“I am the luckiest.” ~an in-depth interview with athlete Kelsey Kiel
Kels Kiel is a 26-year-old crossfitter from Philadelphia, PA. If you haven’t ever heard of her you can go check out her gallery on the gram (@kelskiel) where she highlights her Chestee reppin’, insane headband collection, sometimes purple hair, and most notably- super human strength. Kels became a CrossFit Games® athlete when she went team with CrossFit® Parallax in 2016, and was an individual CrossFit® Regionals competitor in the East the following year. After talking to Kels for no more than a few minutes it became clear that this was never a life that she imagined for herself in the best ways. Those big dreams she is chasing now weren’t even on her radar in 2015 when she began taking CrossFit more seriously, just three short years ago. Now, Kels snatches 205 and embodies “girl on fire.” Her game has gotten stronger, her lifts have gotten bigger, and with that, her message and presence in the CrossFit® community has become powerful and far reaching.
“I am the luckiest,” she says smiling through the phone. So, let’s dive right in and talk about how you get started, when getting started is one of the most challenging things to do, and somehow finding yourself in Carson.
What did fitness look like growing up?
Talking about her early days of fitness, Kels describes herself as “relatively” athletic. In Middle School, she was a two-season athlete splitting her time between soccer and basketball. Early on she sustained a minor knee injury which, was her first experience seeing her body have any real limitations. She decided then to switch her focus just to soccer.
“I was never on the best teams, but I loved the sport so much I knew that’s where I wanted to focus all of my attention,” she says.
Kels admits that she was never good at putting herself out there, and when it came to thinking about college she really had no direction.
“My older sisters didn’t really do the whole school thing. I didn’t go about it the way some other people who may have known they wanted to be a college athlete would have.”
Although Kels had soccer on her mind when it came to choosing a school, she was also open to other options like fashion and merchandising or becoming a hair stylist. “I was literally between any one of those things,” she says. Not of total shock value based on her killer workout wardrobe and sometimes unicorn hair. One fall weekend she took a trip with her parents to visit Elmira College in upstate NY.
“I absolutely fell in love with the campus.”
Signed. Sealed. And delivered. Kels attended Elmira the following Fall and was recruited to play on to their soccer team.
“I was a mediocre soccer player. I didn’t play a whole lot my senior year.” Kels talks more about the experience of being on a team and the close friendships she developed with her teammates than the athletic aspects of her soccer career. She admits, “By the end of the season I was drinking and partying and just enjoying myself.”
Once she graduated from Elmira she moved home to Philadelphia and back in with her parents in 2014.
“I graduated college with a BA in business administration and marketing. I knew nothing about CrossFit® or nutrition, and I made fun of my friends who did CrossFit® , which was weird considering all the off-season stuff we did in soccer was my jam, like squatting and deadlifting, but no light bulbs went off about that. I was also a big partier coming out of college, LOTS of drinking and eating so CrossFit® wasn’t on my radar.”
If you have followed Kels at all over the years, her transformation pictures are dramatic. She speaks to me candidly about a lot of the habits she had picked up while away at school.
“I acted the way I did because of things I had gone through at school, not loving the way I looked. I was a big girl. I would still call myself a big girl, and I was surrounded by these skinny soccer players. On a team of all girls there are always eating and appearance issues--you know how it is as a female.”
“I think a lot of my drinking was a vicious cycle. I would get into a groove during the week and come the weekend I would throw it out the window. At the time, I never connected those behaviors to something that had happened in my past or dealing with body image issues. Looking back now it totally makes sense.”
The turning point for Kels came with breaking her ankle. “In the cast, I was totally sidelined.” Her exercise routine at the time consisted of playing pick-up soccer, going for occasional runs, and sometimes going to the gym. “Once I was injured I was pretty much just like ‘Oh well I should just drink and eat more now that I’m even more unhappy’.” As if moving home from college with no job and no idea what direction to go in wasn’t enough at the time.
“I finally got off the crutches and acknowledged I wasn’t the happiest in the world. My sister had just gotten back from the Navy in Africa and all she could do while she was over there was work and workout. She was doing CrossFit® .”
