An Intimate Interview with Masters Games Athlete Amy "Pistol" Mandelbaum
Amy Mandelbaum aka: Amy “Pistol” Mandelbaum, returned from the 2012 CrossFit Games unable to lift her left arm. While she suspects this injury had been brewing over the entirety of her CrossFit® career, the final distinguishing moment came while trying to turn over during an “at all costs” muscle up at The Games.
“I think much of the damage in my shoulder came from overuse. In 2012 they had us [masters athletes] outside in the parking lot and everything was so hot that all the skin burned off my hands. When that happens you begin doing funky things and I’m sure my form suffered there.”
By the time Amy left California that year she couldn’t carry her luggage with her left arm. Soon after, Amy got an MRI and was told she had a 75% thickness tear to her supraspinatus tendon. This tendon inserts just at the front of the shoulder and can be felt holding your arm at a 90 degree angle while internally and externally rotating.
Amy’s doctor advised her not to have surgery.
“My doctor said I could rehab through it and it would be fine.”
Amy spent the majority of 2012 rehabbing her left shoulder while continuing to train her lower body and engine.
“I couldn’t do a pull-up or muscle up for much of 2012 and yet, I still managed to qualify in 2013.”
Five years later surgery free, 18.3 was released.
“Half way through the workout I felt my left arm pop on a bar muscle up.”
After 18.3 Amy got a cortisone shot just so she could just make it through the master’s qualifier. The shot took the pain away and made it possible for her to perform, but it also allowed her to further injure herself. In spite of the constant clicking, Amy kept doing everything that her coach programmed.
When the shot began to wear off in early May she couldn’t do anything. In addition to rotational and overhead movements, even cleans became painful. Just from the pull off the ground her shoulder was killing her. Everyone agreed it was time to get another MRI.
The MRI showed that Amy’s 75% thickness tear was now a full thickness tear. There was a bone spur that was splitting into her bicep tendon which, ironically was where she had been feeling all of her pain. Amy’s doctor offered her another shot so she could go to the games, but by now she was like- what is the point?
“I can’t even imagine what I would have done to myself there. Once you’re in competition everything else just shuts off. It was also devastating because the further I was getting into my training the more things I was being forced to take out. It got to a point where all I had left was squatting, running, or air bike. I just knew I was done.”
Amy is one week out from surgery as we are having this conversation. She is scheduled to begin and intense course of PT in a weeks’ time.
Amy wants to get back to where she was before and even surpass that in order to compete again. Her rehab will look a lot different than someone with less specific range of motion requirements- what would be one or two months of therapy for the average person, will be six months of physical therapy for her as a competitive athlete.
“I’ve been moving around for so long with pain I don’t even know what it will be like not to have it. I’m going to take this year and see what happens. I’m not going to push myself to make it any more or any less than that. I want to be very patient with it.”
Amy is giving herself the grace to take one day at a time. Whatever the surgeon wants her to do, she is game.
“He is a good guy [the surgeon]. He sat down with me and said if it wasn’t for the bone spur, you wouldn’t be having this issue. It needed to be removed or my bicep tendon was going to rupture.”
But how did Amy ‘Pistol’ arrive here, anyway? Amy had never even touched a barbell until her early 40s. 42 to be exact.
“I was never a competitive athlete. I never played sports growing up. I spent my youth doing theatre and dance and moved to NYC in 1994. Only then, did I start to get into step aerobics and some lifting and interval type workouts.”
In 2009 Amy moved to Connecticut and was taking classes at a regular fitness studio when someone approached her and asked if she had ever tried CrossFit.
A gym had just recently opened in Fairfield, CT and Amy was looking for something different, maybe this would be it.
“It was a dance studio with holes in the ceiling. It smelled gross. Honestly, it was the most bootleg place I had ever walked into. The coach there was like, this is a barbell, this a bumper plate, here are the movements. We were doing thrusters and shuttle runs and I had never done anything like that in my life.”
The barbell was heavy. Heavy. Amy emphasized the word. It was a way to get out aggression, a way out of her own head. She had just moved from New York City: this bright, in your face, loud, yet majestic place. To what any native pavement pounding city dweller would call, “the country”.
