Interview with Gillian Mounsey

Where do your fitness role models come from?

Magazine covers? Supplement ads? Images with no basis in reality? Imagined “perfect people”, captured two-dimensionally at the height of their aesthetic appeal or their competitive best – for a brief moment, only?

Who tells you what is OK? An imaginary critic? Or your compassionately honest, most authentic, loving-kind “best-self”?

For most women, the imaginary critic drives the bus, most of the time. Our world narrows to a tiny pinpoint of self-destructive energy.

But there is another way. Building true strength and self-compassion broadens our horizons, instead of constricting them.

This was strength athlete Gillian Mounsey’s journey, which she courageously shared on her blog, and the Starting Strength site. By turns painful, honest, and brave, it’s a must-read for any female athlete who wonders whether she is alone in the madness of performance-pushing and body angst.

I had the great privilege of speaking to Gillian about her piece (see below for interview). After I read her essay, I knew I had to hunt down this woman who shared her struggles while retaining her majestic dignity and brutal truth – and who, in the end, ultimately won the real prize: her self.

A gifted and powerful athlete, Gillian began her career as a gymnast before branching into short-distance running and bodybuilding. Eventually, she turned to Crossfit. Along the way, she punished her body with ever-more-stringent regimes. As she explained:

My entire life I took pride in being an exceptional athlete with strength and physical capabilities that were rarely − if ever − matched. At the time I supposedly looked my best, I had about 10% of my normal capacity. In short, I had starved myself to the point of destruction.

During CrossFit workouts my intention was to crush myself to a point of physical illness everyday, hardly a means of respect. I based the effectiveness of my workouts on the length of time I had the shakes after a workout.

Despite an incredible ability to deliver the goods, she nevertheless suffered.

She became obsessed with her weight and body fat, and sustained several injuries and precipitous drops in performance. At one point, she herniated 5 cervical and thoracic discs from a combination of excessive volume muscle-ups and a very high rep, heavy barbell workout performed for time with extreme fatigue and faulty mechanics.

The downhill road through body madness ended at a certain Mark Rippetoe’s gym, Wichita Falls Athletic Club (WFAC). There, she says, she was taught to respect herself.

Training [at WFAC] was very methodical. As a result, I couldn’t wait to get back in the gym each session, learn more, and do just a little better than I had done the day prior. I was excited to be a weightlifter, and I never once thought about what I looked like over those ten days. Instead my mind was occupied with learning and working towards a goal. I had the time of my life.

I learned to respect myself as an athlete. I learned to appreciate the gifts that I have been given and the abilities I worked very hard for, rather than to dwell on the things I do not have. I learned to train with purpose rather than for atonement.

Thanks to Coach Rip’s careful and compassionate yet uncompromising attention, Gillian blossomed. She put on 14 pounds more, after gaining back 20 lb she’d put on after being dangerously underweight. She stayed lean. Her energy skyrocketed.

But most importantly, she now believes in herself – and her mission to share this with other women.

I am my own worst enemy when it comes to being the athlete that I could be. I know the amazing things of which I am capable, and now I have to stop standing in my own way.

Q. Why did you write this piece?

Well, it’s not the piece I originally sat down to write.

Originally, I’d written a shorter piece for my own site. I wanted to talk about how my experience at WFAC was life changing. At that time, I didn’t get into my background. I pretty much wrote this for the girls I coach. I wanted to teach them about things like diet and training, and educate them about how to do it in a healthy way.

I wanted all these women to see that there was another way out there. They all struggled with their body image, and their whole self-worth was tied up in what they looked like.

So, it started out as kind of a fluff piece. And got deeper from there. It came out of nowhere, just from sitting down to write.

It was really a culmination of several years down the path of Crossfit, trying to be a teacher and educator, trying to do right by others, while having my own struggles as well. Many of these things I don’t normally share with clients. This let me open up to them. Now they know I go through what they go through.

Q. What is important for women to know?

They need to know that a fitness program can be safe, effective, and fun. I harp on things like performance, results, and measurable goals. Unfortunately so many of them stay focused on body image stuff and feel like failures.

I realized it was important to let other women know that we’re all in the same boat, and that it’s a constant struggle. A constant battle. At first I thought it was weakness, to let them know that, but then I realized it made me more authentic.

Now, I educate them, let them make their own decisions, and provide a support network. I help them clarify their goals and put it into a program where they can progress.

Nobody’s perfect. You’re not going to just wake up tomorrow and not care about the superficial things. When I started down this road in April 2011, I was terrified about gaining weight. I would go into the gym, and afterwards I’d know I had to eat, and I’d do it, and I’d think, This isn’t for me.

