Interview and article by: Genevieve Gyulavary
Disclaimer: The following statements are a composition of the life experiences and recent feelings of Shevez L.Freeman in this current Black Lives Matter Movement. The ideas presented are hers alone and do not represent the ideals or ideas of any organization she is part of.
Shevez Freeman’s Instagram handle @minorityfit tells us who she is using as few syllables as possible. “Minority: the smallest number or part. Fit: of suitable quality, standard. We are the minority and we are enough.” Reads the caption under her handle. You can feel the impact.
Captain in the US Army, active duty, Assistant Professor of Military Science at UCLA, athlete, single mother, and leader, yet Shevez is as down to earth as they come. She is humble, with an enviable work ethic, and a strong conviction to lead with compassion.
“This Black Lives Matter Movement, and it is a movement, hopefully in the direction of positive change, has been eye opening for me. It has brought back a flood of emotions from the many racially discriminatory situations I have found myself in over my life, but also struck fear in me because right now a black life doesn’t have the same value as a white life, or even a pet, in America. No uniform, number of degrees, or soft spoken words would change that.”
“Who’s next.. my daughter who loves to wear hoodies even in 100 degree weather, my nephew who is nine and can sometimes be rambunctious because well, he’s a little boy? What little boy isn’t? These are the thoughts that keep me up at night thinking about how to effect change. So, please hear my repeated cries as I say... Black Lives Matter, I am not asking to be better than, I’m asking to be equal to. I’m tired of having to work harder than others to get the same result, walking into situations with a disadvantage, or as a mother fearing that if I don’t teach my child to be docile enough around white people that I could lose her.”
Here is Shevez Freeman’s story.
Shevez grew up in Greenville, Texas just outside of Dallas. She grew up around mostly minorities, and racism was not a part of her early childhood years.
“We were all brown and poor. Life was simple.”
Although she grew up playing sports, athletics never took her beyond the high school level. When she was 17, she decided she wanted to join the Army, rebelling against her mother’s wishes that she attend college.
“I felt like I was always working to do what my mom wanted to me to do. She had to sign the papers to let me apply to the Army because I was only 17. I told her if she didn’t let me go, I would sit on her couch and do nothing,” Shevez laughs.
In 2003 she enlisted in the Army during the heart of the war in Iraq.
“I knew I could be deployed when I enlisted because 9/11 had just happened. I felt like enlisting was something I could do to help solve the problem. 9/11 hit everyone differently. I remember exactly where I was that day and after that I made the decision to enlist.”
Shevez’s first deployment was tough. She was a paralegal, which is not a combat job. She lacked many skills that other Soldiers in her unit already possessed. She hadn’t qualified on her weapon and she didn’t know how to drive a truck. Shevez had no prior knowledge of anyone on the unit and had never trained or worked with them, a handicap from the get-go.
“When I came onto the unit I was introduced like: ‘This is Private Freeman. She doesn’t know how to fire a weapon and she hasn’t been trained to drive a vehicle so that’s how useful she is to us.’
“That lit a fire in me. I remember thinking I’m going to qualify on my weapon and drive every vehicle here and become combat effective. It’s sad the way it happened. When you think about women in the military that was my introduction to combat.”
Shevez reached her combat goals prior to finishing her first tour. Needless to say, it was unfortunate that she was made to feel less capable in a male dominated environment. Her drive was fueled in proving her worth.
Shevez went on to commission as an officer, confirming her military rank and authority. For once, she felt as if she could take a deep breath.
“Then… it came…the good ole’ boys system. The need to ensure I speak with a soft enough tone so as not to be perceived as an angry black woman, and I surely needed to be faster and stronger than my counterparts because if not, I was just a stereotypical lazy black woman.”
Things began to die down in 2006 when she found out she was pregnant with her daughter Sariah. Pregnancy was the first spark of interest she had in fitness beyond the physical training required in the Army. Prior to this, Shevez didn’t have any exposure to functional fitness. At the time, a lot of the physical training in the Army had a heavy emphasis on running as opposed to weight training or functional exercise.
Shevez took a break from the Army with the birth of her daughter and enrolled at Bellarmine University in Louisville, Kentucky. Bellarmine was 86% Caucasian at the time of her enrollment.
It was there in class she sat and listened to a classmate compare the Janet Jackson/Justin Timberlake wardrobe malfunction at the 2004 Super Bowl Half-Time performance to slave days. More specifically, when black women so badly desired to be wanted by their white slave masters.
“You heard me right… I actually had to sit through this and I was the only one stunned by what he was saying. He concluded with ‘all black women are Jezebels’. It was then that I knew what other people thought of me and how important it was to re-write our narrative as black women.”
In spite of facing ignorant situations like these while completing her degree, Shevez still wanted to help people. She went on to obtain her personal training certification.
“I got my certification right around the time of the cardio craze. I started running a lot of varying distances, I wasn’t competitive but I found myself really enjoying it.”
After Shevez graduated, she stayed in the military in order to fulfill her ROTC commitment to the Army. It wasn’t until 2012 that she was introduced to a totally new style of training.
