Fighting for It: How CrossFit and Community Helped Dela Annani-Akollor Build Back Her Strength
“What’s wrong with your speech?”
Those words were the first that longtime CrossFitter Dela Annani-Akollor heard on a morning phone call from her mother in October of 2022. “I was responding to her, or at least I thought I was,” Annani-Akollor said.
- Her mother — who Annani-Akollor said she calls every morning — immediately told her to get up and walk to the bathroom.
- “I didn’t know where I was,” Annani-Akollor said. “But I ended up in the bathroom somehow, just standing there. Within 20 minutes, my mom was here, she came and grabbed me out of the restroom and put me in the car. I was in the emergency room and had six or seven nurses surrounding me.”
- “That’s when I realized something was really wrong.”
Annani-Akollor, 38 years old, had suffered a stroke.
The stroke, which doctors said was brought on by a combination of COVID (Annani-Akollor tested positive a few days before) and a pre-existing condition she has called Hemiplegic Migraine, left Annani-Akollor with weakness and numbness on her left side, a lost sense of balance, dizziness, memory problems, bouts of confusion, and issues with her speech.
- “I was just laying around the house miserable for a long time. I couldn’t work, I couldn’t walk in a straight line, I had weakness on the left side of my body,” Annani-Akollor explained, noting the weakness and numbness was something she was somewhat used to from her hemiplegic migraines.
- “The dizziness and not being able to do things independently… that was the scary part. I got to a space where I was really depressed because I didn’t know what to do.” Annani-Akollor said.
But then, Christie Neighbors of CrossFit Mokena, where Annani-Akollor had been a member, texted.
Using CrossFit as Rehab: “I was just… at home, trying to recover. [Coach Christie] said look, come back to the gym, if the [doctors] aren’t going to help you, we’ll be your rehab,” Annani-Akollor said. “I was scared, but she talked me into coming.”
That first day, she said, was full of tears.
- “[No one] was used to seeing me not be able to walk in a straight line, balance, or do anything. I’m extremely fit, so to go from fit to, you know, helpless, that was a huge shocker for everybody,” she explained.
- “I was so emotional. [They] had me doing simple exercises like a farmer’s carry… and I couldn’t do it. I could barely get to the other side of the gym without going all the way to one side or losing my balance altogether.”
Everything was modified “times 10” at the beginning, Annani-Akollor added, but Coach Christie and the CrossFit Mokena community were with her every step of the way.
- “Coach Christie was making sure… that I was doing things to strengthen my balance and any neurological things I was facing. She was very aware of how things were going and how I was responding to the movements.”
- “She guided me through the classes. All the coaches were literally assisting me and making sure that I was not hurting myself and that I was making some type of improvement.”
- Even outside of class, Annani-Akollor adds, Coach Christie was checking in and sending at-home workouts, so she could work on areas where she was struggling on her own time.
And over time, improvements started to show.
Today, Annani-Akollor can balance and walk in a straight line, and her speech has come back. Though she still suffers from dizzy spells, she’s getting closer to her past benchmarks and ability.
- “When I went back to the gym, I was using the smallest kettlebell, which is a five or a 10-pound weight, and now I can carry a 45 in a straight line. I was using empty bars or PVC pipes… I did 145 on my last back squat and around 125 on my last front squat,” Annani-Akollor said.
- Because of the social interaction she had through the community at CrossFit Mokena, Annani-Akollor said her neurologist even attributes the improvement in her speech to the gym.
Annani-Akollor knows there is still a long road of recovery ahead of her, but she’s ready to fight for it.
- “I’m still working on getting back to myself,” she said, “But I’ve come a long way in this short period of time. I’m thankful for the progress I’ve made so far. I’m not back to my maxes, but I’m building back up.”
- “I have this strong desire to get back to normal… I know where I was prior to all of this, and the only way I can get [back to it] is if I fight for it. If I fail, I fail, but I always have tomorrow to try again.”
Going through this process has even inspired Annani-Akollor to get her L1 coaching certificate, so she can help other people who have gone through health issues. “This has been an eye-opening experience,” she said, “But at the end of the day, it’s prompting me to help other people.”
However, one thing is certain: Annani-Akollor’s fight wouldn’t be possible without her community at CrossFit Mokena.
- “Without [CrossFit Mokena], I would still be sitting in the house depressed. If the coaches hadn’t texted, I would still be having issues with my coordination and balance and not be able to use my left hand as much,” Annani-Akollor said.
- “If it weren’t for them, I would not have come out of that [depressed] state I was in so fast.”
“They poured all of this love and energy into me… they check on me. I feel like this is my gym home, not just a gym I’m going to.”