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Sports, Tweets and Hope: How my world imploded in the context of the #blacklivesmatter movement and the global pandemic

Catalina Rojas

June 12, 2020

In December of 2019 we were happily saying our goodbyes to what we thought had been a hard year. Little did we know what 2020 had in store for us. The best way to describe 2020 was something I read in the endless stream of social media, unfortunately I cannot find the original source, but it goes like this: “If 2020 has a cocktail it will most definitely be colonoscopy prep beverage.” I apologize if you are young and never had the “pleasure” of drinking endless quantities of THAT the day before a colonoscopy. But use your young imagination.

The global covid-19 pandemic hit and all I can think was how privileged I am to have a home, a refrigerator filled with food, a good internet connection, and the ability to work from home. Remember the days of “save the world from your couch ”? That feels like ages ago.

As hard as staying at home in a country (Colombia) with very strict rules about mandatory confinement and as hard as it not being able to visit my elderly mother who is not living with me, I’ve found two things that helped me cope with it all.

  1. Tuned in solidarity mode to use my privilege to help anyone I can. I mean anyone. Little things like buying an extra bag of groceries for the staff that takes care of our apartment complex so that they have food and beverage during their shifts. At work, with PCDN, we started free career chats to help social impact professionals navigate these uncertain times and acquire tools and skills to prepare us for this new reality. We also have friends doing frontline food assistance work and have been fortunate to be able to help them pack huge quantities of supplies a few times.
  2. Exercise. If you don’t know me, exercise is the one hour a day in which I am NOT a mum, or a spouse or have to take care of responsibilities. It’s an entire hour to reset my body and mind and it’s been a life saver. I even started teaching a small class few a times a week online and thus begin my journey from (below average) athlete to (hopefully good) coach. If the world is changing why the heck not change with it? My students have lost weight and inches, they have reported massive amounts of disposable energy, have bought weights and have increased their aerobic capacity, from what I can tell from Zoom anyway. And we rarely miss a class.

Apart from navigating the challenges of keeping an extroverted, active, bright 9-year-old away from screens and watching the light diminish from his big brown eyes (which is hard for a mum) we were hanging in there. Then, in a matter of weeks, the United States, -already suffering from massive covid-19 related deaths, unprecedented unemployment and economic hardship and blatant lack of leadership at the national level- started a national transformation centered on the issue of systemic racism within law enforcement sparked by a video of the cruel assassination of George Floyd, a black American who was killed under a choke hold by a white Policeman in Minneapolis.

Personally, the week of his assassination I had several bad days in a row. I could barely work because I felt my brain maxed-out processing everything (global pandemic, economic hardship) while I still had to function: work, cook, be a mother, a spouse, and a daughter. After the two days I did what most of us do which is put one foot in front of the other and get through yet another day. Exercise, work, help anyone where I can, donate if I can, attend Zoom family birthday parties even if I’m exhausted, check in on friends who are single mums, check on friends that live alone. Feed the birds, watch my flowers bloom on my patio. And get up because I am without a doubt one of the lucky ones.

But this week, this week, I broke. And this is what happened. My sport of choice is CrossFit. In 2016 I saw a red sign near my then house and I told myself it was a signal from the universe. For someone with a background on regular gyms, yoga and NOT ONE sporting experience, why on earth would I try something that is portrayed as insanely hard and has been wrongly accused by some as a dangerous activity?

But there is more. I joined soon after turning 42. So here you have this slightly older not athletic Latina lady trying the impossible. Guess what? At first, I needed 3-4 days to recover per session and then I would return to the gym. I did that for almost a year. I keep showing up and while I had to modify nearly all movements, I couldn’t understand half the terminology, I started bonding with other people there. There’s something amazing about ending an intense class on the floor with others, there is a tremendous amount of empowerment that occurs when you realize you dead-lifted more weight that you ever thought possible. The people in the gym were white, brown, black, Latino, Asian, older, middle age, super young. Some were incredibly fit, some embarked on their weight loss journey (like me), and deep friendships developed. Not the past decade of yoga nor my 10+ membership in a regular gym created the ties of friendship and community I experienced in CrossFit. When we decided to move, leaving my CrossFit family was one of the hardest things I had to leave behind. But I quickly found a box (gym) in Colombia, after all, CrossFit has grown to 15,000 affiliates worldwide in 150 countries.