“I was going through a divorce as I was finishing college. It was a very physically abusive relationship. I was at my smallest weight and I was looking for something to feel better about myself and get stronger. There was a woman in the ROTC who was lean and strong and I asked her what she had been doing and that’s when she told me about CrossFit®”
Soon after, the Army relocated Shevez to North Carolina. Once she was settled, she decided finally to go and try it out. It was around the end of May with Memorial Day quickly approaching.
“When I walked into the gym everyone was doing Murph. I had no clue what it was. I ended up doing a very scaled version. It was horrible, but also a good horrible and that was my introduction to the sport.”
Although walking into a hero workout like Murph would be shocking to most, Shevez liked the challenge and the change of pace from her normal exercise routine.
“In the past, the Army has been really pro running before they realized all the injuries it caused. I had done a ton of running as a paratrooper and spent a lot of time jumping out of planes. Doing something where I could keep both feet on the ground was really gratifying.”
Shevez arrived with a good engine, but little to no experience with many foundational movements. “The owner of the gym was a female and watching her snatch was very intimidating.”
Shevez was immediately hooked. After enduring years of an abusive marriage and giving all of herself to her country, here was something she could embrace with open arms. Something just for her. She was all in, if the lights in the gym were on she was there training.
“It was different for me because running had always been more of a release. A place to get lost in my thoughts. When you’re training there isn’t a lot of thinking that goes on in terms of zoning out. It forces you to be more present. Having the community and people cheering for me and making new friends just made all the difference.”
Shevez was a single mom with a five-year-old daughter as she began to immerse herself in the world of functional fitness. The sport had a profound impact on all aspects of her life mentally and physically, and created a huge shift in her priorities. Just two weeks after her first individual competition, she signed up to become a Level 1 Certified Trainer.
“I wanted to help people and I also wanted to learn more. I had a lot of pre-existing ankle injuries so I struggled with some mobility issues. I wanted to be able to look at form, mine included, in a more technical way.”
That year Shevez participated in her first open and the gym qualified a team to regionals.
“I don’t remember how we did at Regionals, but I PR’ed my snatch at 115 pounds,” she laughs. “Our owner also competed on our team and she was six months pregnant. That was the whole story at the event that year— there was a pregnant woman six months along doing muscle ups.”
What was the trajectory from there? Shevez was out competing every month.
“It was always a hobby, but if there was a hobby plus level, that’s where it would be.”
Shevez’s whole world soon began to revolve around eating, sleeping, and recovering to fuel performance. Then suddenly, her goals were called into question.
“I decided to take a year off when they started implementing all of the changes. My goal was to be an individual at regionals. When they took that away I had to have a serious talk with my coach about my future.”
Without regionals, Shevez would need to change the way she was training in order to qualify for multiple events throughout the year, or try to find a solid team to train with.
“I move every two to three years in the Army. It’s hard to find a team with that kind of lifestyle. I decided then to take a year off. I started programming for myself and training in my garage gym. I always kept my volume up in case I ever decided I wanted to go back.”
Once the year was up, Shevez decided to dip her toe into competing again with two local competitions.
“At my very last competition, I was approached by a competitor’s father and asked what my parents did. I was very confused but answered, “factory work.”
“He then says, “No like what sports did they play, are they athletes?” To which I respond, “My Mother was a great Volleyball and Softball player, as well as track athlete in High School.” He then responded with, “ Watching you perform, I knew they had to be some kind of athletes.”
Then Shevez got it, a light bulb went off as to what he was actually saying. Her performance somehow had to be attributed to something other than the past seven years of hard work she had put into the sport. He chalked it up to genetics— that could be the only possible explanation as to how she outworked his daughter.
“I just didn’t feel it anymore. The community had changed. I decided not to continue competitively.”
Shevez immediately felt the impact of not training all the time. She had suffered many injuries throughout her season.
“At first it was hard. I had known myself as a competitive athlete for so long, but during that year off I stopped counting macros and it was like a huge weight had been lifted off my shoulders. I started listening to my body a lot more. I remember it being 10pm at night [while in season] and I didn’t hit my macros so I forced myself to eat a can of tuna, almost throwing it up. I wasn’t hungry and I didn’t want it, but I would make myself anyway.”
Present day Shevez has developed a love affair with cooking, not adhering to the strict guidelines of any one diet. She has come away with the basic foundations of healthy eating and from a softer place of intuition and flexibility when thinking about her diet.
“Physically, I got to know my body more. I was doing things slower as I started programming for myself with more of an emphasis on listening to my body. The last two coaches I had never even met me face to face. They had never seen me move. They would program for me based on numbers and test workouts I would perform for them.”
Shevez confesses some days she would have a workout programmed for her and think, ‘this could not have possibly been meant for me.’
“I had one workout with hang snatches for 30 reps at 125 pounds and I remember being in my garage just crying. I barely finished and I missed a ton of reps. I was really hard on myself then. I just always wanted to show up and be present for everybody else.”
Even if that meant her own needs had to take a backseat.
During her year off, she began training other military females in her garage gym. She traveled a lot for work, but when she was home her schedule made it easy to train clients in the evenings.
