The athletes cluttered under the tent, the anticipation and pre-WOD jitters evident as they stood tucked away from the Miami heat. There they were, the female elites of the Wodapalooza Fitness Festival, seasoned competitors and CrossFit veterans. In the zone. Mentally preparing for the big stage.
“Does anyone have any water?” Lindsey Valenzuela yelled within the group, chiding herself with a laugh and yelling “Rookie mistake!” as she was handed a plastic bottle and headed out to the floor.
Valenzuela, who turned 31 last week, is hardly a rookie. Since first qualifying for the CrossFit Games in 2011, she’s been a constant force, placing as high as second in 2013. In a sport constantly evolving, with each Games adding more volume and a field that gets younger every year, Valenzuela is a outlier.
She is a not just a new mom, a role she triumphantly —almost inexplicably— was able to balance and still narrowly miss the top 10 at Regionals last year. Valenzuela is a fierce competitor who understands the other side.
What carrying 90 lb. of extra weight is like. How you can go from snatching more than 200 lb. to being on bed rest. And why having to juggle more than the competition is not, and never has been, an excuse.
“It’s not tougher [for me],” said Valenzuela, the mother to one-year-old Arsenio, Jr. “I’ve got a full plate. I’ve always been busy. I’m a gym owner, athlete and a mother. Every day I have to look at my schedule and make sure my priorities are my family first and that I can fit everything in and do it to the best of my ability. Some days it’s better than others.”
Valenzuela wasn’t willing to put starting a family on hold. Nor is she ready to hang up an accomplished athletic career.
And why should she? She is, at her core, a competitor. A boundary-pusher. And an inspiration for thousands of female athletes that want to see her defy expectations and earn a trip back to this summer’s Games.
“The big battle has been to play the catch-up game to get back,” Valenzuela’s coach Jacob Wellock said. “The intensity is always changing in the sport. Trying to catch [her] back up and surpass that and make it back to the Games is going to be a fight. Right now, that’s more of a mental battle than a physical one.
Once she flips that switch, no one is going to get in her way. Her tenacity is pretty tremendous.”
There were weeks she wasn’t allowed to do anything, months where Valenzuela was told to be on partial bed rest.
Being pregnant is hard enough but Valenzuela had early onset preeclampsia (very high blood pressure during pregnancy) and spent the better part of her final trimester holed up at home.
“I was in a lot of pain,” said Valenzuela, who watched her 150 lb. frame balloon to an uncomfortable 245 lb.
“Pregnancy is a huge mind fuck, for lack of a better phase. You don’t recognize yourself. There [are] so many lifestyle changes. Your body is different, you are emotionally going through stuff. You just don’t feel like yourself. It was really, really hard for me, but also I had this other side where I was so grateful to be pregnant and be able to have our son. That was the light at the end of our tunnel. That was what was mentally keeping me sane.”
So this was last year at this time. No I wasn't pregnant in these videos, I was 4 weeks post after having our little man and the first thing I said to myself was " dang I have come a long way athletically and in appearance ?!" I repost this to let women know it's possible, to not lose hope, and to understand with smart hard work you can get back to where you want and honestly even better!!!! #Repost @brianna.battles (@get_repost) ・・・ It's Monday, but let's throw it back to about a year ago. This is what trusting the process looks like. Mindset, strategy and intention pay off! #Repost @brianna.battles ・・・ 4 weeks postpartum, still in her rehab phase, as carefully monitored by her team, her Doctor, her Women's Health/Sports Med Physical Therapist, Julie Wiebe @juliewiebept , me ??(@bribattles) and in communication about progression with her @crossfit coach, @jacobjw7. Pregnancy and postpartum healing, strength and progression isn't something to take lightly and I admire an athlete like @liftlikelindsey for trusting the process to heal from the inside out! Healing her core and pelvic floor isn't accomplished through specific exercise, but through specific mechanics. Her ribs, pelvis, glutes, diaphragm and pelvic floor are her key factors to healing…dialing them in together as a unit is where the magic happens. No rib thrusting, butt tucking, sucking in or breath holding happening here. We started to break those habits when I took over her training in her third trimester. She's one of the strongest women in the world, and she's training like it…smart and with big picture intention. Go, girl, go you have millions of women who need your leadership. . . @crossfitgames #everydaybattlesscw #believe #crossfit #fitmom #crossfitmom #postpartumathleticism #diastasisrecti #pelvicfloor #core #athlete
Valenzuela and her husband, Arsenio Sr., became a family of three in May 2016. Just like when she was pregnant, a return to her old training wasn’t her top priority. Being complication-free was.