Teri (her sister) convinced her to try a class.
“I was apprehensive. It was like, ‘Sure Teri, I guess I’ll go with you’. It was pretty much the same as the time she asked me to go see 'Twilight' in theatres. I don’t like 'Twilight' but sure I’ll come with you.”
What was that class like?
“It was Helen. I was SO bad at it. I vividly remember I needed two thick green bands just to do the pull ups. I was like OKAY I need to keep doing this because I have never been so bad at anything before.”
Kels, who admits she is “SUPER low-key competitive with her sister," talks about her embarrassment in having to modify the workout. When she sees that same embarrassment come through her athletes as a coach now, she reminds her athletes that we all need to start somewhere.
That workout represented the first turning point for her. “I was embarrassed because I don’t like being bad at things…I knew I had let myself go not just with how I looked, but also with how I physically felt. Some of the habits I had gotten myself into just all kind of came to a head at this class.”
“Then I was also broke. I was a just-graduated college student living at home trying to watch my money. Thankfully, the owner of a gym was a friend of mine from college and he cut me a deal so I could go three times per week. I had to help out around the gym with cleaning and stuff like that.”
“I remember VIVIDLY the first time I ever took my shirt off for a workout. I was literally TERRIFIED. It was such a big deal to me, and only me. I think some people may think that is a normal thing for me. Yes, now. But back when I was first started getting into the sport, it was the biggest deal.” Ladies, how many of us can relate to this?!
Kels was committed to going and getting better but, “… my drinking and partying wasn’t changing,” she states. “At the time CrossFit® was just a workout; I never really thought of it as a sport. It was literally just me going to sweat so I could go to Chick-fil-A. “
In January 2014, life circumstances changed, and with that the gym no longer became even a small priority. Kels got her first big girl job and big girl apartment and since it was either CrossFit® or pay bills, CrossFit® was cut. This initiated the beginning of another 3-month hiatus.
By the time she joined a new gym, it was leading up to the 2015 Open and summer was just coming to a close. Kels began going to CrossFit® three times per week again. She admits she still had a lot of weight on her, she couldn’t butterfly her pull ups and she was barely able to do a few strict in a row. “Somehow,” Kels states she got a muscle up before they announced 15.1.
“Looking back, I’m not sure how I did it.”
The 2015 Open was unremarkable for Kels except for one major point of note. This was The Open Dave Castro had introduced 15.1 and 15.1a. In 15.1 Kels placed in the top 500 in the region.
In 15.1a she got second.
Kels was just taking classes with no additional lifting programming.
“I came to the hard realization after 15.1 that the food, drinking, and the extra weight were holding me back. I thought if I could get that under control I might be alright. Not, I might be a professional athlete. I bought Krissy’s [Cagney’s]book and started to try flexible dieting on my own.”
After a few months of flexible dieting, Kels signed up for a local individual competition in New Jersey and ended up taking first. Granted, there were no high skilled gymnastics in this competition. She could still only string two muscle ups together.
“People can tell you all these really nice things but it’s true, you only remember the really mean nasty comments. I remember someone saying to me ‘Oh there aren’t any heavy hitters at this competition because they are all at regionals training’.”
“I was sitting on the rower during this really gnarly chipper [during the competition], and I didn’t want to pull. I heard this voice behind me saying ‘You better pull girl’ and I saw this attractive guy behind me. It turned out he was there coaching one of his own athletes from his gym in New Jersey. I didn’t even know having a coach with you at a competition was a thing.”
“That moment is a really cool moment in my life. Looking forward we can never really connect dots. But looking back you can see when life is changing when you didn’t even know it would be.”
After the competition, Kels got more serious about training and hired Krissy as her nutrition coach. Flexible dieting on her own wasn’t cutting it. One of the workouts from the day of the competition was Diane. The heavy deadlifts had wrecked her back and sidelined her for a moment. Kels figured while she was taking a few weeks off from CrossFit® to heal she could dial in her nutrition. In this time, she also switched gyms and took on the "pull harder man" as her first real coach.
Her nutrition changed, her coach changed, and the caliber of athletes she was training with was now so different.
