Photos by David Uhrin and Glenn Jones
Every four years, hundreds of countries present their strongest, most dedicated athletes to compete on the world stage. They conquer every arena from snow-capped mountains, skating rinks and ice tracks to 50-meter swimming pools, sailboat hulls and boxing rings. We recognize these herculean beings as Olympians – the crème de la crème, superhuman, the elite.
Olympians competing in this summer’s games have proven to be the world’s most resilient. They battled the games’ COVID-mandated delays with more training, more focus and a stronger desire to become the world’s best. The pressure on elite athletes to perform, in short, perfectly, is not without obstacles, however. The withdrawal of six-time Olympic medalist Simone Biles from the Tokyo games demonstrates that beneath all the muscle and motivation is, in fact, a human; one who falls victim to injury, stress, and an array of other ailments suffered by everyday people.
Although elite athletes experience maladies, their ability to look beyond the pain and recognize setbacks as opportunities are what separate them from all other competitors. Coastal Virginia is home to a number of these athletes who perform not on the Olympic stage, but in their CrossFit gyms, hardwood dance studios and high school gymnasiums. In this story, we recognize their strength and perseverance as well as the medical professionals who help facilitate their peak performance.
At first glance, CrossFit, volleyball and professional dance don’t seem to have much in common; their athletes even less so. As we explore the intricacies of each activity, however, we discover that at their core, the Fittest Man on Earth, a ballerina and two club volleyball players are quite similar. They share a love for what they do, an intimate understanding of the human body and unparalleled mental and physical strength.
Ben Smith, a 31-year-old CrossFit competitor and Chesapeake native, has made 11 consecutive appearances at the CrossFit Games since 2009, 10 of which he ranked within the top 10 spots including his podium finish as Fittest Man on Earth in 2015. Two years prior to earning the prestigious title, Smith established CrossFit Krypton in Chesapeake to share his breadth of CrossFit knowledge with new and seasoned athletes alike.
Smith’s athletic career began with baseball. Prior to graduating from Great Bridge High School and continuing his baseball career at the collegiate level, he dabbled with CrossFit. Later, he returned to CrossFit after being denied as a walk-on following his transfer to Old Dominion University in 2008. His technical training as a baseball player made him a natural in the CrossFit gym as his attention to detail helped him qualify for his first CrossFit games only a year later.
Smith’s personal bests include a 540-pound deadlift and 335-pound clean and jerk, a movement that begins with a loaded barbell on the ground followed by an explosion of the legs and swift pull of the bar overhead. Over the years, Smith discovered that CrossFit not only emphasizes lifting or squatting extremely heavy weights on a national stage, but performing movements essential to maintaining a healthy, capable body.
“CrossFit is full of functional movements. In other words, movements your body is intended to do,” says Smith. “It’s a program to help you become a functional, capable human being.” The intensity with which Smith and other competitors perform these movements, however, is what asserts them as superior in the gym.
Their ability to master the pillars of CrossFit is also essential to their high-caliber performance. “There are ten general physical skills in CrossFit,” says Georgie Brain, a coach at CrossFit Krypton. “Examples are flexibility, cardio, strength, speed, power, stamina, coordination and agility.”
“You want to be as well-rounded in every one of those [areas] as you can in order to compete as a CrossFit athlete,” adds Smith. “It’s fractions of seconds and points that make the difference [in a competition].”
Highlighting deficiencies in each area is actually part of the judges’ role at competitions, explains Brain.
“Depending on the competition, you usually have five to seven events [to perform] and each one tests a different modality,” says Samuel Baiano, a 21-year-old student from Italy who coaches and trains with CrossFit Krypton. “If the programming is well balanced, there’s usually a more power and strength output event followed by conditioning, gymnastics and mixed modal. My favorite events are the pullup bar and bodyweight gymnastics, as well as handstand pushups and burpees.”
