Jeffrey Duncan/2017 CrossFit Games
At 4:17 PM, eight athletes lined up underneath the tunnel inside the Alliant Energy Center. The first heat of Amanda .45 was about to run out onto the floor.
Carleen Mathews’ name was called over the loud speaker. The three-time Games veteran ran out looking poised and ready. She’d been through this before. Large crowd. Loud venue. Didn’t matter. She was focused. The two-time West Regional champ likes tough workouts and muscle-ups are Mathews’ jam.
Not one of the ten thousand spectators watching in the coliseum nor the tens of thousands watching online knew. No one except her and her coach. Without some kind of miracle, Mathews wasn’t going to be able to do a single muscle-up and she knew it before she got out on the floor.
It all started on Wednesday morning, more than a week before the CrossFit Games kicked off. A late night flight put Mathews in Madison around midnight and to bed shortly thereafter.
“I just felt like I had slept wrong, I’d traveled and there was this knot back in between my shoulder blades,” Mathews said. “It just felt like this normal sore type of muscles like maybe I’d slept wrong.”
Given the volume Mathews had been training at for months now, some aches and pains are to be expected. Mathews wasn’t too concerned. Nothing was torn, nothing was broken. Just a little off.
“No matter how many times I told myself ‘you can do this,’ my body wouldn’t listen to my brain. It’s the most helpless feeling I’ve ever had.” — Carleen Mathews
“I went into the Games injury free. I felt 100%,” said Mathews, who had yet to be diagnosed with Thoracic Outlet Syndrome.
Mathews doesn’t feel pain like other athletes do. Maybe her toughness comes from battling through alcoholism and an eating disorder. Regardless, Mathews is used to ignoring the worst of it and somehow moving through but this wasn’t going away so she started working with onsite trainers to fix it.
After a few sessions, Airrosti specialists told her if she didn’t improve she’d need to get cleared by medical.
“I’m not going to leave my Games experience to someone up to someone else to tell me if I’m ok to go or not,” Mathews was adamant. “I’ll let you know if I’m OK or not. I’ll decide when I’m done.”
She quickly responded, “I’m good to go.”
Back inside the warm-up area before Amanda .45, Mathews still couldn’t do a muscle-up. Her left arm wouldn’t lock out and minutes later she’d be running out on the floor and her 2017 CrossFit Games would be over.
The minimum work requirement for Amanda .45 was two full rounds; that’s 24 muscle-ups and 24 snatches. Mathews wasn’t thinking about the fact that she couldn’t even do one. She wasn’t walking away.
“I can’t not go out there. I have to try. I can’t just give up right now. I knew I couldn’t do one but it wasn’t like I was injured. It wasn’t like I had a torn something. We didn’t really know. I couldn’t just not go out there.”
Two-hundred and seventy eight seconds is a long time to stand underneath a set of rings, watching other athletes slowly move further and further away.
“For me to be able to go out there and every rep take a deep breath, it just circles back to everything I’ve worked on all year in my mental training…I worked really hard on trusting myself and believing in myself and every single rep I genuinely believe I was going to be able to do it. It was just my body wouldn’t do it.” — Carleen Mathews
As CrossFitters, we’re familiar with this pain of defeat, reaching that next weight or movement in the CrossFit Open that we just can’t seem to get past no matter how hard we try. But not Mathews, who regularly breaks through barriers both physical and mental, not be held back by them.
“It was horrible,” Mathews said. “No matter how many times I told myself ‘you can do this,’ my body wouldn’t listen to my brain. It’s the most helpless feeling I’ve ever had.”
Just after the two minute mark, head judge Adrian Bozman walked over to Mathews to see what was up. A slightly stunned Mathews explained the situation and asked for a few more attempts to get a muscle-up before heading off the floor. By this point, athletes were already beginning their second round of muscle-ups.
“It’s hard to watch it because I know I can do that. I visualize myself doing that workout. Looking back watching it, I’m proud of the way I handled it. Going out there I knew I wasn’t going to be able to do a muscle-up. It was going to be a miracle. For me to be able to go out there and every rep take a deep breath, it just circles back to everything I’ve worked on all year in my mental training. That’s been the biggest thing. I worked really hard on trusting myself and believing in myself and every single rep I genuinely believe I was going to be able to do it. It was just my body wouldn’t do it.”
Call it seeing the silver lining, or a mature athlete who recognizes that this one was out of her control.
At 4:38, Mathews signed her score card and walked off the floor with zero regrets, leaving behind seven other athletes cycling barbells.
Back home in St. Helens, OR, Mathews patiently works through a limited diet of exercises mostly avoiding movements that will overstrain or exacerbate the nerve in her back. One can almost hear her breath of frustration as the physical therapist coaches out the most adolescent movements sometimes inches at a time.
The sense you get talking to her is like a lion being caged up for the first time, forced to sit quietly and wait and no one can tell her how long it will be.
If her mental game improved leading up to the 2017 Games, how much more so now that she’s forced to contemplate the seemingly elusive injury holding her back. Only time can tell as she waits for the nerve to release it’s hold on her.
In the end, it’s just one season — it was just two-hundred and seventy eight seconds.