Fast forward to this week. The CEO of CrossFit resigned after a series of now public Zoom calls, emails and a tweet revealed at best a blatant lack of empathy towards the #blacklivesmatter movement and at worse a racially offensive, hurtful, indignant and wrong for any human to say, let alone a wealthy, white public figure that helped led a movement toward health and fitness for everyone. I mean me!!!! If I can do CrossFit, if I was welcomed, taught, encouraged and as a result empowered, it’s literally for ANYONE.

Here is what happened and why I broke. As a self-confessed CrossFit fan (not only of the methodology but of the sport) I was making sense by watching a Youtuber explain all this mess. At the end of his video he had a collection of the big-name athletes and huge brands that one by one spoke against Greg Glassman and withdrew their support and affiliation. Those big athletes not only entertain us fans, but they inspire us on a daily basis and for me to watch them walk away FROM THEIR LIVELIHOODS, to watch them act on behalf of the beliefs and sacrifice, in the midst of these uncertain and horrid economic times -how they will be making a living, how can they leave their decade-long jobs for some- was the most brave, courageous and painful act. And I spent hours feeling a deep pain, tears and loud crying that may have alarmed my family members.

And then it hit me. If I’m in this pain, I can’t imagine what the black community has been feeling, this past few weeks, years, decades, centuries.

Watching my sport crumble before my eyes, gave me the out to feel this pain. No, I’m not happy to be feeling this, but I’m glad I’m not just witnessing like when you are online shopping and scrolling down with indolence, with indifference, with neglect. Like I have heard many athletes and brands who disaffiliated with the brand of CrossFit, it is simply not enough and certainly not acceptable in times like this to sweep this under the rug, to let it pass.

I look for my 1 hour long of working out to escape from my profession. As many of you, I have dedicated decades of my life to some form of nonprofit, academic, consulting and lately social entrepreneurship activity around conflict resolution, peacebuilding and social change. I have experienced burn-out and to keep at it I NEED my morning exercise and I appreciate the loud terrible music, the overall exhaustion and the empowering feeling of surviving another WOD (workout of the day). Because if I can do 100 burpees or 5 rounds of 10 unbroken back squats at moderate weight, I don’t feel there is a challenge during the day that I cannot deal with. Until I pass out at night, but that’s another story.

I like my worlds (of work and exercise) nice and separate. But this week, instead of hearing gymnastics tips or what will happen to the 2020 CrossFit games I heard athletes standing before the world and speaking out in defense of their values and take a stand against racism and I also heard white media sports analysts truly asking this question: how can you (in the black community) guide me and educate me to better understand what you have gone through being black? What books can I read? Conflict resolution professionals, experts in justice and reconciliation, social change professionals YOU are uniquely positioned to help all of us emerge in honest, humble, real conversations to move forward.

In writing this post I learned that it’s not fair to lean on our black friends to re-live their past trauma to satisfy our need to be education, especially these days.

I suggest these three things moving forward:

1) to wake up and exercise and completely exhaust myself and further my dream as a functional fitness coach;
2) to speak out, be loud and be an ally of the black community in the US and worldwide and to do that I will
3) learn, read, listen and use whatever privilege I have to walk alongside not just for George Floyd but all black folks, POC and any minority community who are victims of systemic and structural racism and exclusion like the unfortunate death of Anderson Arboleda, an Afro Colombian young man who was beaten to death by a Colombian policemen for violating the terms of mandatory quarantine in May 22, 2020 in Colombia.

Resources to learn more about race and racism:





The CrossFit controversy

By Catalina Rojas, PhD

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