Form and efficiency are integral to the execution of complex exercises, these athletes say. “If you move well, you’re going to be more efficient. The more efficient you are, the more likely you are to avoid injury and increase your power output. You’ll also get less tired,” says Baiano.
Efficiency is especially important when training for competitions. “Training is a typical 9-to-5 job, but it’s all physical,” explains Smith. Training schedules vary from max reps and max weight to focusing on the intricacies of each movement. “On the days [we] work at lower percentages, we try to focus on those efficiency aspects and technique work,” adds Baiano.
The function-based training executed by Smith and his team is strikingly similar to that of the coaches at Beach Elite, a club volleyball league based in Virginia Beach. Beach Elite works with female athletes seven to 18 years of age and prepares them for a collegiate career in volleyball. “Since [we started 16 years ago], a lot of the training we did was skill-based,” says Stephanie Puett, Beach Elite’s Director of Player Development. “Recently we’ve recognized a lack in strength and conditioning training, so we’ve been trying to build that into our routine. While a lot of volleyball programs are results-based, I focus on function-based training.”
Aiding Puett in the design of the league’s training program is Julius Delbridge, Fitness Program Supervisor at Children’s Hospital of The King’s Daughters. “Julius and his team come in every year during pre-season and do training with all of our coaches. That training covers the safety aspects of how to perform the different exercises and what to look for in the athletes when they’re performing certain moves,” explains Mike Roberts, director and founder of Beach Elite.
In addition to weekly practices, Puett encourages each team to utilize the gym space in Beach Elite’s Landstown facility to weight train and condition. “We’ve found that with this new [training model], kids get better faster,” she says. “We do a lot of opposing or antagonistic groups too. If the girls are doing a lot of jumping in the gym, we’ll focus on upper body development on the court.”
The change in training regimen proved especially beneficial for Kameron Roberts, a member of this year’s 16s team and sophomore at Catholic High School. “Results come with perfect form,” she explains. “We run circuit workouts in the gym and focus a lot on proper movements on the court rather than how hard or far we can hit the ball.”
Maintaining explosive ability for extended periods of time is also essential to Roberts’ performance. “Our tournament schedules are unpredictable,” explains Roberts. “You can play a game then have some downtime or go from one game immediately into the next. You always have to be ready.”
Outside of official league training, Roberts also trains her body in weekly dance classes. “I do one hour of ballet and one hour of tap every week,” she says. “Ballet I do for core strength and balance which translate onto the court.”
All too familiar with the importance of a strong core Caitlin Granville, a ballet and modern soloist with Todd Rosenlieb Dance and Virginia Ballet Theatre in Norfolk. “Dancing is primarily core strength, so the stronger you are in the core, everything is better off,” she says.
Granville, like Roberts, boasts a lifelong commitment to her craft.
She began tap dancing at the age of five and a year later, added jazz and ballet to her repertoire. She dedicated her academic career to earning a BFA and focused exclusively on modern and ballet, which led her to her first company position with Dissonance Dance Theater in Washington, D.C. “It was the most physically demanding dancing I’ve done so far,” she says.
With Todd Rosenlieb Dance and Virginia Ballet Theatre, Granville focuses on highly technical movements and must train her body for the demands of hours-long rehearsals. “Myday starts at 6 a.m. with cross training. I’ll do a little bit of elliptical to get the bones in line and I’ve been certified in Pilates since 2006, so I perform and teach Pilates religiously,” says Granville. “We then have an hour and a half company class at the studio. After that, we have about two and half hours of rehearsal.”
Granville explains that the two-and-a-half hour sessions can focus entirely on mastering one technique. “As we get closer to the shows, though, it’s full run-throughs the entire time. People don’t realize how hard [dancing] is, especially with ballet because the whole point is to make it look easy. That amount of effortless is very hard to achieve,” says Granville. “[Mentally] dancing can be really tricky, too. When you’re in certain roles, you have to become a completely different person, so that can take a toll on you, too.”
