I opened my eyes and saw tiny yellow stars. I peered up and stared at the ropes hanging from the ceiling and the dust-covered rafters…
My face was on fire. Partially from embarrassment, but mostly because a grown-man had just hit me square on the nose by a 20-mile-per-hour dodgeball.
“That’s it,” I thought. “I’m never playing this game again. If I have to, I will fake an injury, illness, or family crisis to avoid the feeling I have right now.”
I hated P.E. and I especially hated dodgeball.
“Sparks, you’re OUT!” The teacher yelled, smirking, pleased with his own tiny victory.
My scrawny, self-conscious, awkward nine-year-old body sat up. My face was throbbing. I felt hot and shaken. To add insult to injury, the dodgeball destroyed my four-inch-tall bangs 1988 bangs. I pressed my lips tightly together… Did I still have all my teeth…? I faked a smile and walked toward the gym wall and sat down with all of the other kids who were “out.”
I observed my more athletic classmates as they laughed and ran and passed out high-fives. Were they seriously having fun? How on earth is this fun? Could someone please just hand me a book or an abacus or a sandwich? Anything is better than a dodgeball to the schnoz.
For years, I dodged dodgeball and every other sport (i.e., public displays of inferiority.) I preferred curling up with a paint brush or a good book to bat-mitten or rope-climbing.
When I get old enough, I thought, I will never EVER deal with this nonsense again.
Fast forward to my junior year of college when I studied abroad in Spain. There, I learned to appreciate charcuterie (fancy word for cured meats such a Serrano ham and Genoa salami), buttery Manchego cheese, crusty baguettes, and Spanish wine. One semester and fifteen pounds later, I was faced with the inevitable reality that I wasn’t sixteen anymore–and I had to learn to exercise. Side note: during my semester abroad, I wrote in my diary that the Spanish clothing detergent was shrinking my clothes. It took months before I realized that my clothes were the same size, but my thighs were getting bigger. True story.
For several years, I hopped around to various gyms. I learned to use the elliptical and do bicep curls. I would spend Saturday mornings doing Jillian Michaels videos and I loved to shimmy with the Zumba crowd.
So, when I found myself in the local CrossFit gym (at age 34), my only intention was to purchase a cleanse product. It was a powdered dietary supplement. My friend had lost a few pounds in a week with the cleanse. It sounded easy. And, I wanted to give it a try.
The owner of the gym invited me to a free workout session that weekend.
“Um, no offense, but I don’t think CrossFit is for me,” I said to the gym owner, Fabian. “I don’t really like to sweat. Plus, I have a two year old and I won’t have a sitter on Saturday.”
I was too old to start something intense like CrossFit. I didn’t want to get bulky. I didn’t like running. The coach had a response to all of my reluctant comments.
I’m not sure why I decided to go back to CrossFit Zachary that Saturday morning. I knew very little about CrossFit. But, I was most certain that it wasn’t for me. I had watched some of the CrossFit Games on ESPN. These athletes were very muscular and intense—pretty much the opposite of me. They used secret language words like “wod” and “amrap.” It seemed like a strange club of super athletes who probably excelled at dodgeball and every other physical activity.
My inner fifth grader cringed at the thought of rope climbing and flipping tires. But, I showed up anyway. That Saturday, I worked out with a family: a dad, mom, and their high school aged daughter. They were so welcoming and friendly. The coach’s wife, Beth, held my squirmy toddler so that I could try to keep up.
I was’t coordinated. I was exhausted after five minutes. And, yes, I got sweaty. Very sweaty. After that workout, I felt tired and fatigued. I also felt exhilarated. Later that morning, I signed up to become a member. I couldn’t believe it. I wanted more.
After a few workouts, I was hooked. There was something intoxicating about hearing loud, fun music, working as hard as I physically could, then lying on the gym floor in a pool of my own sweat.
Within days, I had met dozens of people from different walks of life. Teachers, Police Officers, Stay at Home Moms, Doctors… Some were incredibly fit. Others were like me (grown up theatre nerds, learning how to run and lift weights.). But we were all there for the same reason: we wanted to be stronger, more powerful versions of ourselves. And, even though it wasn’t easy, we loved the experience.
