From Social Media “Stalker” to Devout CrossFit Member: How Bien Schwalm Overcame her Fears and Finally Took the Plunge

July 13, 2023 by
Photo Credit: Free Will CrossFit | @freewillcrossfit
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For an entire year, Bien Schwalm followed Free Will CrossFit’s social media, checking in almost daily.

She read all their posts celebrating the Member of the Month, wishing people a happy birthday, and she knew all about the gym’s Committed Club reserved for those with consistent attendance.

  • “I remember reading everyone’s story, and I was like, ‘I want to do that,’” said Schwalm, now 46, of how she “stalked the gym” in Emmaus, PA for a whole year. 

She wanted to join, but she was too scared, too intimidated, too unsure of herself. At one point, she did sign-up for an introductory day, but “couldn’t find the confidence to do it,” she explained. So she backed out and went back to following along on social media.

At the time, at 5-foot-3, Schwalm weighed 260 pounds, and her mental health was suffering. And considering her image of someone who went to a CrossFit gym was a lean, healthy woman in her 20s “without barriers in terms of her physique,” Schwalm just “didn’t think CrossFit was feasible.”

Things only got worse for Schwalm, a registered nurse, when the COVID pandemic hit. 

  • “Being a nurse through COVID was terrible,” said Schwalm, who worked in hospice care through the pandemic. 

Not only was she suffering from a certain degree of depression, but she gained even more weight and ended up in the emergency room with a blood clot and had to undergo an emergency thrombectomy.

  • “That got me to a very low place emotionally,” she said. In fact, it catalyzed her to start making some changes to become healthier. 

But she was still too scared to go to the gym, because she thought she needed to lose weight before she started CrossFit.

What Happened Next

Schwalm elected for bariatric surgery instead, which she underwent in September 2021.

The surgery helped her lose some weight, but she still didn’t feel healthy. Ultimately she was “sick and tired of being sick and tired,” she said.

So, after a year of intense social media stalking, Schwalm reached out to Free Will CrossFit in December 2021, and to coach Alex Hilderbrant.

  • “I was petrified,” she said. “I remember not being able to do a sit-up, I remember being very out of breath (and) lacking mobility,” she said. 

But it didn’t matter to Hilderbrant that she couldn’t do a sit-up or a burpee. He took her under his wing and did some one-on-one personal training with her to help her feel more confident attending group classes.

  • “It never felt discouraging…He was just very supportive,” she said of Hilderbrant’s approach with her.

After going through one-on-one training, Schwalm attended her first group class in January 2022, and “it was something that I had never experienced before,” she said. Not only did she feel like she fit in amongst a diverse group of people from all walks of life, but even the fittest athletes went out of their way to support her. 

  • “I remember a member of our box coming up to me after she RXd the workout…and she said, ‘Great job. We’re so glad you’re here,’” Schwalm remembered. 

All of her fears and feelings of intimidation disappeared. 

A Year-and-a-Half Later

Today, Schwalm is a staple in the community at Free Will CrossFit. She works out there five to six days a week and is a shadow of who she was two years ago. She can do burpees and sit-ups and is “so close” to getting her first strict pull-up, a feat she never in her wildest dreams thought she’d be capable of.

And while she tries not to focus on the number on the scale, she is down from 260 pounds to 175 to 180 pounds, and feels a lot stronger and more confident, to the point that she has even competed at some local competitions in recent months. Finally, her blood sugar levels, which were in the pre-diabetic range prior to starting CrossFit, are normal and her mental health is flourishing. 

  • “I am definitely 1,000 percent better now,” she said.

To Others in Her Shoes

Schwalm is adamant her only regret is that she didn’t join Free Will CrossFit sooner, that she let myths in her head stop her from taking the first step for an entire year. 

She wishes she had known the truth about CrossFit sooner: That she didn’t need to lose weight or be fit to start. That she would be welcomed by the community with open arms despite her inability to do a sit-up or a burpee. And, in fact, she never has to gain elite fitness to do CrossFit.

  • “I’m not an Rx athlete. I’m never going to the CrossFit Games, and I think that’s what people think. They think you have to be really good at CrossFit (to do CrossFit). No, You don’t have to be really good at CrossFit,” Schwalm said. 

Her message to those in the position she was two years ago: “Just dive in and do it. We are all just regular people. I am a regular person…We all have barriers to getting in the door, whether it be your mental health, or your weight or your confidence, but just take that first step and come through the door,” she said.

“The support system here, the formula and the magic of CrossFit, is just kind of something that you can’t even explain until you have experienced it.”

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