Throwing Down

By Deane Barker

There are two things that my eldest daughter wants right now: (1) new carpet in her bedroom, and (2) a better vertical jump for volleyball.

In the interests of efficiency, my wife and I decided to combine the two.

I brought her into the gym and had her try a couple box jumps out. Twelve inches was trivial. Eighteen was too. Twenty inches made her think twice, but she finally settled in on a 24-inch jump, which is impressive, since this is the adult male standard at CrossFit Sioux Falls and Gabrielle is a 13-year-old girl.

We ordered and assembled a Rogue box jump, just like down at the gym. It’s presently in the basement. My daughter heads downstairs every night and pounds out 30 reps.

Her goal is to box jump a vertical mile. At 24 inches, that’s 2,640 reps. At 30 per night, this is about 90 days. She updates her spreadsheet every night, and she’s scheduled to finish out the mile sometime in April. When she makes this goal, we’ll go carpet shopping.

Since she started, I’ve been warning her about missing a jump. In over two years of CrossFit, I’ve managed to never miss a box jump, but I imagine it’s painful. The edge of the box is sharp, and shins don’t have a lot of protection.

Sure enough, one night when I was traveling, I got a text message:

I fell for the first time doing a box jump today. Skin has been removed.

I don’t know when I’ve been more proud.

You have to understand that my daughter is the girliest of girls. She’s a roaring pink tornado of Taylor Swift, Instagram selfies, and glitter nail polish. Yet this girl launches herself to the top of a two-foot box over and over again, until she can’t do it anymore and pays the price by ripping (meticulously moisturized) skin off bone.

Good for her.

Both my daughters (Gabrielle, 13, and her sister Isabella, 10) played basketball for a while. I enjoyed watching them fight it out on the basketball court. I wanted them to experience what it was like to defend their physical space. I wanted some other girl to come over, shove them, and try to take what was theirs. I wanted them to fight that girl off, to defend that ball like it belonged to them.

Now, I’m not violent by nature or anything, but my wife and I took comfort in the idea that our girls were learning how to break out of a stereotype. They were learning how to ignore what society might expect of them – modest femininity, perhaps? – and they were learning how to throw down.

throw down (slang, idiomatic verb): to fight, to incite a fight, to make a stand, to produce or perform admirably or forcefully; from “throw down the gauntlet”

Other people’s opinions matter to a pre-teen girl – far too much, I’ve learned (my wife knew this already, having been one once). But through the process of getting down and dirty under the basket, our girls were learning how to shake those opinions off and fight for what was theirs. They were setting aside what society had told them to expect from themselves, and they were digging in to see what they could find underneath.

I see the same thing at CrossFit. I’ve written before about how CrossFit invites you to abandon decorum. For guys, this is natural – from childhood, we’re told to be big and loud and to grunt and to sweat. That message isn’t as clear for women. There are still stereotypes and boxes that women are supposed to fit into.

But at 5:30 a.m., there’s no makeup, there’s no hairspray (is that still a thing?), and there are no mirrors.

But there is sweat. And grunting. And pain. And there’s a lot of weight being thrown around by people – men and women – who don’t care what they look like. When falling barbells shake the floor, there’s no telling whose shoulders they were on. And when the gloves come off, there’s a good chance the nails are painted. I’ve seen Beast Mode, and it often wears a ponytail.

Getting to the edge of what you think is possible is universal. The exact experience is different for everyone, but I love how the result cuts across every demographic. When you abandon appearances and come face-to-face with your absolute limit, there’s a sense of accomplishment there that transcends age, background, ethnicity, and gender. Pain doesn’t play favorites and it doesn’t go easy on anyone.

I judged a competition at CrossFit Sioux Falls last weekend. The last workout of the day was a chipper – a long list of movements, so-called because you have no choice but to “chip away” at it.

This chipper was kicking everyone’s ass. It was capped at 20 minutes, and a lot of people were hitting the cap without finishing.

I was judging a team of sisters: Chelsey and Megan. After fighting through 270 reps of other stuff, they had gotten to the last movement: a 60-calorie row. (Calories are technically a unit of energy. In CrossFit rowing, you don’t burn calories, you generate them. Generating one calorie of energy on a rower is a single pull for a big, tall guy; two pulls for someone shorter and smaller.)

Chelsey rowed her half, then Megan got on the rower with about 90 seconds left. I was doing the math in my head, and I knew she wasn’t gonna make it. There just wasn’t enough time.

And she didn’t make it. But damn, did she come close.

Time ran out with just four calories to go, which blew away my estimation of where she’d end up. When it was over, I tried to show her the scorecard, but it was obvious she and I weren’t even in the same zip code. She was sitting head-down on the rower, elbows on her knees, breathing with her entire body, wrapped in a bubble of pain. She had found the edge of her own personal abyss and looked over.

Now, I know nothing about Megan or her story, but I do know that on this day, Megan threw down. She sat down, strapped in, and lit that rower up. She didn’t beat the clock, but she made damn sure the clock knew she was coming, and she went down swinging.

And this is what my wife and I want for our daughters. We want them to know that the best way around an obstacle is often to go right through it. We want them to know that if they find themselves walking through Hell, the best strategy is to start running. And we want them to know that if something scares them, don’t flinch – stare that thing right in the face, stop worrying about what everyone thinks, and if you’re gonna go down, then go down swinging.

In writing this, I don’t mean to overstate the importance of my own opinion or imply that anyone needs my approval to get medieval on a barbell. I’m writing this because I’ve seen what society tells young girls they’re supposed to be, and CrossFit has shown me one example of what happens when those expectations are ignored.

So, Gabrielle and Isabella – if society tries to put you in a box, throw down and jump on that box.

In fact, do 30 reps. For time.