"Jackie" is one of CrossFit's famous "Girls," a female-named benchmark workout that consists of a 1,000-meter row, 50 45-pound thrusters and 30 pull-ups.
Miranda Oldroyd is one of CrossFit's most famous women. Last May, at CrossFit's Northern California Regional, Oldroyd crushed Jackie, finishing first in 6 minutes, 13 seconds. Oldroyd hopped across the finish line, elated but also a little misty-eyed. The 11-month road to the regionals had been a difficult one. And it began with a broken neck.
Give Oldroyd a Google, and you'll find her wide smile and eight-pack abs all over the Internet. The 31-year-old finished 21st in the 2008 CrossFit Games, has been a CrossFit Games presenter since 2010, and has nearly 35,000 Twitter followers. She is on CrossFit's seminar staff, and thus spends a good portion of her year traveling across the country, teaching certification classes to the ever-growing CrossFit masses. Her popularity, though, also means she spends a lot of time defending the sport she loves from its innumerable critics, those who say high-rep Olympic lifting and advanced gymnastic movements are simply too dangerous. But Oldroyd knows better.
"For years, I've said that CrossFit changed my life because of how it changed me as a person and brought such passion back into my days," Oldroyd says. "But now I can say that CrossFit literally saved my life."
'Dang Whiplash, Right?'
It was June 30, 2012. The summer sun was shining in Southern California, in that persistent way in which it always does, as Oldroyd drove her rented Chevy Cruze toward the intersection of Lake Forest and Del Lago in Laguna Hills. Half a dozen cups of piping-hot coffee perched in their cardboard tray on the passenger seat, destined for her fellow seminar staffers. Oldroyd got the left-turn arrow she'd been waiting for, hit the gas, and then... BAM.
A white Mercedes ran the light, striking Oldroyd's car broadside on the passenger side. Before she had any idea what was happening, she had spun across three lanes of traffic and come to rest on the sidewalk, facing in the opposite direction.
Oldroyd never lost consciousness, so her memories are vivid: the shattered windshield that rained down as tiny shards of glass, hot coffee all over her and the car, and the smell of it mixed with the acrid, burning smell of deployed airbags. The passenger side of the car was mangled, the doorframe jammed in against the glove box.
Oldroyd was bleeding, but unsure where from. She had immediate, sharp pain in her neck, her right hand had hit the dashboard so hard that it broke the key off in the ignition, and she was paralyzed with fear. "I kept telling myself, 'You're OK, don't try to move, everything is going to be all right,'" she says. "I honestly thought I was never going to be able to move again."
Oldroyd was taken to the emergency room on a spinal board. Her hand was X-rayed, but despite the pain she felt, her neck was not. She was released with a soft cast on her hand and a soft brace on her neck, with instructions to see an orthopedic doctor to have a hard cast put on her broken metacarpal when she got home to San Jose. The doctors were all very impressed. "If you weren't so strong, you would be in a lot worse shape," they said. "We've seen people killed, necks snapped, from that same type of accident. Your muscle saved you."
Oldroyd's husband, Tyson, whom she had dissuaded from flying to Los Angeles after the accident, met her at the airport. "She has a tendency to downplay things, but she kept saying, 'I'm fine, it's just whiplash, I'll be home tomorrow,'" he says. "But when I saw her, and saw how limited her range of motion was and how much pain she was in, I realized the picture she had painted in my head was completely inaccurate." Tyson drove 20 mph all the way from San Jose to Santa Cruz, because every bump and bend in Highway 17 would send a fresh jolt of pain through his wife's neck.
Oldroyd got her hand casted, and while in the doctor's office in San Jose, finally got that neck X-ray she'd been futilely requesting in the ER. But despite the pain in her neck, Oldroyd could not stop thinking about the CrossFit Games, which were just two weeks away. She had been prepping for months for her role as a sideline reporter and knew she had to regain mobility as quickly as possible. "Four days after the accident, I went for a hike," she says. "I was air-squatting and riding the Airdyne bike and trying to turn my head as much as possible."
Oldroyd's neck began to loosen up. At the Games, she worked out with the rest of the staff; she got on a rower, went for two 5K runs with Tyson, even did some med-ball cleans. And she did her job, which involved long days on her feet, lots of walking, and countless bear hugs and back slaps from CrossFit friends Oldroyd sees only a few times a year. Each one sent a wave of pain shooting from the base of her neck into the back of her skull. "All I thought was, 'Dang whiplash, right?'" she recalls.
'Something Could Really Be Wrong'
On July 17, nearly three weeks after the accident, Oldroyd visited the doctor for a follow-up on her hand. "When I walked into the office, everyone from the woman at the desk to the nurse to the assistant to the doctor said they had been so worried about me," Oldroyd says. "They said they had been trying to contact me all week." With the chaos of the Games, neither Oldroyd nor her husband had bothered to check their voice messages. The doctor had left nearly 50.
