On Honoring the Body with Constance Tillett
If you're a CrossFit athlete with access to the Internet, you've heard of Constance Tillett.
Her story went viral over the summer after this tearjerker commercial aired during the 2015 Reebok CrossFit Games on ESPN. The (soon-to-be) 77-year-old Tillett has been written about in every major fitness publication and even profiled on CBS News.
A half year later, Tillett is still at it—working out at CrossFit South Brooklyn (CFSBK), and making it her personal mission to tell everyone who will listen, “Stop with the whining."
When Tillett first walked into CFSBK in October 2014, she was terrified. People were hanging off of wooden rings and seemed to be throwing barbells in every direction. A coach approached her to say hi—an impossibly muscular guy covered in tattoos—and she pointed at the class and told him, “I can't do that." The coach replied, “Yes, you can."
As soon as she got back in her car, Tillett called her son, the one who had told her to check out the box, and yelled at him, “Are you crazy? These people are beasts!"
But the stakes were high, and Tillett knew it. When she was only 50 years old, her heart failed and her organs began shutting down. A doctor told her she had six months to a year to live.
Tillett was determined to prove him wrong, but the odds were stacked against her. She had been incorrectly diagnosed with asthma when she was a young woman, and the side effects of the steroids she was given damaged her joints and heart. She cleaned up her diet, fought back, and won. But more physical hurdles still lied ahead. In the last 25 years, she's had both hips and knees replaced, the same rotator cuff repaired twice, and some of the vertebrae in her lumbar spine had to be fused together. She also has arthritis, Type 2 diabetes, and an ongoing cardiac condition.
“You have to make up your mind in life," Tillett says. And so, despite her fears, but she made up her mind to give CrossFit a shot.
David Osorio, the owner of CFSBK and Tillett's coach, remembers their first session together. The pair hadn't met yet, but Osorio knew she had some orthopedic limitations—but he didn't know the full extent. Tillett showed up at the box wearing jeans and a sweatshirt, not expecting to work out out that day. She walked with a noticeable limp, and couldn't raise her arms higher than her chest. Osorio began asking her questions.
“Can you get up off the floor?" he asked.
“No, I don't go anywhere near the floor. I can't get up off the ground," she replied.
“Can you walk up the stairs?" he asked.
“No, I take the elevator," she said.
Osorio had written a basic workout for their session, involving air squats and incline push-ups, which he imagined would be fine. But Tillett could squat down only four inches. He had to throw the WOD out the window and start from scratch. But he was determined. “She needed to be able to walk up the stairs and pick up things off the floor," he says.
Tillett will never forget the morning six weeks after starting to train, when she realized that all the deadlifts (with an unloaded 15-pound barbell) that she'd been doing meant she could tie her own shoes. She began screaming for her husband Earl in the next room, who usually tied them for her. “I can tie my own shoes!"
Unhealthy foods had crept back into Tillett's routine in the years before she began training, but after starting to train, she and Earl began drinking less soda and stopped eating Big Macs. They exchanged ice cream for kale.
Tillett has since lost 50 pounds, and hasn't been on insulin for over a year. Osorio has been tracking her remarkable progress on CFSBK's Instagram account, which he calls "The Constance Chronicles." The WOD for one of her first sessions involved basic daily movements, including picking things up off the floor, moving them, and putting them on higher surfaces. At her eleventh session, Osorio filmed her pulling a sled, and joking, "I can try out for the fire department!"
Despite her progress, Tillett would face another challenge in June—perhaps the hardest one yet. Earl, the love of her life, died suddenly, on the same day he was scheduled to start his own fitness plan at CFSBK.
It was then that the social aspect of CrossFit — the community — became even more critical for Tillett. She says she's still healing from the loss, and her family at the box helps her stay positive. She shows up at least a half-hour early for all of her sessions with Osorio to chat with other gym members. She participates in CFSBK's community events, from the Memorial Day “Murph" event to their “Fight Gone Bad" annual fundraiser. She completed a scaled version of both WODs.
“People that you surround yourself with [affect] your mental thinking," Tillett says. “When you walk in here, there's no race, creed, color, or age."
What is required to do CrossFit, for Tillett, is also what is required to be fully alive and human. She was sitting on the couches at CFSBK, the garage door open to the Brooklyn sidewalk, when a woman walked by and complained that the classes at the gym weren't free. Tillett said to her, “To live is expensive, to die is expensive. You choose."