Reel Steps

By Haley Byrnes

Each night, I’d walk through the steamed-up glass doors, toss my gym bag to the side, and evaluate the torture that the class before me was still enduring. With the music blasting through the speakers, I’d pull up my knee-high socks and triple knot my shoes. Pretending to stretch, I’d nervously wait for my coach to bark her first instructions at us. Moments after the music cut out and the previous class had limped off to the sides of the floor, she’d turn to us: “Shoulders back. Stand up tall. Pointed toes...Slip jig number one...go!”

Wait, what were you expecting? I’m talking Irish step dancing.

I spent much of my childhood getting in trouble for practicing reel steps under my desk and walking around on my tiptoes until I couldn’t stand anymore. I was obsessed.

Flash-forward ten years, and long after quitting step dancing (did you know that wearing those big curly wigs is mandatory?), I found myself in a CrossFit gym for the first time. I was uncoordinated, out of shape, and scared. So scared. I was shocked by how weak and de-conditioned I truly was. Pressing a 45# barbell was impossible. My first attempt at “Annie” resulted in twenty-two minutes of single-unders and half the reps of sit-ups. It was bad.

During my second week of training, one rep max deadlift day appeared. Having never done strength training before, my expectations were very low, and I think I was more shocked than anyone when I pulled 225#. My coaches and fellow CrossFitters assured me it was a sign of strong legs.

Only later did a fellow former Irish stepper point out that maybe my years of jigging had helped develop some muscle in my legs. Maybe...

My favorite aspect of CrossFit is that everyone has a story. As a relatively new sport, we’re just now witnessing the first generation of children growing up with this as a regular after-school activity. The rest of us have flocked to this sport of fitness later in life with athletic histories grounded in things like football, track, gymnastics, dancing, or maybe nothing at all.

Undoubtedly, the things we’ve done leading up to our CrossFit journeys play a role in the athletes we are now, and what we’ll become. For me, I know my years of fast, explosive dance steps have made things like box jumps, deadlifts and squatting--aside from an annoying inclination to always be on my toes--easier for me. The strict discipline of dancing made logging extra hours at the gym working on my weaknesses feel natural to me. In just about a year, I went from the girl who couldn’t do a sit-up to an athlete competing on a team at the 2011 CrossFit Games.

As we continue to watch this sport evolve and see new athletes emerge, we have to remind ourselves that everyone has a story, and everyone started somewhere. None of the current Games athletes we’ve seen so far have grown up doing CrossFit as their sport. So what makes a great CrossFitter? Does a background in gymnastics automatically translate into pullups like Camille Leblanc Bazinet’s? Or can you walk into this sport lacking any athletic background at all and still succeed? I want to find out, and I want to hear your stories.

Next time you see those girls dancing on Riverdance, check out their legs and be thankful they’re not doing CrossFit. They can probably deadlift more than you.


Haley Byrnes competed on team CrossFit Fenway in the 2011 CrossFit Games, and is currently training to qualify for the team from CrossFit Southie. Photo courtesy of the author.