He had seen some abnormalities in her X-ray and sent her to a neurosurgeon immediately for a CT scan, after which Oldroyd, who still insisted she was feeling better, went immediately to work out. Once again, her phone started ringing. It was Tyson, frantic, who got to her first, and told her the neurosurgeon said it was an emergency and to call him immediately. Oldroyd's initial response was a sarcastic one. "Miranda had been feeling better and better, and she's also a natural-born smartass," Tyson says. "She's making light of the whole thing, asking, 'Am I dying?' I don't think it ever occurred to her that something could really be wrong."
But wrong it was -- very wrong. Her C2 vertebra was fractured in two places, leaving it in three very unstable pieces. She was one tiny fall or bump or sneeze away from being paralyzed for the rest of her life.
Oldroyd was in surgery that night. "I was terrified," she says. "I was so uncertain about what life was going to look like on the other side of surgery. I was so mad that I had been walking around, even running around, in that condition. And I was relieved that nothing worse had happened in the interim."
Again, doctors told her it was the strength of her neck that had saved her; her muscles had acted as a brace, holding the unstable vertebra in place and preventing the pieces of bone from coming into contact with her spinal cord.
Oldroyd knows she was extremely lucky. But she also knows you make your own luck. "We say, yes, you can hurt yourself doing CrossFit, but the least-safe thing we can do is to avoid the movements that we use in CrossFit altogether, because they're the movements life demands," she says. "In this specific case, it wasn't my ability to perform heavy cleans and handstand pushups that saved me, but the strength I had gained from performing them regularly most certainly did."
Oldroyd approached her recovery with fervor, as she approaches everything in her life. The morning after her surgery, she was already showing the nursing staff the CrossFit version of an air squat: full range of motion, hip-crease below parallel. "Her thought process was, 'I've been working out with a broken neck for almost three weeks. Now you guys have fixed it,'" Tyson recalls.
'Getting Back To Who She Was'
Three days after surgery, Oldroyd was working out. She began by riding the Airdyne bike and doing air squats. She did thousands of lunges and would walk the length of the gym over and over again with a weighted sled tied around her waist. "People would see me working out with the neck brace on and think I was nuts," Oldroyd says. "But I was smart about it, and if anything hurt at all, I wouldn't do it. Mostly, working out made me feel better."
Eventually, Oldroyd graduated to preacher squats, in which the bar is held in the crooks of the elbows rather than on the back, and began adding five pounds every other day. She squatted so much while she was recuperating that when she finally moved back to the barbell, she hit a personal record on her back squat, which now is 295 pounds, more than double her bodyweight.
"Miranda's greatest fear was that she might never be able to do what she loved again, but that was also the motivation behind her recovery process," Tyson says. "She was absolutely unwilling to stay knocked down. She just dismissed it as an option. She was 100 percent committed to getting back to who she was, and making it to the 2013 regionals was the endgame. And she just wanted to qualify for regionals. She didn't care if she was competitive."
Not only was Oldroyd competitive in 2013, but she also used her first-place finish in "Jackie" to repeat her seventh-place performance from 2012. But as amazing as her comeback was, her finish still wasn't enough to get her back to the Games.
So this summer, Oldroyd opted for a different route. She has been training with the crew at NorCal CrossFit, owned by CrossFit star Jason Khalipa, since moving to California from Salt Lake City in the spring of 2011. But she had always competed as an individual. This spring, after the CrossFit Open, she decided to compete with NorCal's team. It was a change of pace that Oldroyd needed after the stress of the previous year, and it was immediately successful. Oldroyd says her fitness level increased dramatically from the close of the Open in March to the start of the Northern California Regionals in late May, when Team NorCal finished third, punching its ticket to this weekend's Games in Carson, California.
For the first time in CrossFit Games history, the team event will begin on Wednesday (July 23) rather than Friday, and though details of the first workout have not yet been announced, it has been dubbed The Beach by CrossFit Games director Dave Castro. Oldroyd and her teammates, two of whom were collegiate swimmers, assume it will involve an ocean swim, and for the first time in her life, Oldroyd is comfortable with that. "I literally just learned to put my face in the water six months ago," she says. "But my teammates were patient. They help me and push me in the ocean and the pool, and when we go back to the gym, I do the same for them with movements I may be better at, like muscle-ups. Being on a team elevates everyone, and we are all way more fit than we were just a few months ago."
Oldroyd and her comrades have also been working with an endurance coach at the track, and her running, which she used to consider a weakness, has greatly improved. And, along with her squat, her other lifts have improved too. Her dead lift is now 335 pounds, her clean and jerk is 205 pounds and her snatch is 170 pounds. And her fused spine rarely causes her pain, though she says some movements, like heavy overhead lifts or high reps of handstand pushups, can make her neck feel "kinda funky." Not funky enough, though, to interfere with her goals.
"Miranda's goal was to make it back to the Games, and she saw a group of people who all had the same goal and could work together to get it done," says NorCal teammate Alex Rollin. "She's such a talented athlete as an individual, but sometimes a group of people with the same mindset is even more special. We think we can do some serious damage and we want to get on the podium."
Once she's there, you can bet Miranda Oldroyd will be elated. And a little misty-eyed.