“I needed to make sure my post partum journey was healthy and I didn’t have any issues,” said Valenzuela, who started working with pregnancy and postpartum specialist Brianna Battles about three and a half months before giving birth.
“I wanted to make sure I was ready for that recovery. I think a lot of people focus just on getting back into shape and don’t pay attention to how their body feels, their pelvic floor and stuff like that.”
“Once she flips that switch, no one is going to get in her way. Her tenacity is pretty tremendous.”
Still, after she had a healthy baby in tow, the gym started calling. When Valenzuela was cleared to ease back in, Wellock —who she met while pregnant — and Battles would keep in contact to help devise a plan. For months, the workouts looked nothing like that of an elite athlete and former collegiate volleyball player; she was scaling things she never had before.
“She couldn’t hang from the pull-up bar for two to three months. She couldn’t row, she couldn’t jump. She could hardly do anything,” Wellock said. “It was a balance between her wanting to do more and telling her she can’t do these extra things yet because you will literally tear through your stomach. Forcing patience on her was a challenge.”
Today was a huge mental and physical postpartum PR!!!!!! I was able to not only strong 3 strict pull-ups together, but 5 sets of 3 with a three second pause at the top of third one!!!!!!! I kid you not I cried 6 weeks after having my son cuz I couldn't do 1 single pull-up!!!!!! Next time I will strive to keep legs together and straight!! Thank you to Brendan for encouraging me today!!!!! #imbackbitches? #believe #sweetboy #postpartum
Valenzuela knew it was going to be hard because of her weight gain. She knew it was going to be a long, arduous process to get back her conditioning and any bodyweight movements. That didn’t mean there weren’t moments of frustration and doubt.
“There was nights I’d sit there in tears with my husband saying, ‘I’m never going to be back to myself,” Valenzuela said.
“But I kept talking to Bri and my coach and husband and they said ‘Keep doing what you’re doing and keep focused; come that six-and-a-half-month mark you are going to wake up one day and say “Holy crap, I can feel like myself, I look like myself.'”
They were right.
By the time last year’s CrossFit Open rolled around, Valenzuela was starting to move like herself again. With just a few months of real training under her belt, she qualified for the California Regional, and amazingly finishing 11th.
“There’s a huge misconception that if you don’t make the Games or qualify for whatever big event, that defines who you are as a person or an athlete,” said Valenzuela, who also missed qualifying in 2014.
“Obviously, that’s the ultimate goal, that’s what you’re working so hard for, that’s what I want to achieve so my son can see me and see all the strong women there. It’s important to me for him to see that women are capable of doing so much. But [last year] helped solidify the fact that I’m achieving a lot more than just making it to the Games, by just inspiring others to not quit. There was so many times I could have quit, trying to get back into shape and to Regionals. I feel like I’m helping others just showing that I won’t quit.”
“I say yes. I believe.”
That is the translation of the Latin word Autumo, the name of the CrossFit box Valenzuela co-owns with former NFL player James Townsend. It doubles as Valenzuela’s personal motto.
“Sometimes I’ll have her do something that’s totally out of the ordinary to have her shut out the world, to keep developing her mental game,” said Wellock, recounting one recent 32-minute grinder. “She never complains about anything, never texts me and says ‘I’m beat up, I don’t want to do this.’”
“I work with other athletes and they all need a training partner. She doesn’t have that. She’s all alone and to be able to attack the workouts with the intensity that she does, it’s huge. She’s able to go in and out of that competitor mindset to being a mother and [a] gym owner. She never loses sight of her goals.”
Any of them.
“Once I started [to compete in CrossFit], I knew I wasn’t going to be physically done or mentally done [when I had a family],” she said. “I want to make it back to the Games a few times after I’ve had a kid. It’s about balance.”
To that end, Valenzuela spends most of her days juggling.
All of her training gets done in one daily session. If her son isn’t with her husband —who works nights half of the week— or her mother, he’s at the gym with Valenzuela, playing while she coaches.
She doesn’t see herself as an inspiration —despite the countless messages she gets to the contrary— and instead notes that she’s inspired by the women she sees who have two, three, four kids and still make time to train.
“Everyone is going through different phases of life. I took the huge leap of starting our family and now we are seeing more women who were competing starting families which is amazing,” she said.
“That’s your legacy, at the end of the day, that you leave. I’ve been at the top of this sport and been at the bottom of this sport, I’ve won a lot and lost a lot. And, at the end of the day, what really matters to me is my family. I don’t regret any decisions I’ve made.”
Photos courtesy of Lindsey Valenzuela