One morning, the coach was outlining the workout of the day. He said, “Ok, Athletes, let’s start with dynamic stretching…”
I would have done anything to rewind that moment. Did he just call us athletes? I was an athlete???!!! Sound the alarm! I have been called smart, brainy, quirky, artistic, wordy…you get it….but NEVER “athletic.” I liked the way it sounded. More than that, I loved the way it felt.
Soon, I started to view myself as strong and empowered. I started to feel coordinated and fast. This form of functional fitness helped me in everyday tasks: holding my kids, cleaning my house, carrying a heavy Yeti cooler full of tailgate beverages. I was on a roll. I felt good in skinny jeans and I felt mentally sharp. My husband also started working out at CFZ. We were embraced within this community of athletes. And, we loved that we had a new common interest. I loved where this CrossFit journey was taking us.
Then cancer happened.
Needless to say, my fitness routine changed. But, it didn’t stop. And, I was determined to keep going to CrossFit.
I would get chemo, wait a few days, then go to CrossFit. I did modified versions of the workouts, while my friends would cheer my name. It made me feel like me again. I remember running through the grassy field behind the gym. As my feet touched the ground and I breathed in God’s glory, I was grateful for my scared body. As I pulled with my arms and pushed with my legs on the row machine, I felt a voice saying, “cancer can’t take this from me.’’ As my body burned with squats and burpees, I heard a voiced saying, “Go, Veronica. You are fighting for this!”
That’s right. Running, jumping, pulling, pushing. Loving and honoring my body by making it stronger. I was fighting like hell for the chance to keep pushing.
And, my CrossFit friends became some of my biggest supporters. For two consecutive years in October they held a fundraiser for Barbells for Boobs–an organization that helps young women with breast cancer. They did so much to show love and support for this former dodgeball-dodger.
For one wonderful year, I lived “cancer free.” I was months into consistently exercising when I learned that the cancer was back. And, it was advanced: stage IV with more than one hundred tumors in my lungs and pelvis.
Now that I’m receiving a more aggressive chemo regimen, I have to slow down for a while. My body aches and my bones burn. Most days, I limp from my bed to the bathroom. That’s the extent of my workout regimen. And, I’ll be honest, it breaks my heart sometimes. My inner scaredy-cat was becoming so strong and fearless. Then, everything changed.
It would be easy to get consumed with lament and frustration. But, I’m not angry. Look how I blossomed. A physical and mental evolution happened. Now I know that underneath this weak and tired flesh lies a powerful soul.
And, I can’t wait to get back to the people who lift me up.
I’m writing this essay in bed. I have the “chemo flu” right now. Fever, chills, nausea, fatigue. I would do anything to get to do some ring rows and work on the row machine. To run and sweat and push myself again. To high five Jen or Fabian or Gwen or Phillip—friends who I might not know if I hadn’t stumbled into that office to buy a poop-shake.
This essay isn’t meant to be a plug for my local CrossFit gym. But, it is meant to be an homage to those hard things that we humans do on a daily basis. Those choices we make: to stay in bed or to get up and move. To phone it in or to push yourself. You never know when those hard choices will change your life for the better.
As I reflect on the past few years and the decisions I’ve made, I can’t help but smile. I didn’t know that my decision to join Crossfit Zachary would help me gain confidence, mental sharpness, and friends who would rally behind me as I fight for my life.
I really didn’t know that a workout regimen would help me fight cancer. But, it did and does. Everyday.
I have always loved the human spirit—especially when we work together as a team. That’s one of the many things I loved about CrossFit. It felt like a team. We all bled the same color. We all sweat the same color. We all high-five’d each other after a workout. And, we all collapsed on the gym floor together, laughing at what just happened.
What just happened? We willingly pushed ourselves to become physically and mentally stronger. It was difficult, but I loved it. And, I will come back for more. Mark my words.
I have a request. Do something hard and scary today. It doesn’t have to be pull-ups or wall-balls. Hell, do your best yoga shavasana (corpse pose…It’s kind of like sleeping.) Power walk to the mailbox. Just do something that makes you uncomfortably better. Do it for me. Do it for your kids. Do it because you can. Trust me, you’ll thank me later.