Member Spotlight – Emma’s Story – Discovering the Cans in a World of Can’ts

First There Was Cooking

Living with a disability often feels like you are living in a world of cant’s… can’t do activities, can’t go places, can’t eat certain things, can’t walk.  Living in a world full of cant’s is the easiest way to feel like you can’t do anything at all.

Life was good during my teenage years. I had accomplished more than most teenagers. By high school I was an award winning chef and was studying to open my own restaurant, “Scher Delight”. I had competed on Food Network: Chopped, medaled in a national culinary competition and felt like I had the world in front of me. That was until the long shifts started taking a toll on me. I loved being a chef, but I knew that this wouldn’t be sustainable. Standing on my feet for 10-12 hours was becoming a struggle and my fingers started to easily dislocate after holding onto utensils for long periods of time.  I started having adverse reactions to the foods I was tasting.

Then There Were Cant’s

In just a few years I went from a healthy child to having a laundry list of diagnoses: Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome, which makes my connective tissue weak leading to dislocations in all of my joints on a regular basis, Postural Orthostatic Tachycardia, which makes me pass out often when I stand up, Mast Cell Activation Disorder, which makes my body believe it is allergic to most foods, and more.  Some days I can’t walk more than a few steps, some days I can’t eat anything but potatoes, and most days there is at least one thing that I can’t do. Reluctantly pulling myself out of the food industry and losing my identity as a professional cook was the hardest thing I had gone through. It seemed like the things that I could do didn’t count for much… that was until I found CrossFit®.

Then there was CrossFit

To many, CrossFit may look like an extreme sport and require you to be at a certain level of athleticism before you start. However, I knew that wasn’t the case as I was scrolling through Instagram and saw impaired athletes perform CrossFit style movements.   Though they were all doing their exercises in various ways because of their varied disabilities, they were doing it. They were doing CrossFit! At that moment I wondered if I could do it, too. 

I decided to give it a shot. It wasn’t easy. I couldn’t do push-ups from knees, assisted pull-ups or burpees. I was discouraged by all the movements I couldn’t do. (Though I was less upset about burpees for obvious reasons).  For the first few months I completely avoided the movements that I couldn’t do and would substitute with what I could do. I did so many sit-ups. I kept it safe.

My desire to get stronger was there, but I was defeated by what I couldn’t do.  Then I decided to discover what I could do. “I can’t do pull-ups. How can I adapt this movement?”  I started to do ring rows instead of assisted pull-ups, push-ups against a box instead of on the floor, and rowing instead of running. I was discovering new ways to get just as great of a workout as the guy/girl next to me. Though I was embarrassed by what I couldn’t do, I was much more proud of what I could do.  I was working hard, getting stronger and growing as a person which I count as successfully “doing CrossFit”. (Insert a big YAY! and happy dance.) 

And Then There Were Cans

As the months passed I was making big-time progress.  I moved from ring rows to jumping pull-ups, to knee push-ups from push-ups against a box and running modified distances instead of rowing.  I was finally doing something that didn’t just feel like CrossFit, but looked like it too. Something that I hadn’t imagined ever being able to do!

CrossFit taught me that when you are faced with something difficult, even if nobody would blame you for quitting, saying you can’t is not good enough.  What exactly is it that I can’t do? What is holding me back from doing it? Can someone teach me how to do it? Can I find a way to mirror it in a way where I wont get hurt? If after all of this I still can’t do it, only then do I find a substitute for the movement.  

I don’t sit and wait for something that I can do, I do everything that I can to grow stronger.

CrossFit has made me stronger both mentally and physically and has allowed me to not only learn more about what I can do, but has enabled me to turn some of my cant’s into cans.  Eight years ago I was told to buy a rolling backpack because holding over 10 pounds could dislocate my shoulders and yet two weeks ago I PRed (personal record!) my clean at 110 pounds! Ten years ago I was told that I would never be able to run a quarter mile without dislocating at least 1 joint. In May I completed my first Ragnar running a total of 15 miles through rough terrain through day and night with a team of eight wonderful people. My people from CFRA.

There will always be things that we cannot do. And if I have learned one thing from CrossFit – it’s that giving up is not the answer. #turnyourcantsintocans

Ragnar, May 2018, with my people of CFRA.


Editor’s Note: Emma has the best PR dance you’ll ever see – watch it here.

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