Chapter 1- hangar bay crossfit ‘cult’
We were well into our eight month deployment when I ditched cardio and light hand weights for heavy lifting. I worked out twice a day by then and found boat life more tolerable in the gym. I kept logs of the miles I put on those treadmills. I ran like a rat in a cage, averaging a marathon a week.
My uniforms swallowed my body. I was rail thin and lived off vanilla meal replacement smoothies and protein bars. I drank a gallon of water daily, sometimes nibbling on bruised apples and pears picked from leftovers in the main galley. I hoarded them in different work and living spaces throughout the ship in case of emergency. Fresh fruit was a hot commodity.
It was during the final days of an arduous humanitarian mission when I’d noticed a group of sailors in fitness apparel congregating in hangar bay one. They met around the same time each evening and looked happy to be there. High fives, dropped barbells, slammed medicine balls, kettlebell swings and loud grunts all around. I didn’t know what they were doing, but I was attracted to the energy. I noticed how supportive they were of one another. I was intrigued and felt called to break up the monotony in my routine.
Some nights I ended my run early and stretched on a nearby mat, or jumped rope in a corner while sneaking glances of the testosterone-filled workout party. The team leader caught on to my curiosity of the mysterious group and asked if I wanted to try something called Crossfit. He described it as challenging but incredibly rewarding. Also, lots of fun. It was a tight-knit community from my observation, so I felt honored to receive an invitation.
It was time I engaged with actual people rather than angry rock singers through my headphones. I agreed to meet them at some designated hour the following night. I showed up nervous but not a minute late. I hoped to not make a fool of myself in front of anyone passing by the make-shift gym located between aircraft and EOD equipment. I was strong from years of competitive cheerleading but I’d spent the past few weeks running long-distance and tossing baby weights in solitude.
I watched a few rounds of what they called a “WOD” (workout of the day), studied their lifting techniques and tried to decode the bizarre language. I heard names like “Fran” and “Annie” and quickly gathered that this new hobby would be an investment. I watched them move through the workouts as quickly as possible before collapsing to the ground. I took note of the double-under jump rope exercise as I sensed it would be useful in the coming months. I loved to skip rope and it was one exercise I felt competent in from the start.
Crossfit is as competitive as any sport but the stakes are higher if you focus on winning more than form, which tends to happen in some environments. I found my groove with the barbell and became ‘one of the guys’ amongst the USS Ronald Reagan CF community. I picked up Crossfit the same way I learned to drive the ship. I was placed behind the wheel and adapted under pressure. I went with it and before long it was second nature. I stacked heavier weights on the bars each week and worked diligently to master my craft. My favorites were the “squat clean” and “clean and jerk,” especially if Tech N9ne blared through the speakers. My least favorite was the “snatch” for reasons detailed in the video below.
The new sport became the object of my adoration, a whirlwind romance that began as quick as it ended. I started consuming at least three times the amount of calories than I had before, but not the good stuff. Fried chicken, pizza, french fries and the best-worst-food became staples in my diet. It was beyond my control. The weights made me do it. From eating breadcrumbs to stuffing my face, my muscles got as big as my head. My body transformed but I started to miss my feminine figure. Trousers became high waters as my quads and glutes grew from endless squatting.
I stopped engaging as much with people who didn’t Crossfit and acted defensive towards those who ‘jokingly’ called it a cult. If I ate meals on the mess decks I sat with my crew. Many days I skipped lunch to get another workout in. “How do you know if someone does Crossfit? Because they’ll tell you that they do Crossfit,” says the running joke. That was me. I was in deep and it carried on for weeks. I had planned to max out on deadlifts on what turned out to be my last day powerlifting.
Long story short, I injured my hip flexor doing a WOD for time. My days of Crossfit ended abruptly. I was crushed and limped around the ship in despair. What about my title as double-under champion I held for about a week? My exit from Crossfit was timely. Accusations of stolen weights and hidden locker keys rolled in and conflict over equipment and territory erupted. Outsiders were blamed for trying to take over our space.
It was petty but at the time felt like we’d been invaded by the enemy. Emotions run high on deployment and it often feels like a bad dream you never wake up from. The slightest transgression can result in blowout arguments or the dreaded silent treatment until we’re forced to collaborate again. It makes for an awkward morning muster (role call).
Casper ter Kuile from Harvard Divinity School highlighted the rise of isolation and loneliness amidst the decline of religious institutions in America. He talked about how non-religious communities are functioning in ways that mimic religion. “People’s behavior and practice is really being unbundled from the institutions and identities that would have been homes for it,” ter Kuile said during the Aspen Ideas Festival in 2017, via the Atlantic. “As institutional affiliation decreases, people have the same age-old desires for connection, relationships, connection to something bigger than themselves.”
I don’t know what to call that phase of my life but I’ve had eight years now to reflect. I know behavioral patterns displayed on that deployment are not what I now consider healthy. It was one extreme or the other and I played yoyo with my diet. I think depriving myself of proper nourishment allowed me to feel like I had some control over my mind and body. Some simple liberties we all enjoy are surrendered during service, so we look for ways to pass the time. We look for more meaning and purpose.
You may wonder why or how deployed troops don’t always feel like we’re contributing in a way that’s useful, and referring back to ter Kuile, what can be bigger than joining the military? When we’re on the ship, we focus on the mission and get through the days as painless as possible. Time passes but the ending is never in clear sight. Memories of loved ones seem out of reach.
There’s so much down time that we often forget why we’re there in the first place. This is when we sweep spaces that don’t need to be swept, shine brass that doesn’t need to be shined, and paint spaces that live to rust another day. If we don’t find productive ways to occupy the mind then our world becomes a scarier place. It was frustrating back then, but from a leadership perspective I now understand why we’re at times assigned such seemingly menial tasks.
Perhaps I was lonely, feeling detached from the world and my family, and an opportunity to connect with a group of my choosing presented itself. The gym was my sanctuary. The Crossfit community has struggled to separate from its identity as a cult as questions about safety and culture are raised by critics. But the sport helped me survive that deployment by giving me something to look forward to and goals to reach for each day. For that I am grateful. Either way, the days of being ‘CVN-76 Crossfit Queen’ linger in my memory. Lessons learned: life’s about balance; too much of anything can be a bad thing; find ways to stay connected; push yourself beyond your limits; listen to the secrets your body tells you.