I went back and forth with that. You need other people around you to support you and keep you focused and balanced. It’s very hard to do it alone. So you need to ask for help.

Q. What are some of the challenges in developing a healthy body image and athletic practice?

In part, it’s about what you think gets rewarded. In WFAC I was rewarded for being strrong, and for what I could do, relative to me. How hard am I working compared to what I’m capable of, emotionally, psychologically, physically? That should be what good judgement is based on.

Unfortunately in many gyms, women still judge each other based on what they look like. Even if a woman has an incredible deadlift, impressive pullup numbers, and a 6-minute mile, she’ll often turn around and say “I want legs like So-and-So.”

But you can only be the best version of yourself.

Q. Where do you think some of your own challenges came from?

Well, it’s easy to blame the activities I did. I never meant to blame Crossfit, for instance. They never said do what I did to myself. It was the mix of the culture of Crossfit and what was inside myself that allowed me to continue down that path.

If you’re someone for whom self-worth is contingent on performance, it’s really easy to go there.

And in the Crossfit context, we see some incredible athletes and bodies, there’s a body type we see again and again as the ideal. And it’s Crossfit – there’s no air conditioning, people walk around in very little clothing. In a Globo gym, by contrast, people have to wear shirts and shoes and whatever. So at Crossfit you’re surrounded by these super-fit bodies. And really, do they care about times if that girl looks amazing?

Yes, they recommend sensible nutrition, but if you wanted, you could take it to an extreme. Anyone with this competitive, self-critical mindset could pull somethig negative from what’s intended to be positive.

And for me, performance has always been important, to a fault. I left Crossfit because I had a bad injury. I’d die before I’d fail. This became somewhat of a negative, as you can imagine. I didn’t know when to quit or ease off.

But you only get to abuse your body so much. I’m in my mid-30s and I’d like to have children. I can no longer continue to compromise my body like that. I’ve talked to doctors who say if I keep this up, I might not have kids. Again, you only get to abuse your body so much.

I had a really hard time stepping out of that high-performance athlete role to be a coach, educator, and role model. I’ve struggled with this most of my professional life. But if I’m really going to teach people, I have to be an example.

Q. How did people respond to the piece?

Overall, mostly positive. People close to me, who know how private I am, were surprised that I’d shared so much.

Mostly, people celebrated that I said all that stuff. Men said they were reading the piece to their wives. Husbands and coaches of female teams said that women needed to hear this.

A lot of Crossfitters came forward confidentially to say they were dealing with similar things. The problem is that so many ex-athletes found Crossfit as a way to give expression to their athleticism, so they pursued it with the same energy.

But it’s not a sport, it’s competitive physical fitness. There’s no clear definition about what we’re training for, so it’s easy to try to excel in all domains – how do I train for everything and anything? A lot of athletes get disillusioned and hurt. They wrote to me and said they felt the same way I did. Unfortunately, they’re stuck, like me.

People are still struggling to find themselves. As athletes, you get very little transition into a new role. I started gymnastics at 2, so you can imagine – it was my whole life. I mixed my hobbies, career, and passions. I didn’t know what I could do if I couldn’t train.

Bodybuilding and Crossfit were initially that continued expression of being an athlete. For me, with my background, with my personality, they just ended up being more negative than positive.

Q. What’s next for you?

Now, I see myself as a weightlifter. I’ll do it as long as I enjoy it, and as long as it stays positive for me. I would love to lift in the Olympics, but if this hurts the people around me, or stops becoming fun, I’ll move on.

I’d like to do a Highland Games event, then an Olympic lifting meet. I’ll try some strongman stuff. I want to be fit to compete in anything that’s fun. When it’s not fun, it’s time to go. The more activities I try, the more I can share.

This whole journey has been about continuing to step outside of myself. None of the things I encountered were bad things. I just went down a bad path with them.

I’m getting to know myself. I realized that obsessive dieting is a means of self-control: when things get crazy in my life, I can control what I look like and my body.

On the other hand, with weightlifting, I can’t be in there and be weak. If I don’t eat that day, then I don’t lift well.

Now I realize I’m more than just a lean body or a great athlete. I’m a wife, friend, sister, coach… I’m connected to other people. I surround myself with people who keep me sane. All these things come first now. I need to keep that big picture front and centre. I will never work “at all costs” again. I will never put a sport first in my life, ahead of people.

I wish I could take my female clients and 19 year old step-daughter to WFAC for a day. I want to show them that satisfaction, happiness, and sense of achievement is derived from dedication and effort put forth toward a tangible, performance-oriented goal.