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Saved by the Barbell

CrossFit Local Teens builds strength both physical and mental

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CrossFit Local Teens coach Emily Harrawood trains Caitlin McCarthy, 13, on how to squat 50 pounds with a barbell. Photo by Ken Branson

CrossFit is known to be a rigorous workout, and some of the fittest athletes compete in the sport. But teens, like Caitlin McCarthy, 13, are proving that this style of exercise can be for everyone.

Walk into CrossFit Local on a Monday evening, and you’ll likely find the Smith Middle School student in the middle of a workout. Since she started CrossFit nearly a year ago, she’s become a regular.

“It’s something that I look forward to every single week,” says Caitlin. “Because I love coming out here and feeling good about myself and just putting on my mode, which is just feeling really strong and powerful and having that good mindset.”

Caitlin’s mom, Kristin McCarthy, started doing CrossFit two years ago. Following her mom’s lead, Caitlin wanted to try it out, too.

“She’s definitely influenced me to do this,” Caitlin says. “And she does competitions and I really want to do competitions. But I have to be 14 or 15, so I have a couple years to get ready.”

Along with setting goals for Caitlin, CrossFit gives her the chance to socialize with teens from other parts of Chapel Hill. In December, Caitlin was joined by six other teens for the coed class offered on Mondays at 4:30 p.m. “I want to be your partner because I recognize you,” says Jaryn Green, 11, to Caitlin.

To start the class, coach Emily Harrawood gets everyone in a huddle to introduce themselves and share their favorite 2018 movie – but in between answers, the seven teens had to do five squats. “Keep your back straight – no arching – and don’t let you knees break parallel,” Emily instructs. 

When it comes to technique, Emily treats them as adults. Otherwise, she tries to make CrossFit as interactive and engaging as possible and cracks jokes here and there. As a teacher at Chapel Hill Cooperative Preschool during the day, she gets it.

The 45-minute class always begins with a game and ends with a game. Outside behind the CrossFit gym, Emily has the teens divide into two teams to play tic-tac-toe with 15- and 20-pound medicine balls in the empty parking lot. The teens don’t realize the strength they’re using because they’re concentrated on winning. The girls team yells encouragements at Carys Fouche-Skillin, 13, as they’re about to lose, “No, no, no. Go, go, go.” The losing team has to do three burpees.

Jaryn Green, 11, carries a 15-pound medicine ball as she rushes to the tic-tac-toe board made from Olympic grip plates.

“They don’t really need the same level of physical stimulus that an adult does just because of where the body is developmentally,” Emily says. “So they need the same types of exercises but not to the same degree. We don’t really do any heavy Olympic lifting … We just want to make sure technique is good.” 

And even if the teens aren’t lifting 300-something pounds like the adults, they’re still learning that it’s all right to be strong – to feel it or look it. 

“It’s giving her this body awareness, which is being fit and strong – she doesn’t have to be thin to be confident in herself,” Kristin says. “I just compare to how it was when I was 13, and I think about how it’s such a weird year – seventh grade, eighth grade. It’s really hard to figure out who you are and I think this helps give her an extra boost. I don’t think she was never not confident, but this has definitely made her more confident.”

Caitlin doesn’t plan on stopping CrossFit any time soon. When she started at the end of 2017, she could only lift 35 pounds. Now, she lifts 105. When she goes to Irish dancing, she’s also noticed an improvement in her core and balance. She says it’s easy decision to continue to do CrossFit when the community is so supportive of her, especially her coach, Emily, who picks her up from school to take her to class.

“I like it because we always do something different,” Caitlin says. “But I also like it because we also do the same things and try to improve. I like having the feeling that I get to try again even if I don’t hit a certain weight, and I can just try again another time. We’re always learning something new, but we will always come back to that one thing.”

And Emily has been a significant part of that experience.

“The most important thing is that they think of exercise as something that they’re capable of doing and as something that they enjoy doing,” says Emily. “And if they walk out every day feeling like those two things are true, then you know we’ve accomplished our goal.”   

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Hannah is the editorial assistant for Chapel Hill Magazine, Durham Magazine and Chatham Magazine. She graduated from UNC-Chapel Hill with a degree in Electronic/Broadcast Journalism and German Literature and Culture. She's an avid runner and ice cream enthusiast.