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The CrossFit teen population is growing, both in numbers and popularity, as more and more of them, as well as teen division alumni make waves in the individual ranks each year. There’s also a growing pressure for young athletes to sacrifice a great deal for a spot on the CrossFit Games floor.
CrossFit teens are putting all their eggs in the CrossFit basket, and the motivation to sacrifice prom and football games and pizza for extra hours in the gym can wear off when you’re left with rowing intervals and four hours of homework on a Tuesday night.
That’s exactly what 2021 CrossFit Games 16th place finisher Emma Cary experienced for almost all of high school. Throughout most of her young life, Cary has dreamt of becoming a pediatrician alongside being an elite CrossFit athlete. That has meant taking an extremely heavy course load in high school in addition to the blood, sweat and tears it takes to be the Games champion at 15-years-old in the teen division and an elite athlete at 16-years-old.
Looking back on it now after graduating high school, Cary recognizes the hardships of her school experience.
“It was 6 am to after midnight multiple days a week. It wasn’t something that occasionally happened, it was common. I didn’t feel good, and I wasn’t seeing the progress I wanted,” Cary said. It was an extremely strenuous situation for the teenager, going so far as to affect her recovery and sleep.
“Every minute was spent training or doing homework. Even while I would eat, I would do homework. There was just no time to relax, sometimes no time to even stretch or recover my body. It was like, I can sleep or I can stretch, and right now I need to sleep. It was tough.”
“Nothing could make me feel like (CrossFit) does…I found that I might have to sacrifice other dreams for that and that’s okay.”
While looking forward to her senior year, which she had blocked out with her schedule as a more “fun” year to soak in the high school experience, Cary decided in the summer of 2021 to complete the year online. Although it was a hard choice, setting aside her dream of becoming a doctor for now, Cary knew that in order to go all in on training for the CrossFit Games this was a necessary decision.
“Nothing could make me feel like (CrossFit) does, that’s just a whole new level of passion, that’s what I truly love to do. I found that I might have to sacrifice other dreams for that and that’s okay.”
Cary finished her senior year a semester early while doing online school, which she says was extremely beneficial for her training schedule and lifestyle. It was the first time she felt independent from school, she said, and it gave her freedom to control her time as she saw fit.
In addition, as she saw improvements on her CrossFit game, Cary learned the valuable lesson that having too much on your plate can make the quality of your output decrease, but when she put her energy into one specific focus, she could be her very best.
“Sometimes you do think about what you have lost, just how many ‘teen things’ you’ve missed out on.”
However, Cary admits that online school takes all the “fun” parts out of school and leaves only the functional parts. Part of this was enjoyable for the self-proclaimed introvert because she didn’t feel pressure to be overly social and could instead just keep the bonds she had with close friends.
On the other hand, though, the isolation was admittedly tough for Cary.
“I finished my last assignment and it was like I just submitted it, I think it was just some random Sunday afternoon, and it was like ‘wow, I’m done with high school.’ Since nobody was there, it was just not what I had imagined, and that was kind of a lonely feeling,” Cary said. “Sometimes you just think about what you have lost, just how many ‘teen things’ you’ve missed out on.”
Cary maintains that despite those typical teen experiences she’s missed out on, she’s happy with the decisions she’s made, claiming that it was because of those hard decisions to skip fun events that she’s able to compete and take part in the experiences she truly cares about.
“I’ve walked away (from competitions) with so many lessons, so much love for competing, but all those competition feelings fade, and that’s inevitable. But what stays strong is the relationships, and that’s such a cool thing,” Cary said, adding that the friendships she’s made with other CrossFit teens through competitions and social media are especially strong.
“Being around teens at competitions makes me think that if everybody was as supportive as the CrossFit teens, the world would be a better place. It’s amazing to be a part of that.”
While Cary has gone fully in on CrossFit, with all the sacrifice, hard work, and sometimes loneliness that can go into it, other teens hold onto the values of the sport while maintaining a more traditional schedule.
Delia Moises, a 2021 CrossFit Games athlete who finished 16th in the 14-15 Girls division, has trained at home in her basement for the majority of her career–mostly because until earlier this year, she couldn’t drive. This meant long hours alone doing tough workouts all by herself, sometimes upwards of eight hours a day during the summer.
