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Fitness Fridays: Elisabeth Akinwale On Diversifying CrossFit And How Femininity And Strength Go Hand In Hand
May is known as Women’s Health Month, as well as National Physical Fitness and Sports month. In order to celebrate all things health and wellness that have to do with women of color, today we’re launching Fitness Fridays for the month. We’re hoping to share stories that help others embrace the importance of taking care of themselves both inside and out.
What is a woman to do when she’s spent a majority of her young life competing in sports and is sidelined indefinitely by an injury? While many of us would throw in the towel, sit on the couch and put on weight that’s anything but happy, Elisabeth Akinwale chose to go on a new fitness journey. The 38-year-old CrossFit competitor and U by Kotex FITNESS partner based out of Chicago had been a gymnast since the age of four. But after debilitating knee injuries cut her career short in college, she found her way to the weight rack. Akinwale’s rehabilitation came through strength training, and she loved it. She eventually gravitated toward CrossFit in 2010. Since then, she’s gone on to consistently compete and have memorable performances in the annual Reebok CrossFit Games and has even appeared in the USA Weightlifting National qualifications. She’s also obtained certification to teach CrossFit classes and has coached more than 40 seminars over the years through her program, On Balance. She’s done all that while being a mother of a 10-year-old son and inspiring nearly 100,000 followers on Instagram. How does she do it? We talked to Akinwale about her fitness journey to find out.
MadameNoire: I read about your athletic background and your days as a gymnast. How did that turn into a passion for strength training and fitness competitions?
Elisabeth Akinwale: Yes, I was a gymnast growing up, between the ages of 4 and 19. Unfortunately, towards the end of my gymnastics career, I suffered a series of knee injuries and subsequently had multiple surgeries. I joined a local gym and started strength training to rehabilitate my knee and strengthen the supporting structures. I ended up falling in love with weight training as well as group fitness classes.
How have you been able to maintain a busy training schedule and do your On Balance coaching seminars and everything else that takes up your 24 hours while being a mother?
It’s not easy to juggle being a competitive athlete, running a business and parenting. I’ve been able to draw on other periods of my life that were particularly busy, such as being a new mom, a full-time employee, and a student at the same time. One concept that is helpful is being very clear with your values and your priorities. Clarifying those for yourself and others provides the framework for decision making related to where you will spend your resources, the most precious being your time. Learning to say “no” to things that you aren’t passionate about is very empowering as well.
One of the big superficial critiques that both gymnasts and women who do a lot of strength training face is that they’re too “bulky,” too muscular, too masculine. What have you thought about those types of criticisms and why don’t you care?
I find those types of criticisms baffling. I most definitely have heard those ideas on social media, in publications, and I have friends who have been criticized in that manner by family. Fortunately, I haven’t encountered those sentiments directly from people whose opinions I value. From an early age I was encouraged in my strength and physical capability. I have an older sister who was an athlete, and my mother was always very strong, so the paradigm of strength being in opposition to femininity or beauty was not part of my life. Ironically, most women who don’t strength train would actually enhance their traditionally feminine attributes, such as curves, by adding strength training to their routine. As we age, the natural progression is for the body to lose muscle mass, impacting your posture, the firmness of your body, and your overall shape.
How would you encourage other women who have a very close-minded view of strength training and assume it’s not necessary?
Strength is one among many components of balanced health and fitness. It is a building block to support us in many areas, beyond how we look — from maintaining healthy, pain-free joints, to being able to run around with our children/grandchildren, master that challenging yoga pose, move our body on a hike to a beautiful mountain peak. The process of strength training is an amazing way to increase confidence and self-assuredness. Being strong, and the work it takes to develop and maintain strength, makes me and many of the clients I work with feel more empowered and capable in every area of our lives.
One very interesting topic I saw that you brought up with your followers is the lack of diversity in CrossFit competitions. Why do you think that is and how can we change that?
There are many reasons that CrossFit competitions have not drawn in more diverse participants. I think part of the issue is, generally our society continues to sustain and create many segregated institutions such as schools, places of worship, residential neighborhoods, and it seems right now that CrossFit isn’t much different. CrossFit is a community-based training model, which means getting the full benefit is dependent on feeling like part of the community. I have wondered if people of color are hesitant to volunteer to be one of a few in their local CrossFit gym when they are paying premium dollar to attend, and may face many of the same microaggressions faced daily when we are operating in predominantly white spaces. I would love to see diverse communities continue to create spaces to pursue functional fitness that are affirming for us as people. Marketing also plays a role. CrossFit as a company and related brands, magazines, etc., have not always been inclusive in who they market to, which I think is a turnoff for many people. This aspect also contributes to one of the structural barriers faced by CrossFit competitors of color, which is access to financial resources and sponsorship dollars that would support their training and competition.
One last question I’ve been asking every fitness enthusiast I interview for this series is, at this point, why is fitness important to you and what does it mean to you?
Fitness is important to me on a fundamental level as a way to connect with my body. Many of us go through periods of estrangement from our bodies for various reasons — trauma, shame about how our body looks, prioritizing everything over ourselves. Fitness is about my relationship with my body, and also how I interact with the world through my body. Living a fit lifestyle allows me to participate more fully in life, based on what I can do, as well as the comfort and confidence I feel existing in this body.