Athletes Talk About Why it’s so Important to Bring More People of Color into CrossFit

February 15, 2021 by
Courtesy of Arielle Sanders:
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When Lesley Henderson-Sanders first signed up at CrossFit Conyers Stonecrest in Lithonia, GA, she weighed 285 pounds and had “horrible range of motion,” she said. Six years later, Henderson-Sanders currently weighs 224 pounds and has completely transformed her health. 

  • One integral key that allowed her to feel comfortable giving CrossFit a shot was the fact that her gym was made up of people who looked like her. “Our gym is 97 percent black,” said Henderson-Sanders, who weighed 325 pounds at her heaviest. Having other black people there “made a huge difference in me staying consistent” and in helping her feel like she belonged, she explained. 

The big picture: Henderson-Sanders’ story is incredibly important, but it’s also exceptional. “Most gyms don’t have black CrossFit athletes in large quantities,” she said. 

  • To help bring more black and brown people into CrossFit, Henderson-Sanders founded Melanin Crossfitters, a brand dedicated to serving diverse communities and providing access to nutrition information, physical fitness education and wellness resources. 

Similarly, because of her upbringing, Arielle Sanders, an up-and-coming competitive CrossFit athlete, explained that getting more black people into CrossFit has become “close to her heart,” she said.

  • “I grew up up going to predominantly white schools. My elementary, middle and high schools were predominantly white. And so you just kind of try to hide. Well, I shouldn’t say hide, but I guess, you just become almost brainwashed that white is superior, or white is the goal,” said the 26-year-old. 
  • “You kind of lose who who are as a child and that can be a little bit traumatic growing up not thinking you’re not good enough because you’re black…It’s not true, and I don’t think that anymore, but when you’re black growing up in white spaces, you end up having to unlearn so many things,” she continued.
  • Today, although Sanders said she hasn’t faced any overt racism in the CrossFit community, she still often finds herself being the only black person, or one of only a couple of black people, especially at CrossFit competitions. “I have done competitions where there are no other black people, and it’s uncomfortable to be the only person that looks like you in a space, because it makes you question, ‘Is this space for me? Do I belong here?’” 
Courtesy of Arielle Sanders:

One big thing: Bringing more African American athletes into CrossFit doesn’t start with the gym. It starts in the home, outside of the gym. That’s according to two-time CrossFit Games athlete Elijah Muhammad and the founder of Project Onyx, a company aimed at eliminating the barriers that underrepresented and underserved people of color face by providing affordable and accessible health and fitness services to today’s youth.

  • “How much diversity or black are you in communication with? How many black people do you know? How many black movies have you watched, black comedies, black books?” he said, admitting that it can be uncomfortable being the only individual of a certain ethnicity in the room. 
  • “It’s tough to relate to someone if you have nothing that brings you to them. So the first step is getting uncomfortable to create relationships,” he added.

The health component: Beyond comfort, both Henderson-Sanders and Sanders agree the most important reason to get more black people into CrossFit is for the health benefits. 

  • “The amount of disease in the black community, and the obesity numbers, is high. And I feel like proper knowledge still isn’t easily spread or accessible to all black and brown people, or they can’t afford it. I know a lot of people who can’t afford CrossFit, and who just don’t have access to the information and the types of places I have worked out,” Henderson-Sanders said. 
  • Sanders added: “It can do a lot of things, not just for your physical health, but for your mental health. And black people are affected disproportionately by chronic disease…The (CrossFit) methodology is very powerful. I believe it can transform people’s lives, but we have to create a space where people feel safe enough to do that,” she said. 

The bottom line: Though the topic is more on the radar than it used to be, there’s still a long way to go to make CrossFit more diverse, Henderson-Sanders, Sanders and Muhammad agree. That being said, Muhammad is hopeful that we’re moving in the right direction.

  • “Maybe I’m biased or maybe I see what I want…(but) I see the world changing drastically and coming more and more together,” he said. 

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