long time trying very hard to achieve some degree of “approved” femininity. This meant that despite loving weightlifting and craving a community around it, I stayed away from gyms and coaches, both for fear of harassment and also because I wanted to program my own workouts to avoid adding too much bulk to my already wide shoulders. I constantly struggled with both loving feeling my body get stronger, but also how dysphoric putting on extra muscle made me feel. But when events aligned and I sucked it up and finally joined a CrossFit gym, I found myself actually loving my body (maybe for the first time ever), and as I started to feel comfortable — just as myself — among the wonderful community at the gym, I started to not care so much about where I fit into femininity (or masculinity). Movement has always felt joyful to me, but the more I let myself enjoy it and celebrate it, the more I realized that the breakdown of male vs. female wasn’t even a factor in this aspect of my life. And then I realized that applied to every part of my life.

The realization itself actually very much reminded me of when I first thought about transitioning: the anxiousness of navigating something new, mixed with the fear of leaving behind something that had defined me for so long, all still undercut by the giddy anticipation of instinctively knowing, “This is me. This is right.”

My relationship with my body, with my gender, and with fitness have all informed each other for as long as I can remember, and even more so over the past five or six years, but now, I feel like they’re indelibly linked. For me, both lifting and CrossFit are transformative activities, both literally and metaphorically: they’ve allowed me to feel agency, control, and ownership over how my body looks and feels, even when I’ve not been super happy with it; they’ve allowed me to not only grow and change every day, but to exceed what I thought I was capable of; and maybe most importantly, they have helped me gain the self-confidence to recognize, accept, and love myself and my body and to define where I fit (or feel comfortable not fitting) into the world.

A picture comparing Allie's back and shoulder muscle development from 2014 to 2018
2014 to 2018 comparison photos
Allie's 2018 Measurements, bicep, chest, waist, hips, thigh, calf
Current measurements

Finally Trying Out CrossFit

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I moved earlier this year, and with it, lost my nice basement lifting space. At my new place, I walk by a small CrossFit box every day, so I figured, “Why not? I’ve been thinking about trying CrossFit forever, it’s convenient, and I need a place to lift.” Also, one of the coaches lists “transgender justice and advocacy” as one of his interests, so it just felt like everything was lining up.

The gym also has this statement on its website, which I think is great and should be something that all gyms (or service-oriented business) should have:

“We’re a community that strives to be supportive of all people, regardless of your background — you’re welcome regardless of your skin color, gender identity, sexual orientation, or economic background.”

Granted, the gym is a $160-200/month expense, so that’s already prohibitive to many people, but the thought is nice, and sometimes even just using the word “gender identity” means so much and can make someone immediately feel safer. The gym even has two single-stall bathrooms with gender-inclusive signage, so I feel like I’ve really lucked out.

Lifting in a gym, with coaches and other people around, was a huge hurdle for me, given my self-consciousness and anxiety about being a trans woman in a gym space. Fortunately, everything has gone really well, and it’s definitely one of the bigger positive milestones of the year for me! I definitely think a smaller, less intense, and less competition-focused CrossFit gym is the right fit for me — I’ve really enjoyed having other people around to work out with and talk fitness with; I find that I push myself harder with other people around; and it’s a lot easier to just show up and follow the programming than to program workouts for myself, though in exchange, I’ve lost some of the ability to focus on squats, deadlifts, and Oly lifts to the degree that I want.

Photo of Allie at the bottom of a snatch

Since joining, I’ve been pleasantly surprised to find that I have pretty OK technique on the Olympic lifts, and also that the weight that I can move is pretty respectable! So, it’s something I’m very proud of, but I also feel like I will be able to really refine my technique with active coaching and feedback, which is something I struggled to do on my own (especially on the snatch). I also feel more free to push myself at a gym, since I don’t have that lingering fear of injuring myself alone in my basement.

On the cardio side of things (metabolic conditioning, or ‘metcon’ as CrossFit calls it) I’m awful and have no capacity for it, but on the plus side, I feel like I’m making newbie gains, which is always gratifying.

Overall, joining a gym has been an incredibly positive change for me, and has had just as much of a positive impact on my life as when I started exercising on my own!

 

Being a Trans Weightlifter

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When I first transitioned, I was super active in the trans community online, and fairly open about it in-person, but then I hit a point of exhaustion, and stopped talking about it so much. I shared the fact with fewer people and in general, just didn’t bring it up in conversation. And that rest, that break from constantly examining my identity and my place in the world was what I needed. I needed to just exist for a few years and find other parts of myself beyond my trans identity, and to see what else had changed about me during the period of my transition, either because of it, or irregardless of it.