The “country” was Westport, CT.
Without the hum of the city and the busy streets around her she felt alone, even with her two young children.
“I needed a place to put all of that and as soon as I touched that barbell I fell in love with it. After just about two months my coach encouraged me to do a local competition down the road from my gym. I took second.”
Amy began training with the head coach. He wrote her programming and she started participating in comp classes. There was already a contingent of people at the gym who wanted to compete but, Amy was the oldest and the newest by far when she was thrown into the mix.
“It was a huge wake up for me to begin working out for fitness to working out for strength, speed, and agility. All of those things were a completely new world for me.”
Amy’s gym qualified for the games in 2010, but Amy declined her invitation because it was her daughters visiting weekend at camp. Throughout our entire conversation Amy makes it clear that, no matter where the gym and training takes her- family always comes first.
“It was the last games in Aromas [California]. It was the last of everything before Reebok came in. I just went to my coach and told him, I couldn’t go. I’m going to visiting weekend at camp for my daughter. I thought he was going to kill me.”
Amy would go on qualify for every single regional or AGOQ after that since beginning the sport.
What brought Amy back for more so consistently?
The Olympic lifts. Amy lives for the feeling of pulling the weight off the ground, digging as deep as you can to get something done, and moving past the pain.
“That is the one thing that pushed me to keep coming back every single day and rise to every single occasion, no matter how painful it was. I have this memory of doing my fist 300 FY (300 f*ck you, for the non-OG’ers out there), where you try to get through as many calories as possible in ten minutes on the air dyne. I remember getting off the bike that first time, crawling to the bathroom, and dry heaving. It was horrible. It’s something I am never going to forget.”
It’s weird how those types of things are character builders, they are metaphors for life. Life is really hard and there are a lot of things that you’re going to need to do over and over again that are really going to suck. That’s what keeps us all coming back- accepting the challenge and seeing it through.
“This year the masters qualifier was so much heavier than it has ever been for my age group. Just looking at the workouts and saying okay, let’s just do this and see what happens.”
Amy ultimately left her first CrossFit® to coach at another box. When that box started to lose members, Amy’s husband came to her and asked if she wanted to buy the gym. Amy was floored.
Her kids were getting older that she needed to have something in her life besides training, coaching and competing.
“A month later we were box owners and I was the head coach. In hindsight, I was totally underprepared. The only saving grace was that I had great people supporting me and there was already several excellent coaches in place. I had so much support it would have almost been stupid not to say yes. I always tell my kids, never say no, say yes. Say yes, and then figure out how to get it done. You don’t ever want to miss an opportunity.”
Speaking of Amy’s kids. Yes, they both do CrossFit® when they are home.
“We get into it as a family. It’s great when I’m coaching and they are in class- it’s really so much fun,” Amy is suddenly beaming through the phone.
When you’re a Games athlete, training is a full time job. You’re putting in hours at the gym. Amy would do as much as she possibly could while her kids were at school or in an after school activity to try to find some balance. Her husband would pick up the slack for her on the weekends if she had a team practice.
If she couldn’t fit it all in, she wouldn’t beat herself up.
“It was hard to leave my kids and my husband and go away for weekends. I know a lot of moms do it but I’m pretty involved with my family. Those were more difficult times [in her early years of training]. Now, I leave it at the box. Even though we own the business and I work from home a lot, I don’t discuss my training much with my family anymore.”
Amy’s husband has become more involved throughout the years. Although, he would describe himself as a casual gym-goer – he is a glorified “leaderboard hound” during The Open. Amy talks candidly about his trepidations when she first found the sport- stumbling upon something she was undeniably good which surprised that hell out of everyone, especially her. As she progressed even her husband couldn’t deny her talent.
“It’s not going away but, I do try very hard not to make it the only thing I am. That’s suffocating for everybody.”
Although, this wasn’t the women he had married and Amy’s husband wasn’t the same man she had first met- they learned to accept, admire, and support the changes that had transpired in both of them.
