Kelly Carse is fifty-one years old, a coach at CrossFit Providence and a lifelong teacher. In 2010, the first year the CrossFit Games offered a Master’s Division, Kelly qualified and placed sixth in the world.
Jon Gilson: Kelly, you’ve been a runner and a rower for much of your life. You started CrossFit in early 2009. How did you find it?
Kelly Carse: I did a boot camp my sister had put together with Cynergy Crossfit, and then she kept talking about CrossFit, CrossFit, you’ve got to do CrossFit, and I found out that CrossFit Providence actually opened up a gym indoors, finally. They were actually at the park for a while. At the beginning of 2009, January of 2009, they had their first Foundations class, and I was in the first Foundations class.
Jon: Before you ever had any success in CrossFit, you ran competitively?
Kelly: I started running when I was very young. I was actually on the first women’s track team in junior high school because that was back in ’74 and they didn’t have women’s track, not in middle school.
Coach McFadden took on women, took us girls on, just kind of stuck us in with the boys and we competed with the boys. He put us right in with the boys. He didn’t expect anything different from us. He never babied us. So we ran. We all actually became very good runners, and I got into high school, tenth grade, I was the first woman ever from the high school, actually the first person from the high school, to ever go to state in track. I ran the eight--it was the 880 dash is what they called it because nothing was metric then.
Jon: Did you run after high school?
Kelly: I did. I went to Texas Tech University, but I didn’t – yeah, they put me in the mile, and I wasn’t – it just wasn’t my—
Jon: It’s a lot.
Kelly: Thank god they didn’t call it the mile dash. I would have been embarrassed.
Jon: Years later, you moved to Seattle and found rowing. Were you rowing on the Sound?
Kelly: Actually, we didn’t. There was a lake called Green Lake, and they had a little community, a rowing group there, and I used to run around the lake, and used to see the groups rowing. They were all around my age at that time, and we just rowed around and around and around the lake because it wasn’t very big.
Jon: What do you like about rowing?
Kelly: I like the team aspect of it, but I also like the power. I think what drew me to it the most is just the sound of it. There’s no real destructive sound. It’s just a chh, chh, chh. It’s a really peaceful, kind of a beautiful sport, and I used to love watching them go and only hear the oars hitting, and I loved that there was no motor other than the boat that’s riding along with you.
I loved the whole body movement and just the fluidity of the movement. I just thought it was such a beautiful sport to watch.
Jon: What was it like to start strength training for the first time? What did that barbell look like to you?
Kelly: Well, it’s funny because I had been introduced to weights a long time ago when I ran competitively, but not, you know, it was all nautilus stuff.
I always liked the rawness of the gym. I love the feel of a barbell, way, way, way more than I do a machine.
Jon: What was your Games experience like?
Kelly: I think I had a lot of anxiety around it, but I have to say the minute I got there and I met the other women, it completely changed. All of us were like, “So, how did we get here? How did we do this? How are we here with some of these top young athletes?”
We just couldn’t imagine being in the same arena, same stage as these athletes.
But, it ended up all of us had the same feelings about being there, and this is probably not anything you want to record, but being an older woman, you’ve got to pee before you do your workout. It was so nice to be with other women saying, “Oh my gosh, let me know right before – let me know right before we start because I’ll need to go to the bathroom.”
We did Fran as our last one at the CrossFit Games and it was a little bit delayed. So they said, “Look, if you need to go to the bathroom,” and all of us took off. So, it was great. It was great.
Jon: Are you going to compete again?
Kelly: There’s a part of me that loves CrossFit because of the community in the workouts, but that takes it to a whole different level. I don’t know. I don’t know.
What happens was I found it lost the pleasure I sought, you know, but at the same time there’s something incredibly invigorating about being there that might draw me in again.
I tore my meniscus the end of last year, and had surgery in February. I started back full with CrossFit in the beginning of May this year. So, I kind of had a reason not to compete this year, but next year, I don’t know, we’ll see. We’ll see. I’ll be fifty-two. I’ll look at what my competition is all about. I’ll keep an eye on the older women and see how they’re doing.
Jon: You said your sister got you into the sport. I know of at least one other Carse sister who also CrossFits. Has it infiltrated your family deeper than that? How has that shared experience affected your relationship with them?
Kelly: It’s been an interesting challenge mainly because my sister Cindy is absolutely dedicated and a hundred percent involved in CrossFit. Her twin sister, my sister Carol, is completely involved, as are their husbands.
What’s been difficult is when we get together as a family, my youngest sister does not participate in CrossFit, nor does her husband, and there have been times as a family we’re together, say Christmas time, and my mother’s visiting that there’s – the family gets separated.
You know it’s a whole other language. It’s a whole other culture, and my sister and her husband are not part of that. She tried, but it wasn’t her thing, but it’s very difficult to separate it from – to bring the family together and be able to talk about things other than CrossFit is a challenge. It always ends up back in that arena. When I’m with my sisters, it is very much a topic of conversation, my twin sisters.
When I’m with my youngest sister who doesn’t participate, I try very much to keep it out of CrossFit, but it drove a wedge in our family, and it’s something that we are becoming a lot more careful of and a lot more aware of, but you can see what it does. You become very narrow because it’s such a significant part of your life.