Resilience and Recovery
Despite attempts to properly recover and perform, such refined movements and constant training are not without the risk of injury. Many athletes, including those featured in this story, suffer devasting injuries—From ACL tears and broken metatarsals—and sometimes find themselves at odds with the medical community in their quest to reach a plausible treatment plan.
Any injury, regardless of its severity, is traumatic. It disrupts athletes’ routines and often diminishes their confidence in returning to the court, field or studio. But an injury suffered by Beach Elite’s Adrienne Peji was particularly heartbreaking, a setback that cost her an entire school and club season. “In January 2019, I landed incorrectly during practice and my knee turned inwards,” Peji explains. “I was diagnosed by a few doctors and trainers and none of them thought I tore my ACL. They all told me I would heal in a matter of week or months.”
Feeling no alleviation in the subsequent weeks, Peji, then a high school freshman at Ocean Lakes, opted for an MRI which revealed the tear. “My diagnosis came about three months late,” she says, choking back tears. “Pre-op, I thought I would be able to slowly get back into walking and playing volleyball. But when I found out I would essentially have to re-learn these skills after surgery, I was so [discouraged].”
Beach Elite director Mike Roberts explains that vulnerability is tough for athletes of Peji’s caliber. “Peji truly comes across as a super competitive athlete. Nothing gets to her, nothing bothers her. Seeing the emotion while retelling that story truly [shows] what’s going on in her head through [an injury] like that, and probably for any athlete who suffers something similar versus what they display to others on the court.”
By virtue of her own strength and endless support by Delbridge and former team trainer, Beth Ackerman, Peji is now back on the court, defending her position as setter on the 17s team.
As Peji battled months in a leg brace, teammate Roberts was nursing an injury of her own. “Last year due to COVID, my high school season coincided with my travel season, so I was going from school…to school volleyball…straight to [Beach Elite],” she says. “I was playing close to four hours of volleyball a day. Hitting puts a lot of pressure on your shoulder, so when I started repeating that movement for multiple hours a day, it started tearing at my rotator cuff.”
Delbridge expressed concern about Roberts’ demanding training schedule, so when she showed up in his clinic with an overuse injury, he wasn’t surprised. “I am blessed with the opportunity to work [closely] with great PTs, so when Kam came to me with her injury, I immediately went to Beth to help diagnose the issue. Beth [told] me exactly what Kam needed to strengthen her shoulder, so I could then go into my toolbox of exercises to ensure she has everything she needed to recover. Shoulder health is a normal thing for me too. When players walk into the clinic, I [immediately] tell them to foam roll and work on their shoulder health.”
Roberts competed despite her injury but performed different strengthening exercises while on the road. “I’m definitely the kind of person to ignore pain and play through it, even if I shouldn’t,” laughs Roberts.
Overuse injuries are extremely common among adolescent athletes according to Dr. Joel S. Brenner, Medical Director of CHKD Sports Medicine Program, among other professional titles. “Greater than 50% of what we see are overuse injuries and this is mainly because of [sports] specialization, year-round training and overscheduling. They all lend themselves to overuse injuries and burnout,” he says. “Overuse injuries can happen to any athlete simply by doing too much too often.”
Brenner boasts 22 years of experience in Sports Medicine is committed to treating every part of an athlete—physically, mentally and emotionally. He speaks to the feelings of burnout and discouragement experienced by Peji during her ACL recovery. “I see a lot of patients who have a hard time returning to their sport after suffering an injury,” he says. “It’s important to remember the mental aspect of life and the game.” To prevent mental barriers from impeding athletes’ future on the field, Brenner founded the Mindfulness Coaching program as part of CHKD’s Sports Performance Academy.
When Brenner isn’t treating young athletes, he serves as the official dance company physician for Todd Rosenlieb and school physician for the Governor’s School for the Arts. It was he who dancer Caitlin Granville contacted after suffering a foot injury.
