If you're a CrossFitter, Elisabeth Akinwale is a household name. She's a five times Games competitor and qualified for her first Games a staggering eight months after discovering CrossFit in 2010. It comes as no surprise that she's been an athlete all of her life, starting as a gymnast at the age of 4, and has collected an impressive array of distinctions and awards in various sports.
She lives in Chicago with her partner and her son, and I was thrilled when I found out that she would be attending the Girls Gone Strong Women's Strength and Empowerment Weekend here in Seattle. I have always been a huge fan, and admired her grounded and thoughtful approach to fitness, culture, body image and life. I jumped at the chance to be able to interview her, as she is always sharing such insightful and inspirational words on her social media platforms that impact thousands of women, in hopes of sharing more of her personal story with you here.
She is currently rebuilding her site and creating lots of great content over at ElisabethAkinwale.com, so be sure to check that out, and for all of the images from our photoshoot, head here. Let's get right into it!
YOU'RE CURRENTLY NOT TRAINING TO COMPETE IN CROSSFIT. WHAT MADE YOU DECIDE TO SIT THE SEASON OUT? WILL YOU COMPETE AGAIN IN THE FUTURE? WHAT DOES YOUR TRAINING LOOK LIKE NOW?
There were a number of factors that contributed to me deciding not to compete in CrossFit this season. Overall, I try to be intentional about the direction I’m taking in my life. But there was a period of time I was competing in large part because of inertia. It was something I had been doing and I just kept doing it because I love training, and competing had become a natural part of the yearly cycle. It was important to me that people of color be represented out on that Games floor, so I carried that torch for some time. When I took a step back and assessed the whole picture, I realized that there were a lot of exciting things that I’ve wanted to pursue, but haven’t because of the demands of competition and training.
I want to challenge myself in other ways, and make more concrete contributions to the world around me, which requires time and effort committed to those endeavors. I’m not a fan of the idea that you can have it all. I don’t believe any one person can do it all, do it well, and do it at the same time. All of us have a limit to our resources, and competing in CrossFit doesn’t hold the same meaning for me that it once did, and therefore doesn’t deserve the commitment of resources that it takes to compete at a high level. It’s all about being clear with what I value in my life and making decisions accordingly.
ONE OF THE THINGS YOU SPEAK A LOT ABOUT IS YOUR MOTHERHOOD. HOW DOES BEING A MOTHER INTERPLAY WITH YOUR CAREER AS AN ATHLETE? ARE THERE CHALLENGES? HARMONY?
My life as a mother, and a co-parenting mom specifically, is essentially why I became a competitive athlete again in my mid-thirties. I started CrossFit in the wake of a divorce and really threw myself into it as a coping strategy to manage the pain and empty spaces when I didn’t have my son with me. Spending time at the gym, building friendships, working on skills, etc., was a great distraction at the time, and grew into something much more.
Being a mother and competitive athlete was a gift to my son in that he had a front row seat to my process of setting and striving to achieve goals. He probably has a better sense of everything that goes into being a CrossFit Games athlete than most, since he’s been part of the 24 hours a day, week in and week out commitment for years on end. He’s seen me live an empowered and self-determined life, and he most definitely views women as strong and capable.
Being a mother made me a better competitive athlete because he’s always kept me well grounded in what is most important. I’ve been incredibly disciplined with my time, energy and focus in order to keep my competitive life rolling, while trying not to make it the focus of his life.
There are absolutely challenges with being a mother and a competitive CrossFit athlete- that’s why there are decreasing numbers of mothers reaching the highest levels of competition. The nature of the training is very time and energy intensive. Many high level coaches want their athletes to crave being in the gym more than anything else. As a mother I can say upfront, that never has been and never will be the case for me. I’m also the head of my household, and have responsibilities like putting food on the table, paying for tuition and activities, being present and having energy for my son. These things can difficult when you’re spending hours upon hours training every day. Frankly, training makes me a better mother, but training to compete, at this point, doesn’t.
I LOVE THE WAY YOU CELEBRATE YOUR BODY FOR IT'S CAPABILITIES, ADAPTABILITY, STRENGTH, AND POWER. WAS THERE A DEFINING MOMENT THAT ALLOWED YOU TO SEE YOURSELF THIS WAY? WHAT ADVICE WOULD YOU GIVE WOMEN WHO ARE STRUGGLING TO SEE THEIR BODY IN THIS LIGHT?
There are lots of cultural elements involved with the idea that women would be viewed as anything but capable, adaptable, strong and powerful. In some ways, being boxed in as frail or less physically capable is the battleground of middle class white women, and femininity itself has been defined within those constraints, which is why we see Black women who display strength, physical and intellectual power (Serena Williams and Michelle Obama come to mind) being called masculine.