I have a friend from the Peace Corp, and if CrossFit is doing something, and then there’s Ellen, and then there’s CrossFit and then there’s Ellen…do I spend time with Ellen? Do I spend time with CrossFit? She’s a very good friend outside of CrossFit, but it’s a challenge because I love talking about it. I love being a part of it, but I’ve got to find ways to live life outside of CrossFit as well.
Jon: You were in the Peace Corps?
Kelly: I was – I worked with – it was in the business field, and I was supposed to work with cooperative farmers, Togo, it was Togo, West Africa, and the government was forcing all these little villages to become, instead of subsistence farmers, they wanted them all to become cooperatives.
So, they were basically putting me in a situation where I had to tell these farmers that you’re going to be coming together and working together as a co-op, and I’m going to teach you business skills on how to check your inventory, and buy and sell at appropriate times.
Who am I, this white woman coming in to your country and telling you how to farm, or how to do the business end of your farming?
Needless to say, it was a flop. It did not go well.
I ended up working with a young dynamic group of farmers way, way out on the border of Benin and Togo, and they wanted to build a disco, a dance hall because they had no night life out there. So, I wrote a grant for $300, and we built a courtyard, a very large courtyard with a six-foot wall, and then they had a storage area and a boutique where they stored their grain after harvest, and then they sold products like soap and different types of cloth during the offseason, but then they also had a dance hall.
There was a little man who rode his bicycle from Benin, a one speed bicycle with a huge sound system on the back of his bike--rode across the river because it was dry--came over, set up his sound system, and on Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights, they had music.
They built a little ticket window so people would slip twenty-five francs in to come and dance on the courtyard. It was great. It was phenomenal. This was back in 1990, and when a friend of mine went back, I’d say five years ago, it was still going.
It’s fascinating to me how, even though it was so far removed from civilization, they built such a dynamic community there. I mean, they were so resourceful. They just figured out how to make it work. They were able to find ways of building or getting things that you would never think they’d be able to get. So, it was good.
I think it made me appreciate what I have, but also I think I was really thankful that I could bring something into that community, give them like just a little extra entertainment if anything. They showed me a disco they’ve been trying – they were trying to build for years, with just the local mud, but every season, every rainy season…
Jon: It would wash away.
Kelly: It would get destroyed. So, I think they were so excited to be able to see that, and it was $300 for that whole thing.
I extended my stay by three months just to be able to finish the project.
Jon: You became a teacher after your time in the Corps. Outside of your classes at CrossFit Providence, what are you teaching these days?
Kelly: I’m teaching work force, getting people prepared. It’s a stepping up program. I’m getting people prepared to go into hospitals, so not medical terminology as much as the soft skills like resume writing, conflict resolution, cover letters, proper etiquette. Kind of molding them into getting ready to work in a very professional setting.
Jon: Do they know how you spend your off-hours? Have you told them about CrossFit?
Kelly: It was interesting when I told them what I do on my off time, and I said, “I will tell you that if you cross the line with me, I’m going to show you what I’m going to have to do and those are called burpees.” So, I showed them a couple burpees, and I said, “If I hear anything I’m not happy with, if you make me angry or upset for any reason, I’ll have you get in the middle of the room and have you do these.”
Jon: Have you found parallels between classroom teaching and the teaching you do in the gym?
Kelly: What I found is my teaching has helped me translate to CrossFit.
A lot of it is about patience, sense of humor, knowing how to just roll with it. If it looks like you’re teaching something and you’re looking out at people and their faces are just blank, you’ve lost them. You’ve got to use a different type of method. Keeping them engaged--humor is huge, but also just being really aware of their style of learning.
If I notice that they’re more visual learners, kinesthetic learners, audio learners, it all depends on how they’re getting it, and working with them, pulling them out individually, is also something. So, it’s more taking what I’ve learned as a teacher during the day, and translating that into what I do with CrossFit.
Jon: Why do you teach CrossFit?
Kelly: Sports have always come naturally to me, but I’ve also had struggles, struggles emotionally, struggles physically, and during those times when I was so down or lost, I realized that when I got involved in any type of team activity or sport, it helped me get out of whatever I was going through. So, it’s almost like giving back what helped me get through some really, really hard times, and that’s my way of just kind of translating that, I guess, without getting into great detail and pouring out all my sob stories.
Jon: What kind of client do you connect with most?
Kelly: Definitely women, probably women between their forties and fifties, though there are not very many of them, and I think it’s because there’s a similarity there as far as what our bodies are going through. So, it’s like, “Well, if you’re able to do it, then I should be able to do it.”
Jon: What’s it like to stand in front of a class, at fifty-one years old, and have to coach a wide range of athletes of all ages—to have to demo movements and be the example for members?
Kelly: That was actually a fear of mine when I started coaching. Am I good representative of CrossFit. Am I representing CrossFit Providence? Is anybody really even going to take me seriously? That was a huge fear of mine.
I saw all these young people coming in, and I thought, “I’m going to stand up and say, ‘Hi, I’m going to be your coach today,’ and they’re probably going to be like, ‘Get somebody in here that’s mid-twenties, get me a guy that’s got some good muscular definition.’
I almost quit not too long ago because I didn’t think I was a good representative of a coach.
Jon: Why didn’t you quit?
Kelly: Because I think I expressed those fears to some people, and it got shot down pretty quickly.
Jon: Do you still have those fears?
Kelly: No, it’s much better. It’s a lot better.