“My goal was to do as much as I could hands-on with people in order to notice patterns and coach people through them. My hope was this would eventually make me comfortable coaching people remotely.”
Soon after, she got an order to go teach at UCLA in her current position. Shevez was called to teach leadership and ethics to freshmen and sophomores at UCLA. She had spent her last several assignments in recruiting, so she was familiar with the college age group.
Shevez also was teaching physical training three days a week at UCLA, before COVID hit. The population she teaches have a different incentive than most other students to perform.
“Most of them have aspirations to join the Army so it’s pretty easy [to train them]. The Army wants to pay for four years of their college in exchange for their service and its appealing to kids coming from out of state. UCLA is pretty expensive. They need to show up those three days and meet the requirements. If they don’t, the Army isn’t going to pay for their schooling.”
Shevez has a commanding presence. While in uniform, she rarely smiles and is not a morning person (physical training class begins at 6am). Her Cadets are intimidated by her when she walks into a room, especially initially.
“When you put those two attributes together it’s like Oh my God she is pretty intense. To me, physical training is very high on my priority list and they know they can’t just quit on me. Although, they do come up with all kinds of excuses. I’m like —well you’re going to try.”
Over the past several years the Army’s physical fitness test has been revamped. Historically it has been a lot of running, pull ups, and push-ups. When Shevez came to the program at UCLA with her background (hello, barbell specialist), she began adding in weight training to the program.
“UCLA has an entire weight room filled with all of this equipment that we could use for free and the Cadets weren’t taking advantage of that. I was like THIS IS CRAZY!”
Shevez got out the kettle bells, and began demonstrating proper form for dead lifts and squats. In the beginning, this was a very intimidating endeavor for the females in class.
“They [the girls] would randomly be sick when we were doing weight training days. I can’t even count the number of times girls said ‘I don’t want to be as big as you’, or 'look like you’ and I’m just like, ‘thanks’.
Preaching to women about how it’s a concentrated effort to put on mass fell on deaf ears. Shevez had to really work to show them that a muscular look wasn’t an overnight effect.
“Sometimes it’s hard because I’m working with this population of 54 students at a time. I only have an hour and they range from senior to freshman.”
The other notable difference in this generation was that most of her students grew up playing video games instead of playing outside.
“Now with COVID I’m seeing kids on bikes and parks flooded with people. It’s the opposite of what they used to tell me they were doing over break. Being stuck inside the house when I was younger used to feel like a punishment to me.”
Shevez’s daughter is 12 now and she is ‘tweening’. With a mother who is totally enmeshed in the athletic world, it should come as no surprise that by the age of five her daughter could identify the different macronutrients.
“She is the kid who will go to the birthday party with the cake and not eat it. From the time she was four years old the food she was introduced to had very little sugar. There was no soda or anything like that in my house.”
Shevez was hopeful that her daughter, Sariah, would find athletics and when she took an interest in track in 2014, it was a very proud moment. Shevez had run the 4x 400m relay, 400m dash, and the 300m hurdle in High School.
“When she started running track I was like, ‘I am not missing a meet’.”
At nine years old she started breaking a seven minute mile.
“The coaches and I began to notice this strange limp when she was running. Then her times began to slow down. I started doing some strength and conditioning with her in our garage on the days she wasn’t at practice to address the pain she was having in her knee.”
Unfortunately, these garage rehab sessions weren’t working. Shevez took her to the doctor, and she was diagnosed with Osgood-Shlatter. This is an inflammation of the patella ligament that gets better with rest, and worse with activity.
“She never complained much because she knew inherently how happy seeing her run made me. After her x-rays they advised that she take time off and go to physical therapy. That was the last time she ran and I would be lying if I didn’t say it was kind of devastating for me.”
Shevez doesn’t want to go as far to say her daughter dislikes exercise, but she has witnessed her mother crying in the garage gym late at night while trying to make a lift.
“I think she has kind of seen what it has done to me, [competitive exercise] so she pulled back. Now she just wants to go for a walk with the dog together.”
Shevez’s current role in the Army also requires this mother-daughter unit to move frequently. She receives orders to go to a new location every two to three years.
“It’s very hard. It’s getting harder on both of us, especially my daughter. This year was her first year of middle school and she had a really hard time adjusting. Having a locker, being popular, changing classes, and then to take her from a small town in Georgia and plop her in Los Angeles— it was a lot for her.”
She worries about the fact that her daughter hasn’t made any solid friends in LA, because she knows that eventually they will have to pick up and leave again. Inherently, she’s not allowing herself to get attached.
“I try to explain it like this: mommy needs to make new friends everywhere we go also. I can’t take my friends either, we are in this together and we will work through it.”
It’s taken its toll. Shevez has begun to consider what a career outside of the Army might look like.
“I might go back to back to Texas. That’s where all of my family is. I’m still a single mom and being in LA is really far. I’m getting excited about what a career and life might look like after retirement.”
Shevez has six years until retirement as a commissioner officer.
“COVID happened and really made me take a step back and think— since we have been spending all this time together, I’m seeing how much I missed out on. I was like damn. If I could find something where I could be home more, that would be beneficial for the both of us.”