Kels was raising the bar; the athletes around her were noticing.
It’s around this time that Kel’s ended up connecting with Rachel Goldenberg of CrossFit® Parallax in Clermont, NJ. There were talks that Rachel was trying to put a team together and at the time, Kels didn’t even know how team worked.
By now, Kels had left her first job as an assistant and was working full time for Wodify. CrossFit® Parallax was almost a two-hour drive from where she was living.
Eventually, Rachel sat everyone down together in the hopes to solidify a team.
Everyone was in.
“Kelly (Baker) and I were the rookies. We were like 'Yeah regionals 2016!' Whereas Rachel had been to two regionals as an individual and was like, ‘No guys, I want you to change your mind set a little bit. We want to go to Carson’. Uh..WHAT,” was Kels reaction at the time.
“I don’t think I even realized the potential we had as a team,” Kels states.
And just like that she was committed to traveling to Clermont, NJ for eight months.
“It was long fucking days. Working at Wodify was a cool experience but you stayed until the work got done. I would wake up and go to Northwood and get warm enough so I could do one of my training pieces and then drive to work, shower, and do my workday. Then drive back to Northwood and finish my training. There were days I wasn’t getting done till 10 p.m. and locking up the gym.”
“It was exhausting, but I was living the dream. I was part of a team again. Rachel and the rest of the team believed in what we had.”
CrossFit® Parallax qualified in 11that the close of The Open.
“I don’t think we crushed the open as a team,” Kels says.
“At this point I had completely stopped drinking. I was still working with Krissy but having never met her in person was tough. As a nutrition coach now myself, I realize the benefit of seeing your client in person. When I tell people that I weighed 200 pounds they don’t even believe me. My legs weigh a lot. Leading up to the open I was trying to cut down to 162 I was so lean that my back was always bothering me. “
Kels spent the last few months getting serious about her nutrition. She was surrounding herself with other athletes and had no choice but to level up and change her lifestyle.
“Obviously, it was the best thing for me,” she states.
In January 2016, she met Krissy at Wodapalooza.
“She looked at me [Krissy] and was like, ‘No wonder we can’t get any weight off you! You can’t get any leaner.' As a ‘former fat girl’ with body image issues, I was pushing to get my weight down. Krissy pulled in the reigns for me. “
Then came regionals.
“2016 was just crazy. That was up there with one of the best weekends of my entire life. We were just this team of misfits. We had a 38-year-old Dad, a tiny little gymnast man monkey, we had Kelly who is a hot bombshell. We were just this weird team. We qualified for the games and that took it to a whole new level of training.”
Once Kels and CrossFit® Parallax were officially going to Carson, Krissy offered to take her on and mentor her.
“Krissy gave me the opportunity to work for her, quit a job I didn’t love, and learn so much through Black Iron Nutrition. This also set aside some time for Games training. Although I still had an income, it was a risk. I would rather work for someone like Krissy than stay in my safe salary job that I don’t love though. I couldn’t turn down that opportunity.”
“We were all rookies at the games. We had an event win, and we had an event where we came in almost dead last. After that, I moved out to Reno where Krissy relocated me to work in-house at Black Iron Gym. Obviously, I left Parallax, and I left the team, but I knew the team wasn’t going to happen again.”
Kels made qualifying as a 2017 individual her focus. She finally had a coach who was programming for her individually who knew her strengths and weaknesses. She finished The Open at 22nd, but enough girls went team in the South region that year that she ended up getting an invite to Regionals.
“Twenty-two is my lucky number so I always say there was meaning behind that. Everything leading up to Regionals was just me trying to survive The Open. I’m so not an Open athlete. Give me a heavy barbell, and I’m in my happy place, even high skilled gymnastics- give me strict muscle ups. Then Dave Castro announced the workouts, and there was no barbell. From there I gave myself a 36-hour pity party. I tested the first workout with the TrueForm and the handstand pushups. I didn’t even finish. I walked out of the gym crying.”
“How do I finally qualify for Regionals, and I don’t get to touch a barbell?”
Kels had made a goal list in her journal with things like getting one top 10 finish and having fun the whole weekend. “I remember going into my journal and crossing that out and writing, ‘In the next couple of years.’ I didn’t want to think about it for this Regional.”