“Buying the box was the biggest acceptance piece of them all. My husband is a great business partner, he doesn’t get overly involved. He is my sounding board, but he also allows me to run with it. When he walks in, he comes as member, which is really nice.”
What Amy loves most are her members. When a masters athlete walks into the gym for the first time and sees Amy, she is instantly relatable.
“Females walk into the gym and have a fear of the barbell. I show them how it can improve their lives inside and out of these four walls. When you begin to lift heavier and you realize throwing something up over your head isn’t going to hurt you, it’s empowering. I spend a lot of time breaking down fear and focusing on that.”
With her male population in the 40- 60 year-old demographic, Amy spends more time on positioning. Humans are not meant to sit all day, although we do. We sit to eat breakfast in the morning, during our commutes, and at work all day. Males tend to arrive internally rotated from just plain living, therefore circling back and having them lift lighter in the beginning gives them a chance to learn how to move well, move properly, then load.
“The hardest thing is when people come to us from other gyms and they need to re-learn these fundamentals. I had a whole group join and it took almost 6 months to undo what was done in another gym. These athletes had never squatted below parallel and didn’t even know what full extension was. It is so hard and you don’t want people to feel like they need to start all over again.”
“We also do senior fit classes with members who are 70+ in age. They are so excited to be moving around and understanding balance again. Their energy is infectious because they feel so free. All they want is to be able to pick up their grandkids without hurting themselves.”
Box owners, like Amy will be the pioneers in preventing and even reversing chronic disease. Affiliate owners are health advocates weather or not they deem themselves as such.
I say this to Amy.
“I would love to say that CrossFit® is capable of changing the landscape to whatever the precursor of illness is. Right now, there is no quality control over the gyms. I want to service my population in a holistic manner. If there was better quality control over affiliates we would have a better overall product and I think a deeper impact on the population around us.”
Amy would like to see other affiliate owners take the lead in becoming more involved in preventative medicine and movement counseling. Predicting or eliminating unhealthy movement patterns so people can move properly as they age and have a longer, better quality of life. Amy’s box offers nutrition counseling and movement screens, tools she believes are the future for any owner who is invested in their community and business.
“A lot of what I see when a new member walks into the gym is sickness, chronic pain, and disease that is almost entirely of their own doing.”
What kind of advice does Amy give other masters athletes who are trying to be competitive?
Respect your age.
It’s OKAY not to lift as heavy as you did 10 years ago- not everything is going to stay the same and CrossFit® knows that, which is why they don’t demand as much from masters athletes when they reach age 55.
“Menopause is happening, hair is thinning, boobs are drooping, you’re peeing more- if you realize it’s part of the process, it’s not going to stop you. There are a lot of things you need to be willing to do and accept if you want to compete as a masters athlete.”
Amy stressed the importance of doing everything you can: mobilize, pay attention to your nutrition. Everything you do needs to be on point as you age because the amount of energy you need to compete isn’t as readily available as it once was.
“You need more sleep, you need to eat more food. That might mean bulking up a little bit but that’s needs to be something you’re willing to do. “
Amy began working with Mike Molloy, PhD and Owner of M2 Nutrition about a year ago. Before she began counting macros with him her nutrition in her words was, “a mess”.
“That was my bigger issue. I thought I was fine but I was completely under-fueling myself and basically competing on fumes. My coach, Jay Leydon, set me up with Mike and it took me two months to be okay with it. It was so much more food than I was used to, but it’s been huge for me. It has completely changed my performance.”
Amy was competing at a very high level basically eating whatever she wanted. The same way she follows a training program, she fuels her body with structure and purpose.
I wondered, where does Amy go from here? Having just come off shoulder surgery, running a wildly successful gym as head coach, and balancing her roles as a wife and mother- was competition in her rear view?
“I’m trying not to put a deadline on it. I want to come back and I have every intention of competing again. I just need my body to be right. If it takes a year, then it takes a year. If it’s not this Open then it will be the next one. I’m trying to keep it open ended. I love the competitive community and that isn’t going away anytime soon.”
Interview by Chestee Blog Editor, Genevieve Gyulavary.
Photo courtesy of Irene Penny.
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