Last May, driving home from the California Regionals, Brooke Ence made a big mistake.
Ence, who just finished sixth to come up short of qualifying for the CrossFit Games, was already massively disappointed. After winning her regional in 2015 to advance to the Games, she felt like she had let everyone down at the three-day competition: her family, friends, coaches.
That was until she logged into social media. Ence, who had signed off all weekend to focus, was flooded with the usual trolling comments on her “manly” appearance or accusations of using steroids. That she could handle. What she wasn’t prepared for were the other types of insults: centered around her performance.
“It was like, ‘You’re washed up, you’re a fluke, you’re never coming back,” Ence recalled. “Any question I had in my own head, it verified it.”
She screenshotted the comments and even showed them to some people. Those negative thoughts, reaffirmed by random strangers on the Internet, haunted her.
Never mind that Ence had such bad tendinitis in her knees that for six weeks leading up to the Regionals she couldn’t squat below parallel. She had arrived at the competition stressed, knowing her preparation wasn’t there, that she had spent time in Europe filming a movie and her knees still weren’t right.
In a notoriously tough region, she still had a chance to qualify for the Games heading into the final day. But it wasn’t enough. Perhaps she wasn’t enough.
“I had a lot of things I was thinking but didn’t want to tell people them because I didn’t want to sound crazy,” Ence said.
“It was part of the imposter syndrome [I was dealing with]. I was worried there was no reason for me to be a professional [athlete] and it was a fluke and people are going to figure it out and realize I was washed up. I thought, ‘I shouldn’t have won the regional in 2015.’ Even though it was all ridiculous, I couldn’t figure that out.”
Ence has spent the better part of the past year dealing with self-image issues and changing her thoughts. She will not get a chance at redemption at this year’s Regionals, a severely herniated C-6 and C-7 —operated on last week—made sure of that.
But the 27-year-old is in a much better place now than she was last May. And Ence is looking forward to the challenge, both physically and mentally, of her pending comeback.
“I allowed trolls on the Internet to really, really affect me in a negative way. I was in a pretty dark place for a little bit,” she said. “And I was able to get out of that. I’m so much better for it and stronger for it and now I just want to enjoy training and go back to working out because I get to and not because I have to.
I think this injury is going to really help that because the idea of not getting to do stuff anymore, this could have all been taken away if I let it get worse or if it had been worse.”
The doctor was impressed that she could stand on her own and still control her bladder. That was how bad Ence’s scan looked.
It had started innocently enough, doing some gymnastics work the week before Christmas. Ence was transitioning from standing to a headstand when she felt a sharp pain in her back. Initially, she thought she had slipped a rib. It had happened a few times before. Ence went a whole year where one side of her back felt slow to activate and she never could stay adjusted.
By the time she woke up the next morning, at her parents house, she couldn’t move her neck. The only thing that let Ence relax enough to function was taking her sister’s muscle relaxers. She tried sleeping on the floor the next night and was in so much pain she ran into her parents room in tears.
“I was in pain, but I was like, ‘What if this was competition?,” Ence said. “This is going to make you better, learning to deal with the pain.”
She was scaling her workouts and seeing a chiropractor three times a week. Still Ence was struggling to get out of bed, having her husband pop her back into place every morning. She’d make breakfast and wouldn’t be able to look down. At night, Ence would prop pillows up by her arms to try to avoid the throbbing pain.
At the end of January, Ence started seeing Brian Johnson, who specializes in Rolfing (soft tissue work), and finally got some release. Maybe it was just a sprain and she could manage things, do the bare minimum for the upcoming CrossFit Open.
Then she started losing strength in her right hand.
“We had this great plan of how things were going to go. And then I realized I don’t think I’m getting better,” Ence said. “ I was really struggling with my right arm. I couldn’t do more than five toes-to-bar or pull-ups, I would be crooked. My body would shift to the left. I couldn’t get my right side to pull.”
Johnson suggested an MRI and —while the first workout of the CrossFit Open was being announced— Ence was driving to get the test done.
Initially, she was in denial. The results —a severely herniated C-6 and C-7— weren’t going to keep her off the competition floor. But Ence, who gingerly did the first Open workout that weekend, changed her tune when she saw Dr. Ivan Cheng that Monday.
“He explained, if I planned to go back to my sport it would be very, very dangerous if I didn’t have it fixed,” Ence said. “There’s no telling if it would herniate any more. There was basically no room for my spinal cord, it was being pressed against the wall so much.”
While other top athletes prepare for Regionals, Ence will ease back into activity. Her timeline is 8-12 weeks, meaning by late May she could start getting into training more. For now, she’s doing light cardio to keep her sanity, with nothing over 10 lb. allowed overhead for six weeks.
“I think she’s going to be able to hold this in perspective and realize it’s out of her control. There’s no use worrying about it because the only thing she can control now is her attitude and effort,” said Ence’s coach, Michael Cazayoux. “She’s already in a better headspace then she was all of last year.
She’s reached a place in her mind that she’s on the [Games] level, she knows she’s as good as anyone out there. And that’s the hardest part for most people to get. She’s going to get her strength back quickly and then it’s about just making sure she’s healthy going into next year.”
Ence has spent a lot of time talking to Cazayoux, surrounding herself with good people and focusing on self-reflection. She credits the book Daring Greatly with helping her embrace vulnerability and imperfection and get past the time after last year’s Regional.
“I got to a point where I was able to realize a lot of things about me that I didn’t know. Some of these things were stuff I struggled with for years like self-image with my body and always trying to be perfect,” Ence said.
“I needed to change that, to get better at that. There’s a lot of people who look up to me or are inspired by me, or my family and friends. But I needed to change for myself, first and foremost. I think a lot of people don’t want to acknowledge that they need help and that they need to change things. I think I’ll be a stronger person for it.”
So do those around her.
“People are incredibly mean and I think that Brooke gets tested in that way [on social media] more than anyone,” Cazayoux said. “She’s come a really long way in being O.K. with being vulnerable about her body and her body image, talking about her insecurities, talking about her fears. And I think all of that has started to take some of the pressure off of her when it comes to body image. I’ve seen tremendous growth there.”
Ence has also worked hard to hone her mindset during competitions. Historically, she’s been someone who has been fixated on her competition or put a lot of stock on things she couldn’t control. Now, with a lot of discussion with Cazayoux about fixed mindset, she’s approaching things differently.
Her comeback is about the challenge of returning to the gym, not necessarily the Games. Yes, she wants to still compete. But now she wants to take the opportunity to enjoy every day she’s able to train and to not stress about things out of her control.
“I read this quote the other day that said, ‘In life there’s no finish line’ and it’s so true,” said Ence, who will also have some nagging shoulder pain checked out while she rehabs her neck. “We train every day and, even at the Games, the second the weekend is over, everyone including the winners don’t care about that anymore. They look forward to next year. If I focus on last year, that won’t help me or make me better.”
As for social media, Ence —who recently showed off a gnarly scar and pictures of her in a neck brace— is as active as ever. Those negative comments long deleted from her phone.
“Over time, because of that experience, I’m just a stronger person for it and way better at handling the trolls,” she said with a laugh. “Plus, now I’ve officially heard all the shitty stuff.”
All pictures courtesy of Brooke Ence.