By Sara Grossman For most of my life, I avoided any form of fitness that involved the use of my arms. In high school, I was a distance runner on our spring track team. In the fall, I ran cross country. I did this because it made me uncomfortable to use my arms. In short, I was uncomfortable in situations where I might need to use my arms in front of other people. Often, people didn’t notice that I was missing an arm if I didn't make it obvious, so I could pretend even to myself that I was like everyone else. I tried to avoid scenarios where I’d have to reveal to everyone that I was actually missing an arm. It was clever, really, my avoidance of all things involving two hands. But it's sad, too, because this avoidance never really allowed me to explore the role that disability and difference played in my life, both consciously and unconsciously. I tried to hide the fact that I was different, rather than exploring why it felt so hard to be different in social spaces, and especially spaces of fitness.
What I really needed to explore was why it scared me so much to acknowledge that I was different. I decided about a year ago to consciously put myself in situations that would help me explore my own shame around looking and feeling different in a predominantly non-handicapped society. One way I wanted to explore this was through fitness, and so I decided to join a CrossFit gym in New York, Liberated Fitness (you should check it out if you are ever in NYC and around 110th and Morningside Park!). Much like Humble Beast CrossFit, my first CrossFit gym was a small, intimate community that focused on a mix of classic CrossFit techniques along with mobility and cardio training. The first time I tried a one-handed pushup, I was scared and even after it was over I felt sort of sick. What did it mean to let everyone else watch me struggle? And yes, it was a struggle. After so many years of ignoring what made me different, what would it look like (to others and to myself) to openly practice my difference with a bunch of people who were already very fit, strong, and two-handed?
I’m not sure I can answer those questions yet, but I do think that there’s something powerful about exploring what makes me different, even if it can be painful both emotionally and physically – I’ve definitely got some battle scars! While I started CrossFit in New York, I really didn’t start to take risks in performing two-handed weightlifting until Humble Beast. I had tried a few large-scale CrossFit gyms in D.C. prior to Humble Beast, and they didn’t feel right: they were too big for me and the coaches were unconsciously uncomfortable with locating adaptive techniques. Humble Beast wasn’t like that. It wasn’t that Jeff and Lindsay ignored that I was different. That would be practicing the same kind of denial about who I was that I had done my whole life. Instead, it was that they acknowledged my difference and gave me space to explore it in the gym. I think that’s the best part of Humble Beast: being part of a safe yet rigorous space where I can learn more about my strengths and, sometimes, my limitations without shame. I’m not afraid to fall over, or to try a new adaptive technique, and I’m constantly learning about form, strength and ingenuity from all of the other gym-goers. It was actually through watching many of the female lifters slowly increase their lifting weights, their pull-ups, their kettle-bell swings, that encouraged me to lift up a barbell for the first time. It was scary and that fear doesn’t really go away, but I’ve learned more about myself by taking these risks and putting myself in uncomfortable situations.
Sadly, I'm leaving D.C. at the end of April to return to Brooklyn, New York, so I'll need to figure out how to keep the momentum I've gained at Humble Beast going in a different city. Over the last 8 months, I've been split between both cities. As my partner and dog live in New York, I've been on an a research fellowship at the Smithsonian American History Museum. It's been a journey and my week days are often filled with writing and researching and, finally, my workouts at Humble Beast. But for me, it was never hard to find time to get to the gym. It was (and still is for this last month) something I look forward to every day. It's been my home away from home, honestly. A place that lets me learn about myself and others in ways I hadn't anticipated.
Follow Sara's adventures on Instagram @saragrossman30.