Why whitewater racing world champion Juliet Starrett turned to CrossFit -- and to standing desks

A former collegiate rower and world champion in whitewater racing, Juliet Starrett founded the first CrossFit gym in San Francisco. Courtesy of Juliet Starrett

Juliet Starrett never intended to become a founder of a highly successful CrossFit franchise or a passionate advocate for kids' standing desks. Actually, she never really intended for any of this: her brush with thyroid cancer or the two world championship titles in whitewater racing -- or leaving it all to become a lawyer. But each thing has brought her to the next.

"I haven't followed a normal path at all," she said.

After a childhood growing up outdoors in Colorado and rowing competitively, Juliet started as a rower at the University of California, Berkeley -- a program known for its long history of grooming of Olympians. But she was diagnosed with thyroid cancer during her sophomore year. She had surgery almost immediately, then radiation treatment. After getting the all clear, she went back to rowing -- but she found herself burned out, done with the long hours and single-mindedness of the sport.

In the summers, she started leading river rafting trips. It gave her so many things she loved: the wild water, the winging it and pushing herself, the hard work of leading people downriver.

"I learned the most about how to be awesome in life at that job," she said. At just 19 years old, she was taking people on multiday trips, in charge of first aid and logistics. She eventually became manager for the rafting company.

What followed after college was (sort of) the usual athlete bum existence. She raced for the national women's extreme whitewater team for five years, even winning two world championships. She worked odd jobs outdoors and led more rafting trips. On one trip, after the Whitewater World Championships in Africa, she was attacked by a hippo on the Zambezi River and had to swim to shore -- escaping unscathed save for one minor nick from the hippo's teeth. And she met her future husband, Kelly, who also was a fixture on the international whitewater scene.

Then she decided it was time for a new challenge. "I'm ready to not live in my car" -- she wrote about her adventures in her law school admissions essay -- and she started school at the University of San Francisco. For lots of people, that might be the end of the story: time to be an adult and get down to serious lawyering.

Not for Juliet.

She and Kelly still worked out regularly, but it was boring. "We were training all the time, but we were totally uninspired," she said. They were looking for something new again, and so they tried CrossFit. "[This was when] like three people did CrossFit," she joked.

Juliet was immediately drawn to the challenge of the sport. "When you train with Juliet, you cannot out-suffer her," Kelly said.

He was in physical therapy school at the time and was intrigued by ideas about functional strength and movement. The two of them started brainstorming on what they could do around these ideas. Soon, whenever she could spare a minute from her high-powered job at the law firm Reed Smith, Juliet was operating the business side of a gym run out of a parking lot behind the Sports Basement store in downtown San Francisco.

While they were both still working other jobs, San Francisco CrossFit grew into a bigger gym with employees. Still, "it took me 18 months to just, like, quit [Reed Smith]," said Juliet. "I thought, 'Is this the dumbest thing I've done in my life?'"

It turned out, no, it was definitely not dumb.

These days, San Francisco CrossFit has a large space that's no longer in a parking lot, with dozens of classes and professional athletes who come in to consult with Kelly and Juliet. They run workshops and offer stretching and strength seminars. In 2009, the pair started MobilityWOD, as a series of seminars and workshops on movement that has now expanded into an extensive website and subscription video service.

They wrote the book "Deskbound: Standing Up to a Sitting World" about the health hazards of a sedentary lifestyle -- then decided to expand that thinking to kids after an experience at their daughter Georgia's elementary school field day. "We were volunteering at the sack races and the kids literally could not get into the sack," said Juliet.

The kids struggled to jump or forward roll. "It blew our minds. The physical literacy of these kids was horrible," she said. And the schoolchildren lived in Marin County, just outside of San Francisco, generally considered the birthplace of mountain biking and, by most statistics, one of the healthiest counties in the state.

So Juliet prepared a proposal for standing desks in a few classrooms, and the principal jumped on board. The Starretts paid to outfit the first few classrooms, which included Georgia's fourth grade class, but soon more teachers wanted the standing desks.

"The kids loved it," she said.

The Starretts started a nonprofit, Stand Up Kids, and they raised $150,000 in a matter of weeks. In 2015, Vallecito Elementary became the first school in the country to give all the students standing desks. Each classroom has five stools for sharing -- if a child needs to sit down -- but otherwise, the kids stand or walk around or sit on the floor.

There were concerns, of course. Teachers were worried about the students being harder to manage. Parents were worried about their kids being tired. There was a transitional period, just like when adults switch to standing desks, said Juliet. But what research has found, is that the kids with attention issues actually have an easier time focusing when they're able to fidget and move around. And according to a Texas A&M School of Public Health study, kids burn a base level of about 15 percent to 25 percent more calories during the day when using standing desks.

Their younger daughter, Caroline, a first-grader, has only had a standing desk in her school career. She went from running around in preschool to moving around in kindergarten to standing and moving in first grade. Caroline doesn't think it's weird, her parents say. She just thinks it's school.

The Starretts have teamed up now with Donors Choose and with Michelle Obama's Let's Move program and are hoping to raise $50,000 a year to bring standing desks to low-income classrooms where teachers have requested the change but can't afford it.

Being the face of healthy living has to wear on the family, though, right?

"I think there's a certain amount of pressure in that way," Juliet said. "But fortunately, it's not hard for us to manage that pressure, because we went into this because we love this stuff."

During school vacation this year, the family took a trip to Tahoe, where they skied in the mornings and completed CrossFit workouts in the afternoons. Their pace is nonstop, and they love it. Juliet may not have necessarily intended for all of this -- but she also wouldn't have it any other way.