“We were rehearsing a piece that was very lift-heavy,” Granville recalls. “I ran from off stage and jumped into a girl’s arms, like a cartwheel over her head. Something went wrong in the lift causing me to come off too fast and land on the top of my foot. I’d never broken a bone, so I went home, wrapped [my foot] and nursed it in an ice bucket. I knew something was wrong, but I figured I had danced on other injuries before, so I could perform that night.”
Like Roberts, Granville refused to quit and performed the entire opening show on a broken foot. Examination by Brenner a few days later revealed a broken fifth metatarsal, otherwise known as a dancer’s fracture. Granville spent 12 weeks in a cast, two weeks on crutches and another six weeks in a boot.
Thankfully, Granville had Pilates and TheraBanding to turn to as a means of maintaining her physique and warding off negative thoughts caused by inactivity. She also expressed great appreciation for Brenner, who unlike other physicians she had seen, understood the complexities of dancers’ injuries. “As a dancer, it can be very frustrating to work with physical therapists because dance knowledge is really hard and the steps we do are strange, [as are] the ways we get injured,” Granville says. “So when you do go in to talk to a doctor, they don’t fully understand what you’re talking about.”
Brenner, on the other hand, has first-hand experience with dance as well as 22 years of experience treating their unique injuries. “A few years ago I decided to take beginner’s ballet. The next year I took modern so I could experience what my dancers do on a daily basis,” says Brenner. “It’s important as a [physician] to know what our athletes are going through.”
The frustrations voiced by Granville also ring true for the CrossFit community. Smith voices his irritations about what he sees as the myths surrounding CrossFit. “You hear, ‘The deadlift is dangerous. You shouldn’t squat below parallel because it’s bad for your knees.’ These myths are perpetuated by the average person going into a gym and performing a movement, such as the deadlift, that they have limited knowledge about or don’t have proper supervision like you do in a CrossFit gym,” he says. “If you do CrossFit right, you should actually be less susceptible to injury because you’ll be more functional, more capable and have a really good understanding of your body and the way it moves.”
The disconnect between the experiences of CrossFit athletes and medical findings often deters competitors from seeking medical help because inactivity is almost always the proposed solution. This was certainly the case for Mary Becker, another coach at Smith’s facility. “Every doctor told me that I shouldn’t exercise because of my anemia. I refused to stop training and sought advice from my current doctor who happens to be an ultra-marathoner who does CrossFit,” she says. “The first thing he said to me was, ‘OK, we need to figure out a solution that lets you keep doing CrossFit, but allows you to get better.”
Smith has combated adrenal fatigue since suffering a heat-related injury in 2018, but like Becker, refuses to give up the sport; he instead trains as a means to recover.
Brenner agrees with Becker in that exercise should be a part of the prescription for recovery, not something to be avoided. “We really try never to tell someone to do nothing as part of a treatment plan. If I did that, no one would come back,” says Brenner. “A runner for example may not be able to run [after a certain injury], but can modify their training to include aquajogging, core strengthening and upper body activities.”
Brenner notes he and his staff are dedicated to treating the entire patient, not just their injury and expresses his beliefs to the community through educational talks. “In sports medicine, we look at injuries from a wholistic approach. For example, when I’m looking at a dancer with an ankle injury, I’m looking at her entire body. Not only what caused the injury, but what issues may have occurred leading up to the injury. Is there a bone density problem, a core problem, a hip problem? We want to look at the whole patient.”
As an athlete, sustaining an injury is not a matter of if, but when. Critical to their recovery are support, guidance and a personalized treatment plan that prescribes exercise as a remedy rather than a restriction. As discussed by Brenner and our selection of elite athletes, injury prevention is also a large part of training. It’s not the muscle that makes an athlete, but their hunger for excellence, desire to train smart and hard, and their steadfast commitment to revolutionizing their sports every single day.