As some of you know, I am trying to qualify for the 2011 Crossfit Games from my tiny basement gym here in Afghanistan. Last year, I was in the best shape of my life. I competed in the 2010 Southwest Regionals and planned to compete in the Games season in California this year too…I planned to get stronger, faster, and better at everything and throw down against California’s best women to make it to the Home Depot Center. But life changed and I moved to Afghanistan.
Though I haven’t stopped training, things are different here. My fitness level isn’t the same, I don’t have ideal facilities, working out and competing with others is fairly infrequent, and sustaining a good diet is challenging. I have had bronchitis, the flu, many colds, and a constant sore throat due to the air pollution. I’ve been harassed by men at the gym, had workouts interrupted due to civil unrest, and have not gotten to work out when traveling in the country because there was no place for a woman to do so. Sometimes I have thought that if I make the Games from the Asia Region, it would not be legit anyway because I am not competing with the best. But when thoughts like that come to my head, I remember Kenny.
Unless you swam on King Aquatics (then Highline Swim Club) in 1996, or you were from Seychelles (a small island nation off the east coast of Africa) and knew all about the sport of swimming 15 years ago, you wouldn’t know who Kenny was. When I was 17, I was able to train with the only Olympian from Seychelles that year, a teenage boy with a smile bigger than the oceans he crossed to train with our team. After a couple of months with us, he would step on to the most elite sports stage in the entire world; he would compete in the 1996 Summer Olympics. We were all thrilled to meet him.
During Kenny’s first workout with us, I was extremely confused. I had expected some super huge, strong, unbelievably fast guy to step on the deck and completely kill us in workouts. He was an Olympian for God’s sake! But that didn’t happen. Most of the girls, including me, could keep up with him on long freestyle sets. My best friend Julie could go head to head with him in butterfly and he was a good as the rest of our fast boys in middle distance freestyle, his event at the Games. Where was the super-human Olympian that I had expected?
Eventually, I found out that there were other standards for international competitors in making the Games. I remember watching the Olympic Trials for the United States that year and hearing the commentator mention that the top 8 finalists in almost every event at the American trials could have made Olympic teams in any other country in the world that year. But the US only would take two people per event because that is how they did it. No time standards (we didn’t need them), just the fastest two people in each event. It was the hardest Olympic team to make in the entire Universe.
Hearing that Kenny could barely even make Senior National standards in the United States, I felt cheated that he got to go to the Olympics. I thought, “if only I lived in Madagascar or some other unknown country, then I could make it to the Olympics too!” I was selfish and did not see the true beauty in the situation. Although I was childishly jealous, I cheered for Kenny in his competitions and felt pride when we said goodbye to him as he left for Atlanta. I don’t know how he actually did that year, but I will always remember how excited he was to be heading to Atlanta to compete.
Now I look back on what Kenny taught me with pride, and feel a sense of irony in the situation. I remember asking Kenny if he was nervous to go to the Olympics knowing that he couldn’t compete with the Americans or Australians and had no hope of winning a medal (I was so optimistic, wasn’t I?).
He told me something along the lines of this: “Jaala, I don’t care about all of that. I came from a small African country that has a short history of competing in sports at the international level. I am the fastest in my country and have worked hard to make it this far. I will probably get last, but coming from where I did, I know that I deserve to be in Atlanta just as much as all of the other athletes there. Being an Olympian is not about winning a medal. It is about being the best you can be within your circumstances, representing what your country has to offer, loving the sport, and loving to compete.”
As I prepare for the 2011 Games season, I laugh about Kenny, because that is who I am now. I’m being Kenny! No, I haven’t made the Crossfit Games, the Olympics of my sport. But I know that if I do make the games this year, I will be competing for the love of my sport. This Games year, I have trained within the circumstances of the country in which I live. I have lost some of the strength I had months ago, but have gained a little perspective on what it means to be a crossfitter. If I do earn a spot in the 2011 Games, it is not for lack of training or luck; I will step on to that stage as a person who loves to compete and appreciates what it takes to make it there. I may not be able to compete with all of the badass, fittest women in the world, but in my heart I know that I will belong there just the same.
So bring on the games season! I am ready.