Before Lauren Brooks qualified for the 2014 Reebok CrossFit Games, she spent three years at the regional level.
Year after year, she was sidelined by illness and injury.
In 2011, she withdrew before the regional began when she found out a biopsied mole tested positive for melanoma.
The next year, she withdrew after a lingering back injury seized up midway through the regional.
“I had a back injury because I trained wrong,” she explained. “I had several inter-spinal tears from an over-extended back on a heavy jerk that led to two fractured ribs right before regionals. I had a pain in the area but had no idea I had fractured ribs.”
“The load and intensity at (regionals) caused the area to seize, basically leaving me unable to walk for 20 minutes. They had to help me off the floor. Then medical staff told me I could not compete, and I was in tears. It was devastating.”
After two rough years, the CrossFit Salvation affiliate owner decided to re-evaluate her approach to training and recovery.
“For eight months, I really didn’t lift heavy or train hard … I took up Bikram yoga, which has been the most phenomenal thing for my training and recovery,” she said. “I tell everyone that does CrossFit, if you don’t do yoga for recovery, you’re a fool.”
Even though the recovery work cut her offseason training short, Brooks still managed to qualify for the 2013 South East Regional where she would go on to take sixth place.
Immediately afterwards, she asked herself a simple question.
“‘How bad do you want this, Lauren?’” she recounted. “It’s just going to come down to how bad you want it.”
She had competed in soccer, track, and junior Olympic volleyball before CrossFit, and knew that there's a big difference between finishing in the top 10 and the top three.
“I knew that my diet needed work,” she explained. “I knew that my training needed work, and I knew that my level of commitment needed to come up.”
She had to want it, bad, because none of that would be easy to do.
“You know those days when you’re tired, and things aren’t going your way? You’ve got a three-part session and just really want to leave. You want to go home. You run out of time, and you find all the excuses: ‘I’m hungry,’ ‘I’ve got to take a shower before I pick up my kids,’ ‘I’m exhausted,’ ‘I’m PMS-ing,’ ‘My knees hurt.’”
“It’s all these excuses,” Brooks explained. “Competitors have strong minds and abilities, but sometimes that works against us. Sometimes we have such a strong mind, we convince ourselves to do what we know we shouldn’t.”
The first step was to get control of her thoughts.
“Change your thoughts, change your life,” she said.
Once her stubborn mind was on her side, she met with a nutrition coach who would help her eat for performance and cut 10 lb. bodyweight. At 5-foot-7 and 170 lb., she was significantly heavier than many of the other competitors, which hurt her performance on gymnastics movements.
“I knew that if I wanted to make changes by leaps and bounds, I needed to fix my diet, not just for my weight, but for my performance,” Brooks said. “I knew I needed to learn how to eat to perform and get to my fighting weight.”
"My diet looks nothing like paleo. It took a lot of experimentation and trial and error,” Brooks added. “The thing with food and supplements is you really can't tell if they are working unless you stick with it for an extended period of time.”
It wasn’t easy for Brooks to overhaul her diet, so her nutrition coach encouraged her to gradually make small changes.
“Pick one habit every week or two weeks that you want to change. If you can master eliminating that one thing that you know you are doing wrong every week, imagine how creating new habits and having more consistent healthy eating makes it easier,” she said.
Brooks also worked on gymnastics movements and lifting with near perfect form.
Then, not long before the Open began, she re-injured her back.
“Leading up to the 2014 Open, I kept having these back issues, but I thought it was muscular and didn’t really think much about it,” she said. “Then on Open (Workout) 14.1, I did terrible! I was in so much pain, and I couldn’t believe 55 lb. was kicking my butt. I immediately thought, ‘Oh crap! This may not be my year.’”
After getting an MRI, Brooks was told she had a severe bulging disc and degeneration. She began decompression with her chiropractor and got back to Bikram yoga.
“I just fought my way back. I wasn’t going to give up,” Brooks said. “During the Open, I didn’t lift at all other than what the Open required me to do. I was doing gymnastics and endurance and not doing anything that would irritate my back.”
She was relieved when the regional events were announced, since they were lighter and more gymnastics focused than in past years. The lighter weights would spare her back, and the gymnastics focus was finally not her weak spot thanks to her new training.
On May 9-11, Brooks looked unaffected by her back injury when she went on to finish in the top three on four events with a 180-lb. hang squat snatch (second), 5:34 legless rope climb and sprint (first), 22:19 on the chipper (third), and 2:55 pull-up and overhead squat sprint (third).
Never dropping outside of the top 15 on any regional event, Brooks earned the third spot on the podium behind Talayna Fortunato and Emily Bridgers.
When Fortunato realized Brooks would join her at the Games, she picked Brooks up in a huge hug.
“She really made an effort to focus on her gymnastics and lowering her body weight this year, and it certainly paid off at the regionals,” Fortunato said. “I knew after she got sixth last year, she would have a shot this year especially with how she was performing in the Open."
“There is never a dull moment around Lauren. She is always making people laugh and is extremely friendly. I have a ball traveling with her. I'm not sure how she handles two kids, a gym and training, but somehow she does,” Fortunato added.
To handle the injuries and setbacks, and all the other things that life has thrown at her as a mother of two young kids and busy affiliate owner, Brooks has had to make peace with the process.
“I was kind of a ferocious, aggressive athlete. Get out there and conquer it,” Brooks said, referring to her experience in soccer, track and volleyball.
“But I had to learn with CrossFit, it is not always about how aggressive you are. It’s about being at peace with yourself. Really breathing and thinking, ‘What am I capable of?’ That took some adjustment for me.”
“I have to channel my energy and focus on not being an aggressive athlete because I believe that love beats anger every time,” she said. “If you don’t learn to love the process, and learn to love who you are throughout it, you won’t ever be successful. I had to learn that.”
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