Strong CrossFit women By Christine Ackerley

For Melisa Chudobiak, deadlifting 250 pounds is as routine as brushing her teeth in the morning. She does “CrossFit,” a fitness craze characterized by short, intense, and constantly changing workouts. Beside her, I struggled to lift 60 pounds. Sweat poured down my face and we were only halfway through the grueling 8:00 a.m. class at CrossFit Bytown in Ottawa. Housed in a converted garage, the floor of the gym was covered in rubber and plywood, with equipment including weights, jump ropes, and mats stacked neatly around the perimeter. To the beat of loud rap music, we rushed through circuit exercises including

burpees, kettlebell swinging, squats, deadlifts and skipping. CrossFit Bytown’s motto is “train not to suck at life,” and the ever-changing workouts are designed to improve overall fitness without specializing in any one area.

Robin Lavigne, 29, is CrossFit Bytown’s first member, and joined when the gym was founded two years ago. As she got stronger, she discovered her family didn’t approve of her new pastime. “My parents thought I was getting ‘too big’ for a girl. But now they see how happy and confident I’ve become and they’ve come around,” said Lavigne,  a former long-distance runner who looks slim and wiry.

When CrossFit Bytown started in 2012, there were four gyms in Ottawa. Now, there are more than 18, with three new ones opening up soon, according to Sloan. Ottawa is representative of the international trend. Around the world there are more than 10,000 CrossFit licensed gyms, with more than 500 of those in Canada. Despite its rapid growth, CrossFit has many detractors. It’s sometimes called a cult, where hyper-competitive participants become obsessed with fitness and are pushed to serious injury by irresponsible coaches.

Sloan is the first to admit that not all CrossFit gyms are good or even safe. “Crossfit gyms are like Ford dealerships, they are all run totally differently but share the same brand name.” Safe coaching and an emphasis on good form are vital to a gym’s long-term success, because members keep coming back, said Sloan. “I want my members to be able to do a workout, and go play with their grandchildren right after.” Female CrossFitters seem to face even more criticism because of their novelty.

Except in high-level sports, in the past it was rare to see women grunting though pull-ups and Olympic-style weightlifting. Now, that’s exactly what thousands of women do in CrossFit gyms. “People say girls shouldn’t do Crossfit because they might get huge and muscled and ugly, but I’ve just gotten leaner,” said Rebecca Ramos, 19. She’s been doing CrossFit for a year, and notices countless benefits in daily life.

“Last week, I helped my dad lift a 400 pound speaker into his car, and it was easy! It’s a huge boost of confidence to be able to do stuff like that, instead o fstanding on the side and watching men work,” said Ramos. Chudobiak finds her strength empowering as well. “I can do anything on my own, I don’t need any help: lift a box off a high shelf, sprint for the bus, open a jar.”

The social side of CrossFit is key, added Chudobiak “We have a real community, with lots of social events. It’s really a family.” As I was leaving, exhausted but proud, I met Megan Billey, a 19-year-old student about to go into her very first class. Before coming, she said many people cautioned her against trying CrossFit. “My family says girls shouldn’t be too muscular. And my friends say Crossfit people are crazy, and girls with abs are gross,” explained Billey.

“But I think if you feel good and like how you look, you shouldn’t care what people think.”