My perception of the female body was first shaped by my image of my mother. Growing up I saw my mother as endlessly strong, and the furthest thing from frail, or any other dominant image of how femininity is displayed. For my entire childhood my mother worked overnights on her feet as a machine operator, and usually had one or two additional part-time jobs. The idea of a woman being strong and physically capable was never a question. I have an older sister who is my sports role model and we were both encouraged in our physicality. Based on this foundation, I’ve escaped the hang-ups some women have about claiming their strength.
We grew up in a sports centered household, and I started sports when I was 4. And I loved it. I like to feel my body move, I like feeling myself breathing, feeling my muscles work. During my childhood I had numerous surgeries for a health condition. My athletic career as a gymnast included seven knee surgeries. So I've had some experiences that make me appreciate my body for just existing, being able to move and take me through activities I enjoy.
Just living life has shaped my perspective, as it does for any of us. After I had my son I went from being a gym rat to focusing on being a mother and not so much time on my fitness. My initial venture back into training was just going on walks twice a week. It wasn't intense, but after not being as active walking just felt good. We should allow ourselves the simple joy of feeling our bodies and experiencing the world in them. I think of women who want to stay covered at the beach because they don't think their body is fit to be seen. I’m like, you know what feels great? The sun on your skin. You know what feels good? The wind against your skin. Your body exists for reasons more than what it looks like. This is part of fully experiencing your life.
Seeing yourself as what you fully are, or what you are fully capable of as a human being, requires that you be willing and brave enough to step outside of the box that’s been devised for you. These boxes are constraints, but they can also be comforting because if we fit ourselves inside them we think we’ll be more accepted, less judged, freer from the critique of others. Leadership comes from those who define themselves outside the pre-conceived notions about who or how they are supposed to be.
WHAT DOES IT MEAN TO YOU TO BE A STRONG WOMAN OF COLOR? WHAT DO YOU LIKE TO USE YOUR VOICE FOR MOST ON THIS TOPIC, AND WHAT IMPACT OR MESSAGE DO YOU HOPE TO SPREAD?
I don’t think I would characterize myself that way. In my life, strength and resilience have been expected and demanded of me. I think for Black women, finding spaces to be strong in isn’t the challenge—it’s finding space and support in vulnerability that is less common. I’m not strong all the time, I experience the full spectrum of human emotion. I need support and affirmation, and it’s that type of support and affirmation that I strive to create for others in my social media space. Being vulnerable enough to show our true selves across that spectrum is push back against the mainstream imagery created around Black women, and I think that’s important for everyone to see.
People reach out to me on a regular basis to share that seeing me in the predominantly white world of elite CrossFit competition has made a difference to them. It’s makes a difference to people to see themselves reflected in me. More than just being out there, I’m working to make a more direct impact, specifically around communities who are underserved when it comes to access to fitness and wellness resources, information and facilities. If there’s any single message, it’s that we can participate in any activity we choose. We belong everywhere, and that includes where we might be a minority, or in spaces of our own making, designed to meet our specific needs.
YOUR LAST NAME TRANSLATES TO "THE WARRIOR HAS RETURNED". (PRETTY BADASS). IN WHAT WAYS DO YOU FEEL LIKE A WARRIOR? WHAT GIVES YOU STRENGTH TO FIGHT FOR WHAT YOU WANT IN THIS WORLD?
I feel like a warrior in that I prepare myself both physically and mentally to be ready for whatever comes my way. I don’t seek conflict, but I’m capable of holding my ground. I seek not only outward strength, but inner knowledge and peace. When I think of a warrior I think of balance—both a weapon and a shield—and I try to embody that.
Standing up for what I believe in, and what I want to achieve in this world feels like a forgone conclusion. Based on how I was raised, the people who came before me, and most powerfully in my life, as a mother. Giving up is simply not an option. My son’s presence in my life has kept me going more times than I’d like to admit.
IN WHAT WAYS HAS YOUR OWN SELF IMAGE EVOLVED, MATURED? WHAT'S ONE PIECE OF ADVICE YOU GIVE TO YOUR 20 YEAR OLD SELF?
My self image has become increasingly internally driven over the years. Like anyone else, I’ve been subject to the programming of the culture around me. There was a time when those values had more impact on the way I felt about myself and the image I wanted to project into the world. I’ve come to reject a lot of those external pressures and embrace who I am at my core.
My training and fitness focus has shifted from aesthetics, to performance, to simply valuing how I experience life living in this body. The experience includes how I look, as well as what I can do with my body, but it centers the being in the body.
My advice for myself 20 years ago? Have compassion for yourself, and be where you are. There’s nothing in this world that’s not for you, if you want it. Stay in tune with your intuition, and trust that any obstacles will be overcome, broken through, worked around, or used to build you for your next step.