However, when she started training seriously at the age of 13, it didn’t strike her as a problem.
“I don’t think I was lonely because I had never known anything different,” Moises said. “I think it was just because I had never known any different, so it wasn’t like ‘I have to go do this long workout by myself, that’s so lame’ it was like ‘I get to choose my own music that’s so cool!’”
While Moises is still training to be a competitive CrossFit athlete, she’s also making moves to pave the way for her future career–in February, Moises applied to Arizona State University’s online program, which she will participate in next year in addition to her regular high school courses. While the workload will be extremely heavy, Moises is ready for the hard work it’ll take and attributes her drive for being busy and engaged to CrossFit.
“I can still be a functional member of society. Working out is not all there is.”
“You know how Pat Vellner was like, ‘I don’t need to spend more time watching Netflix and sitting on my butt during recovery, I can be productive and learn and do stuff,’ so I feel like I don’t want to get into the habit of just being like ‘I just eat, sleep and workout,’” Moises said.
Even at just 16-years-old, she recognizes the dangers of sequestering herself only to the CrossFit corner. “I can still be a functional member of society. Working out is not all there is.”
In a similar vein, Moises is wary of disconnecting herself from “real life” friends as well. While she says she’s met some of her best friends ever from competitions, even if they only see each other occasionally and mainly talk online, she says having that be her only source of connection just wouldn’t work. As Moises puts it, elite CrossFit isn’t the norm for most of the world, and it can create unattainable standards.
“When I watch (CrossFit videos) online, I was like, ‘oh I workout, I’ll spend all day in the gym! I just gotta grind,’ but that’s not reality. There’s a lot more that goes into it than just ‘I’m gonna be happy and workout at the gym all day,’ you definitely need to be around other people that are like, ‘yeah I’m not motivated all the time.’”
Simon Wilke, a senior at Three Rivers High School, a few miles down the road from The Pit Fitness Ranch, just recently got into CrossFit after a lifetime of school sports. Wilke has quickly found a solid group of friends his own age with similar goals at Triple River CrossFit, and even qualified for the North American Quarterfinals in March after doing CrossFit for less than a year.
Wilke comes from a different background than most CrossFit teens, who basically start doing burpees straight out of the womb, but says it’s because of his time playing soccer and baseball through his school that he was able to excel so quickly.
“(You learn) that if you don’t know how to do something, just keep working at it. As a younger person, I remember not being good at something and I’d just go home and practice more and more and put time into it,” Wilke said. “It doesn’t just happen right away, and that’s how it was with (starting CrossFit) too.”
Being so suddenly and completely immersed in the teen CrossFit world, going to the most heavily invested gym in the teen competition world with competitions like the Elite Teen Throwdown and other teen-specific events, Wilke has already been exposed to the different lifestyles of elite athletes.
And while he recognizes the values of elite athletes being homeschooled to focus on training and athletic development, Wilke is content with his school experience.
“I think in (in-person school), you learn what to keep to yourself, what to (share), how to act professional, how to not get in trouble, you learn a lot. Definitely social skills,” Wilke said. “(If you’re homeschooled) you don’t get to learn to talk to a teacher, how to ask questions. You can ask your parents questions, but they’re your parents, that’s easy.”
The Bottom Line
If in-person connections are so clearly important to teen athletes, like Cary, Moises, and Wilke all stated, why do so many teens opt for an untraditional educational experience?
Simply put, it’s what it takes to make the Games as a teen. Especially with CrossFit constantly going back and forth with teen division qualifications, young athletes are fighting hard for a spot on the competition floor that might be swept right out from under them. Long gone are the days when the CrossFit Kids WOD three times a week could produce a 14-year-old with their name on a Games jersey.
Both Cary and Moises placed 16th in their respective divisions, and while the 14-15 division is considered a “junior varsity” competition, both girls trained for hours upon hours before school, after school, and non-stop during the summer to solidify their spots amongst the fittest on Earth.
With just one year separating the two, both Cary and Moises would, in more normal circumstances, be regular, full-time high school students, but have instead chosen a different path. And for the most part, they seem very satisfied with those choices, being the 16th fittest on Earth, but they’re still missing out on those “regular” teenager experiences.