“Then I went in and surprised myself. I was third to last off the runner in that workout, but I ended up 3rd or 4th in my heat. I finished 11th at Regionals, and it was my rookie season. I had two top 10 finishes when I didn’t think I was going to get any. It was a very cool reassuring feeling.”
“People ask me why do you keep doing this? There ARE days where I break down, and I go into the bathroom and cry. I let it out. Breathe. Then walk back out. Whatever, it might be over. I fail my lifts and people wonder why I don’t quit? As soon as I’m not having fun doing this every day I know I will need to pick something else. But it’s been this long, and I fucking love it, so I know I’m doing something right.”
“This sport, this community of people, I am just the luckiest. I think so many people in the CrossFit® community are even if they don’t realize it. I feel like I am the luckiest person ever.” We are talking on the phone right now but I can hear Kels smiling through those words.
Now that Kels is coaching full-time at CrossFit® Fenway and recently moved back East, her feels are real.
“We are always taking risks. No matter if it’s a little risk throughout your day or my risk to come up to Boston when I didn’t even know what gym I would be coaching at, and if this was going to be the right next step for me. Being here, my heart is like, this is my place. It’s pretty cool.”
What does 2018 look like?
“Surprise myself again in the open. I had a real fear moving East and leaving The South region. The East is notoriously a difficult region. Ultimately, part of moving up here was to train with a team and go team here though.”
Let’s just make sure we also touch on a few REALLY important things…
What is always in your gym bag?
“Always in my Anderson Supply Co. bag are at least 14 junk headbands, gymnastics grips, wodndone thumb tape, a change of clothes for after training because I sweat, a lot.”
How had this sport changed/ re-defined the way you feel about your body?
“If you told me four years ago, that I would be where I am today, I wouldn't have believed you. I probably would have laughed at you. I never felt believed in. I never felt like my body could do the things that I wanted it to do, and I never, not in a million years, thought I could lift what I can lift today. I never thought I would look in the mirror and feel beautiful. This sport has absolutely redefined what that beautiful definition is to me. It has allowed me to appreciate what I can do, love myself for all that my body is capable of, and it's helped me appreciate this beauty in others.”
What do you think of social media surrounding the sport and how women represent themselves when it comes to CrossFit® and Olympic weightlifting?
“Comparison is the thief of joy. When we are constantly comparing ourselves with how we look, what we are accomplishing, and how our life appears, we will lose joy. That's why it’s important to tread lightly with social media. However, I think there is so much good that has come from social media and how women represent themselves. The strength, both mental and physical, and social media as a platform for women to show that strength, it's all pretty rad. I feel honored to be just even a small part of it. If and when women stick together, support each other, and lift each other up social media becomes the best, most powerful tool.”
Biggest female CrossFit® crush and why?
“Can I say my training partners, best friends and teammates? Kelly Baker and Rachel Goldenberg are two of my BIGGEST CrossFit® crushes, because they are my best friends, my biggest inspiration, and two of the hardest working ladies I know. Going through a crazy eight months with them in 2016, it was bound to bring us together. Also, Brianna Hamilton because she is one of the strongest humans both mentally and physically I have ever met, and I feel honored to be training with her day in and day out.”
How much thought do you put into your training outfits? Does what you wear influence your workouts? How much would you say you choose function over style?
“Some days I match my bra and my shorts, which are pretty much always Fleos. Extra points if I can get my headband to match also. I do try to get 'matchy matchy' when I can. My shirt doesn’t matter because I typically take it off.”
Remember this used to be a HUGE deal for Kels.
“If I have something heavy like split jerks, I’ll bring my Chestee. Not a shameless plug, it’s the truth.”
“If I have tons of burpees I’ll wear light colors, because, well, human mop.”
I am so proud of my daughter Kelsey for all that she has accomplished. She got me to my on-board class at KoP Crossfit over 2 years ago and I still go today. I participated in the 2016 Open and loved every minute of it.
Kelsey is a special person, the biggest heart and would drop everything to help you.
I love you Kels.
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