About two years ago, I realized I was unhappy with my body, not from a dysphoria sense, but from just the realization that for the first time in my life, I was kind of “out of shape.” I was always active and outdoors-y as a kid, so structured exercise was never really required. But now, college and grad school had taken their toll and while I was still skinny, I had so little strength and so little, just, general work capacity. So I got some dumbbells and worked out in my bedroom for six months. I saw a ton of improvements, so I got a barbell, some plates, and a squat rack and set up a gym in my basement and started lifting. And then I got really hooked.

Since I started lifting, I’ve realized my identity as an athlete has become inextricably linked to my trans identity. I often come back to the Jessi Kneeland quote that:

“[Weightlifting] makes me braver, less afraid of failure, and more able to embrace the process of anything worth pursuing…lifting weights has consistently helped me to break down labels and boundaries in my identity and to reinvent myself every day… Yesterday I was someone who couldn’t do that. Today I’m someone who can.” 

Coming out as trans and transitioning six years ago may still be the hardest and bravest and best thing I’ve ever done for myself, but weightlifting has been the best thing I’ve ever done for my transition.

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Being into fitness and weightlifting while also being trans is difficult, because I still struggle with intensely hating my body in many ways. But weightlifting makes me love pieces of my body, individually. I love my quads, seeing my back muscles move, and even how visibly defined my arm and shoulder muscles are now. However, I still often hate my body as a sum of its parts, especially when I’m around other people. But when I’m alone and lifting and focused in the moment and can abandon all pretenses of self-consciousness, I find I can love my body. I can love the mind-body connection I have; love feeling my body move; savor feeling it strain as I feel out my physical limits. It’s absolutely addictive and I can’t imagine going back to not having this positive relationship with my body to help balance out the negative. Just like with the mental discipline and appreciation for hard work and incremental progress that comes with weightlifting, the longer I lift, the more that mind-body-connection-comfort seeps over into other areas of my life. As a trans athlete (and I would imagine even for cis athletes who struggle with similar feelings of discomfort in their bodies), fitness and weightlifting present a route to feeling comfortable in my body that I never would have thought possible a few years ago.

There’s definitely some contradictory elements to the process — while I want to be more muscular, being more muscular for me also means appearing more traditionally masculine, with broad shoulders and skinny hips, which is uncomfortable for me, despite my deeply-held belief that muscular ladies are amazing. I wish I could say I had transcended that discomfort, but I still think about it every day.

Besides feeling better about my body overall, as important as that is, the end goal of weightlifting for me is probably (hopefully) competition and joining the community that grows around it. That said, especially in a competitive environment, I worry that people may assume I have (or accuse me of having) an unfair advantage, or that I’m only strong or muscular because I used to have male testosterone levels, but I’ve been on hormones for six years, and only lifting for about two years. When I transitioned, I was a stick, and weighed only 115 pounds. Now I weigh 140 pounds and with the exception of pull-ups, I am overall much healthier, stronger, fitter, and more capable now than I was before I transitioned and started hormones.

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The good news is that the International Olympic Committee (IOC) joined the NCAA and recently released guidelines that recommend that transgender athletes be able to participate in the Olympics without surgery, and that athletes transitioning from female to male can compete without restriction, and athletes who transition from male to female:

“must undergo hormone therapy and demonstrate that the total level of male testosterone in the blood has been below 10 nanomols per litre for at least a year prior to competing.” 

Looking more closely at those numbers, the IOC is allowing for a wide range of variance in measuring testosterone in female athletes, which makes sense. For reference, a testosterone level of 10 nanomoles/L is roughly equal to a level of 290 ng/dL. According to Mayo Clinic, the reference range for the testosterone level of a cisgender woman 19 or older is 8-60 ng/dL. As last measured, my testosterone level was 49 ng/dL. This puts the upper limit of the IOC’s range significantly higher than the reference range, which I assume is because many cisgender female athletes have testosterone levels that are significantly higher than 60ng/dL, due to genetics, diet, resistance training, and any number of other factors. Ironically, it’s actually quite possible that some trans women athletes on hormone replacement therapy could potentially be at a disadvantage against some cisgender women athletes when it comes to testosterone levels.

Even though I certainly don’t intend to try to compete in the Olympics, the IOC decision is particularly important to me, as the IWF and USA Weightlifting have said they will use whatever standard the IOC puts forth for transgender athletes. And while I lift because of all of the personal reasons I’ve talked about, and would continue to lift even if I could never compete, competition (at some level) is absolutely something I want to do, and was something that seemed unlikely to happen until recently, so having the opportunity is very exciting (and scary)!