Christina Spencer: Owner of Junction City CrossFit - is setting the bar for diversity and inclusion amidst a global pandemic. This is her story.

Christina Spencer: Owner of Junction City CrossFit - is setting the bar for diversity and inclusion amidst a global pandemic. This is her story. - Chestee

Christina Spencer

By: Genevieve Gyulavary

“Living next to a military installation, we have a very diverse community and it’s important to me to have a diverse coaching staff. When black people or people of color walk into a space that is primarily occupied by white people, they have to make a snap decision, is this by design? Do they only want white people here?”

Christina Spencer is the owner of Junction City CrossFit®. Her gym is a platform, setting the bar for diversity and inclusion in the fitness community. A self-proclaimed military brat on active duty U.S Army Reserve in her home state of Kansas— this is her story.

Christina was born in Germany, but spent much of her childhood moving around the United States in a military family. Her parents encouraged her to play sports from an early age to keep out of trouble.

“I played a few years of junior college basketball, but I had no idea what I wanted to do after that, so I joined the military. It was there I was first introduced to CrossFit® on a mobilization to Kuwait.”

Christina immediately felt at home with the sport because of its relatability to team practice, a void she had been trying to fill since leaving organized sports behind.

“I was one of the few girls there who could do pull ups and dips and because of that, some of the guys in my unit thought I would really like it.”

While her male peers in the Army respected her in many regards, especially for her strength, it did not come without experiencing sexual harassment early in her career.

“It’s pervasive. The military already has such a low number of females and I was a combat medic where there are even less of us. It’s up to your command to have a zero-tolerance policy.”

Christina’s harassment happened in basic training, and the solider in question felt the repercussions of his actions swiftly.

“Unfortunately, I know 100% that is not the case for every solider. I am much higher ranking now and I am surrounded by a great group of soldiers. I haven’t had that experience in a really long time.”

For the majority of her career Christina has been U.S Army Reserve, working one weekend a month and a few weeks in the summer. Recently, she became active duty where she balances both working and running the gym to support expanding to a new, larger location.

Christina’s dreams to open a gym began in her garage.

“In the beginning, I was begging people to come in just so I could practice coaching without asking them to pay. It got to a point where I had 30 people showing up at my house and I was trying to move people and equipment into my living room to make it work.”

Christina and her husband Vince said once they reached over 25 people, they would begin looking for a small location to rent. In November of 2012 they affiliated Junction City CrossFit®.

“After four years of running the gym, we finally sat down to see if it would be possible for me to do it full-time. Vince was still working on the base in Ft. Riley helping soldiers with physical fitness training. A few years ago, he was also able to step back from his position and begin working full time at the gym.”

The new, larger space at the gym was expanding and needed significant renovations. Therefore, they needed to carry both locations while the new gym was being built out. It was an aggressive project to take on with a space that needed new bathrooms, offices, and lighting. Unfortunately, once the space was finally completed COVID happened.

Women in business face their own prejudices, race aside. Christina has felt push back because of her gender throughout the gym’s tenure.

“You get those people that walk in for the first time, right past me, and go to my husband because he is a tall white guy. They have the assumption that he is the owner. They aren’t wrong, but I am also the owner.”

Outside of a handful of situations like this, Chis has had very few dealings with this kind of negativity within her community.

“Living next to a military installation, we have a very diverse community and it’s important to me to have a diverse coaching staff. When black people or people of color walk into a space that is primarily occupied by white people, they have to make a snap decision, is this by design? Do they only want white people here?”

Christina has seen first hand what happens when a BIPOC [black, Indigenous, person of color] has walked in and they see coaches that look like them. You can see the athletes face automatically relax with that initial encounter. “Okay, this is for everyone, it’s not exclusionary.”

Christina compares the stigma for black people entering gyms with a cafeteria analogy. If you have a cafeteria with white people sitting at one table and black people sitting at another, it’s almost guaranteed you’re going to sit with the group that represents you.

“If you’re only around people that look like you, you aren’t going to think about what other people are doing. Most places in Kansas are predominantly white spaces. I don’t mind going into a space and knowing that I’m the only black person, but for many it’s not comfortable. White is the default because that’s what people think about.”

For Christina, it’s extremely important that her gym has a diverse coaching staff. “It has to be purposeful and intentional. You have to say you want a diverse staff and make sure you're looking at everyone who could potentially be a good fit.”

Has Junction City CrossFit® considered de-affiliating?

“As of right now we plan on staying affiliated. The sport has changed my life in such a profound and positive way that I can’t just throw it all away without first saying, well what can I do to actually make it better?”

Christina is passionate and articulate about the diversity problems that exist within the sport. But in saying that, many people divert to thinking you are racist, and that’s not what it means.

“It means you haven’t thought about it because it doesn’t directly affect you. We can do a better job of having representation for everyone who enjoys this sport. For me, I want to be a part of that internally and push that narrative in the owner’s pages and the community.”

Not continuing to stay affiliated is a very personal decision. There is no clear right or wrong answer. It was never just about Greg Glassman’s (former CEO and owner of CrossFit®) tweet, it was also the trauma associated with his tweet.

“It’s the first time you’re called the ’N’ word, or apprehended by police, and taken into a back room where they accuse you of stealing. These are all sources of trauma. Seeing those words come from someone you have respected so highly, who can think so little of you, just hurts so much. I can’t judge anyone for saying I can’t be affiliated with this anymore, there is no right or wrong answer to that.”

What does the future of competition look like for Christina? How has her training changed as she has gotten older?

A self-proclaimed competitor at heart, her love of training outweighs her love of competing. Christina competed in the Central Regional in 2010 as an individual and in 2011 on a team.

“We weren’t studs and this was at the very beginning of everything. I’ve always tried to make it back, but I’ve continued just to fall a little bit short each time. Dreaming big, I would love to qualify as a master in the 40 age category. I’m 38 right now. Ideally, that would be my pipe dream. I like training for competition.”

Prior to CrossFit®, Christina wasn’t headed down a healthy path. She describes her lifestyle as a mix of yo-yo dieting and a lack of knowledge and understanding of how to train and recover properly. With a better understanding, she was able to reestablish her relationship with food and nutrition.

Christina also helped her dad (among many others) embrace a healthier lifestyle, which has allowed him to control his Type II Diabetes through nutrition and exercise.

“It’s made its way through our members at the gym. There is less use of medication and less pre-diabetes. Members can run around and keep up with their kids. It has been extremely rewarding for me. When I became a teacher, the whole idea was to help people and now as a coach and gym owner, I feel like I have an even larger impact.”

How has COVID impacted the gym and the ability to not only run a business, but provide members with the service that they are paying for?

“We finally finished our renovation in January and moved to a new building, just to be shut down in March [she laughs]. Our members have been extremely supportive between renting equipment and doing Zoom classes, we also purchased a gift card for everyone to rent The Fittest when it came out, and we divided up all the members amongst our coaches for personalized text messages every day to keep people accountable.”

Christina speaks to the importance of being able to not only pivot in challenging times, but also to innovate. At the time of this conversation the gym has been open for about a month and most of the members have been adhering to the guidelines with little push back.

“Some people huff and puff but they all pretty much are adhering to the guidelines. Most of our members have come back and feel good about what we are doing to keep them safe.”

Throughout the unknown, Christina describes her husband as more of the planner in their relationship. The future of the gym is always at the forefront of his mind.

“I’m more of the ‘we can cross that bridge when we get to it’ girl, but in all honesty, having an active duty income has taken some of the pressure off. I know we can take care of our home and family. Had we been closed up until this point, I might be telling a very different story.”

The community has continued to pay memberships in full while the gym has been closed, if able.

“We said, if you can continue paying and would like to do so please let us know. If you can’t pay- that’s okay, if you can’t pay the full amount, please let us know what you can pay. No one took us up on that offer. Everyone continued to pay the full amount.”

In light of the new leadership at HQ, Christina reports that she has already received more communication in the last few weeks than she had in a while.

“I feel like the pressure worked and they are making positive changes. I don’t have enough information to tell you my feelings about Roza himself. He’s Mexican American. I’m excited to see what happens. I already like some of the changes they have made with designating an affiliate rep to each region and having owners meet up.”

Christina has been a supporter of many of the changes she has seen with more visible events. Having all countries represented at The Games with a larger pool of athletes of every caliber is a great move from a business point of view. You’re going to see those countries rise in the number of athletes participating each year because now they are on the map.

“If you’re a business owner and you get caught up in The Games and The Open that’s not where your priorities should lie.”

From a diversity stand point there is still a huge lack within most of those spaces.

“I think it’s great how The Chestee® has been getting black voices on their website and social media platforms.”

When I look for gym apparel there is so little representation. It might sound crazy but, it’s really hurtful. I know there are strong beautiful athletes out there that are black and brown who could rock your gear, but you’re telling me you couldn’t find anyone to represent your brand.

While CrossFit® may be at the epicenter, these offshoots of smaller brands have incorporated these same issues on a micro level because they are only displaying white athletes in their apparel and social media platforms.

“I think it’s really cool that The Chestee® is trying to talk to more women of color. It’s a win-win. Representation matters, black athletes need to see themselves on social media and within the sport.”

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